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Happy Labour Day
The backdrop to this year’s Labour Day is relentless labour shortages, as I wrote about this morning in the Toronto Star.
This isn’t a pandemic-induced, transitory phenomenon, but something far deeper and longer lasting. What we know from the history of such moments of social upheaval is that we should expect an increase in workers’ bargaining power, for the first time in half a century.
History also tells us such periods give rise to better wages and working conditions for all, hardly a bad news story as is often portrayed. At least that has been the pattern thus far.
The history of this day underscores this reality. Did you know Canada gave the world Labour Day? In the spring of 1872, 24 printers from the Toronto Typographical Union who worked at George Brown’s newspaper, The Globe, went on strike, demanding a nine-hour day. A day later they were jailed for “criminal conspiracy.”
Twenty days later, thousands of people were protesting in the streets to demand their release. About 2,000 people started the march to Queen’s Park. By the time they got there, the crowd had grown to around 10,000. At the time, the population of Toronto was 100,000.
Strip the dates from these events and you have an eerie echo of the past: workers being overworked in a time of too few workers for the work that needs doing; overwork fuelling the “audacity” of daring to want to work less; pushback from employers who say good jobs will bankrupt their business, bankers who worry too much worker power will ruin the economy, and people on the street spouting the view “nobody wants to work anymore.”
It’s a disarmingly familiar refrain, whether plucked from the 1870s, 1910s, 1950s or today. And, based on virtually every labour market statistics, it’s just not true.
At moments like this, it’s worth pausing on the question: in whose interests are these narratives repeated and pushed?
Is it so bad if things get better because workers’ bargaining power leads to better outcomes for workers and their families, which boosts business and strengthens society?
That is the arc of events in the wake of every prolonged and widespread period of labour shortage, propelled by social upheaval, economic crises, or - in the current case - population aging throughout the Global North.
The go-to solution during periods of labour shortage in Canada has been newcomers. But vast parts of the Global North saw a baby boom in the wake of the second world war; and those babies are now retiring. Most employers in most nations are still taking for granted that workers will come to us, no matter what the wages and working conditions, because they are better here than in their home countries.
Think again. After forty years of labour surpluses throughout the Global North, almost every advanced economy is dealing with labour shortages for decades to come. We are all competing with one another to find enough workers from abroad. And newcomers, like workers born in Canada, suddenly have more ability to choose the places and jobs with the best wages and working conditions, and highest quality of life.
This is as profound an economic and cultural shift as you can imagine. It flows from a profound shift in the source of power.
If I was a betting girl, I’d put money on the idea that we will see a narrative flip from putting the blame on the worker to putting the blame on the lack of good jobs.
Workers’ demands for better wages and working conditions are not a problem. They’re a solution. Maybe the labour shortage is the trigger that can help shift things towards a new normal that works better for everyone.
As workers gather across the country today, as they have for the last 150 years, I’ll be listening to their ideas on how to make every job a good job. I hope employers and governments are listening too. It is what Canada can give now to the world, 150 years on, to celebrate workers -- and make every Labour Day a day closer to turning words into action.
Happy Labour Day!
The Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers is supported by the Atkinson Foundation. Find more information here.