Labour Day 2023 – Lifting Everyone Up

September 7, 2023

Op-ed for Columbia Journal, by Stephen von Sychowski & Janet Andrews

On September 4th we celebrate Labour Day, the recognition that working people are the engine of the economy and the foundation on which our communities are built. For union members, it’s also a day to celebrate our solidarity, the work of the labour movement and to recommit ourselves to ensuring a better future for all. 

This year Labour Councils and the Canadian Labour Congress are focussed on Canada’s Unions; Lifting Everyone Up. We are fighting for good jobs, affordability, quality care, and climate justice. We know when workers organize and work together, we lift everyone up.

A living wage is one of the surest ways of lifting everyone up. Expressed as an hourly amount that a person needs to earn so a family of four can cover basic expenses it is calculated on a regional basis in BC by the Living Wage for Families Campaign. Simply put, a living wage lifts working people and families out of poverty.

Local employers in the private sector are coming to understand what unions have always known about the role living wages play in the economy. The progress of the Living Wage for Families campaign over the past year has been impressive, with many new employers certifying. This in spite of the significant increase in Metro Vancouver driven by the soaring cost of living.

Unfortunately, there are still those who cling to the stale, outdated ideology of neoliberalism with its austerity and privatization, contracting out and cuts. When the right-wing ABC mayor and majority on council in Vancouver made the shameful decision to scrap the living wage right after being elected it was a slap in the face to workers and the community. Vancouver had been a living wage employer for five years, taking leadership on the issue of affordability in one of the least affordable cities in North America. This ABC decision, made behind closed doors without public consultation, will set Vancouver back among peer cities for years to come.

This is a stark reminder of why politics and voting matter. In contrast, majority labour endorsed and progressive Councils in Burnaby, New Westminster, North Vancouver (city), Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows and Langley City remain committed to being Living Wage Employers. Leaders in these cities understand that living wage jobs and robust public services in turn support small and medium sized businesses, building resilient, thriving neighbourhoods.

The difference is the choice to put people first. It is seeing opportunity and the downstream effects of investing in those who do the work, in ensuring they can afford to live, play and spend where they work. It is understanding that people working together will solve the climate crisis, will ensure care for those who need it and housing for all. The failed theory of trickle-down economics puts profit over people and continues to concentrate wealth in the hands of a very few.

We have seen precarity, uncertainty, lies and fear being harnessed by elites to preserve their wealth and power at any cost. Using fascist tactics and populism they pit people against each other and against the most vulnerable. It is no coincidence that ABC was swept into power on a spend of over $2 million and a slick public relations campaign and one of their first actions was to axe the living wage. This ideologically driven decision is not in the best interests of the city’s people; it is elite virtue signaling and serves to keep many in precarity and the rest fearful of losing what they have, neither group in a position to question the status quo and why so few have so much.

We must never forget this, especially with provincial and federal elections looming. Everything we as workers have gained in the last few years and everything we aspire to; living wages, robust public services, well-funded healthcare, strong employment standards, safety and workers’ compensation are all things that the rich believe cut into their bottom line. The 1% not only don’t want to pay their share but feel entitled to siphon our tax dollars out of local economies and into their own pockets. It’s welfare for the wealthy, extreme capitalism for an extremely small minority.

The only solution to big money is big organization. The labour movement needs to make sure working people are engaged politically. We need to organize and mobilize ourselves to win elections, and to win our issues between elections. Working people can ensure the election of forward thinking, progressive, pro-worker representatives at every level simply by showing up and voting. But it won’t happen on its own, and there’s no shortcut.

This Labour Day lets recommit ourselves to building our movement. Let’s make every worker a union member, and every union member a voter. Let’s demand that elected officials listen to working families and not big money. That’s how, together, we’ll lift everyone up.

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