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Roslyn KuninFor many of us, Labour Day simply represents the last long weekend of summer, the end of vacation season and the time to get serious and back to work or school. We forget that the purpose of Labour Day is to celebrate and honour workers.

Workers have not always been honoured. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s to well into the 20th century, workers were anything but celebrated. Men, women and children slaved for long hours in miserable and unsafe conditions in exchange for pitifully low wages.

In countries like Canada, this led to the rise of the labour movement that struggled, initially illegally, to improve the often wretched conditions in which many laboured. They succeeded magnificently. Workers now have safer, cleaner workplaces, much shorter hours, paid holidays and other benefits and much better wages. And this is true not only for organized workers in labour unions.

Spurred on by the work that unions started, governments have passed legislation setting labour standards and providing at least some of these benefits to all workers. The standards cover hours of work, minimum wages, safety and working conditions, statuary holidays and paid vacations. Income maintenance is provided by employment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Supplementing these is the social safety net that applies to all Canadians, not just those in work, such as medicare and the minimum guaranteed income for seniors.

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Right now, unions face the challenge of maintaining the purchasing power of wages in the face of high inflation. Already there are work stoppages and disruptions, mainly in the public sector. However, higher wages can lead down a slippery slope. They increase the prices of the goods and services being produced and thus continue to feed inflation and raise the cost of living. In the public sector, wages must be paid out of taxes, and more taxes reduce everyone’s net income.

Apart from dealing with inflation and despite all the progress made in improving workers’ lives, there is still much good that the labour movement can do to make conditions better for Canadians. This includes moving away from the traditional role of dealing with large employers and their staff and turning to the self-employed, small employers and their workers.

Here is an example:

A roofer in BC who employed half a dozen workers was not getting any work, could not meet payroll and had to shut down. He provided his staff with the needed documents, put them in his truck and drove them to the employment insurance office. This way, at least part of their income would be maintained through employment insurance. But, as the boss, he could not collect employment insurance. When no one else was looking, he quietly asked a clerk how to apply for welfare.

The benefits that so many Canadians now take for granted, such as pensions and extended medical coverage, do not yet exist in the small business sector. The self-employed and small business operators are even worse off. There is no benefits package. Any day not working, whether Christmas or a summer holiday, means a day without income; employers lack the basic protections such as employment insurance that their workers have.

Although some workers can still benefit from unionization (think of Amazon and Walmart), those interested in organizing can do more good and help more people by turning to small entrepreneurs and their staffs and helping them form associations.

Such bodies could attract large numbers. Then, with help from those with experience in the labour movement, they could deal with private insurance companies and/or governments to provide packages that would offer them at least some of the advantages that other Canadians enjoy. Extended medical packages and retirement savings plans are possible examples.

We must remember that small businesses are often short of money and almost always short of time. They must be in large enough groups that the costs to any firm can be affordable. The time and effort needed to apply for and operate the packages should be minimal.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have come to accept and adjust to many major changes in our work lives. Working remotely from home was probably the biggest. As we mark Labour Day, it is now time for organized labour and the labour movement to first congratulate themselves on all the amazing things they have accomplished for so many workers up to the present and then turn their attention to those working Canadians in the small business sector that really could benefit from their experience and their help.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.

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