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Labour Day 2013 in North America: Facing up to improving society for everyone

Martin Luther King

With Labour Day 2013 almost upon them, the New York Times editorial board's scribblers last week discovered a parallel between the strike by thousands of non-union fast-food workers who walked off the job Thursday in 60 cities across the United States and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom half a century ago.

The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, is best remembered today for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic and prophetic "I Have a Dream" speech, which has resonated through the decades.

But as the Times pointed out, in 1963 the marchers were also demanding that the U.S. Congress raise the minimum wage from $1.15 an hour to $2, "so that men may live in dignity."

In 2013, the fast-food workers are seeking a raise from such highly profitable employers as McDonald's, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and Wendy's from about $9 an hour to $15 an hour for the same reason, usually expressed in a more gender-neutral way.

Pay of $2 in in 1963, the Times pointed out, is the equivalent of $13.39 today. As Dr. King said again in 1966, and could as well have said today: "We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage. … A living wage should be the right of all working Americans, and this is what we wish to urge upon our Congressmen and Senators as they now prepare to deal with this legislation."

Disgracefully, here in high-cost Alberta, our minimum wage remains the lowest in Canada, rising to $9.95 Canadian an hour yesterday. Premier Alison Redford's promise to develop a poverty-reduction strategy and eliminate child poverty by 2017 seems to have gone AWOL amid the brouhaha about bitumen bubble budgeting.

So things are not so different, really, are they?

Well, one thing is different. Since 1963, the state of unions in the United States -- and here in Canada too -- has been much reduced by a steady stream of anti-union propaganda and the anti-union legislation it made acceptable, so the chances of today's brave fast-food workers achieving the kind of changes that the March on Washington began half a century ago seem more clouded.

Canadian politicians in many "conservative" parties agitate constantly to bring so-called "right to work" legislation to Canada -- legislation Dr. King dismissed as "a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights." They also seek new ways to undermine the principle that workers who benefit from the work of a union must contribute to it whether or not they choose to be members, and to silence unions that speak up for social justice, the environment or do anything much but negotiate contracts.

Never mind the constitutionality of such laws in our Dominion, the very fact we are discussing them is a perverse tribute to the success of 40 years of clamourous brainwashing by the vast and well-funded network of "think tanks," media, ideological institutes, Astro-Turf organizations, lobby groups and funding agencies that comprise the Organized Right in North America.

Ironically, many of the laws the Organized Right seeks to undo, which set out a framework for the peaceful and productive labour relations that contributed to the creation of the North American middle class, also may have over time weakened the commitment of labour unions to social change beyond their own membership.

The legally entrenched adversarial system of labour relations that prevails in all jurisdictions in North America, regardless of how steeply the playing field is tilted in favour of employers in various places, has inevitably inclined unions to focus on the "business" of labour relations, and the rights and welfare of their own members to the exclusion of those they do not represent.

This has made unions less effective agents of social change, and it has wedged open a gap between union members and non-union workers that the Organized Right has successfully and effectively exploited.

But the success of these far-right agitators is now forcing unions, in turn, to recognize the role social activism on behalf of all working people has played in the creation of the middle class and the improvements to society wrought by courageous people like those who marched on Washington in 1963.

Thankfully, we can see this recognition at work in the principles articulated foundation of the Unifor industrial union in Toronto this week.

And we can most certainly see it at work in the strike by America's downtrodden fast-food workers -- who among their goals is protection of their right to unionize without retaliation from their employers.

Yes, this seems like a faint hope given the current state of affairs in North America.

But it is also a return to the struggle for civil rights and workers' rights of earlier generations, which were not easy battles either, but which produced great victories nevertheless.

So let's give the last word on this Labour Day to Dr. King, who Canadians too can rightly claim as a hero: "History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labour movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labour miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labour forget these simple truths, but history remembers them."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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