Labour Day is a holiday celebrated across Canada as the final weekend of summer. This is a fitting tribute for a holiday that honours workers individually and organized labour as a movement. Weekends for working people are, after all, one of the many accomplishments of the union movement. While many Canadians are still not union members, almost all workers in Canada enjoy workplace improvements thanks to past union victories. These include the 40-hour workweek, paid holidays, maternity leave, employment insurance, workers’ compensation, universal health care, and the right to severance.
These rights were often hard-fought, and are still challenged by economic forces that favour low wages, precarious employment, and on-your-own individualism. Currently unions are working to secure living wages for all workers, expand democracy at the workplace, gain accessible and affordable child care for all families, and strengthen the health and wellbeing of communities.
Before becoming a public school teacher I was a labour organizer for nearly 20 years. The organizations I worked with were closely aligned with unions and did many of the same things that unions do, but were not technically unions. Unlike most unions today, we organized either unorganized workers (such as homeless day labourers) or workers whose voices needed to be amplified within their union (such as unionized child care professionals).
Working beyond the traditional union structure afforded two advantages. First, our work was centred more on the inherent dignity of human labour across workplaces. This allowed us to focus more on intangibles, making demands that went beyond wages and to the very heart of the working relationship. Second, when someone’s job changed they retained membership in our organization. This meant that even with high workplace turnover, our campaigns could continue to gain steam.
Securing concrete changes — the tripling of wages for homeless day labourers at Baltimore’s largest day-labour employer, achieving a gender equity-based “pay correction” for child care professionals (from $34,000 to $40,000) at a major university in Vancouver — was important and gratifying. But it was the process of community building that sustained our efforts the most.
The work of building community, like all human endeavour, is sacred. This work combines human effort, creative ingenuity, and universal love for the production of culture and community. Through this process, we can all become richer as human beings, so long as everyone is welcome and we abundantly share. Like all willingly engaged productive work, the process is inherently dignifying. That’s because work is a reflection of human potential, the means by which we engage in the transformation of our world. Through the work of building, growing, cultivating, creating, story-making, caring, sharing, reflecting, learning, and growing we create the conditions in which human beings may thrive.
While ultimately lofty in nature, the most important forms of labour often seem the most mundane. For example, for Labour Day I made dinner on the barbecue. My husband and I bought all of the food for the dinner from local farmers and producers at the Queen Charlotte farmers’ market. That day we also took a walk in the forest and played some card games at home. We made plans and shared stories. I called a friend. Wrote a letter to my mom. Read part of a novel, and played around with writing a poem. I also swept and mopped our kitchen.
The day, a holiday, was filled with the work of cooking, cleaning, sharing, reading, writing, and celebrating. It’s ironic that it took a movement of organized labour to secure such a day, to free us from a day of formalized and monetized labour so we can engage in the work that’s needed most: the work of being human and sustaining community.