Labour Day in the 21st Century: What’s the deal now?

As a job change expert, I work on the front lines of our laissez-faire system of supply and demand in the job market. The corrosive effects of this system force some people to change careers when they lose their jobs or when they choose to look for a new job in order to advance their career or transition out of a bad situation into a better jobfit.

As individuals, we must learn to resolve the ongoing tension between periods of stability and necessary change. Normally, I provide practical and realistic advice on how to do so. But today is Labour Day, so I’ll take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Social systems change too, so what is the meaning of Labour Day in Canada for our new global economy?

I think it’s important to put Labour Day in its historical context. It has been celebrated in Canada during the first weekend of September since 1894. However, it became popular during the 8-hour day movement of the 1930s. The big unions finally got recognized and management said, “OK, you get an eight-hour day, steady work, steadily rising wages—just don’t question any of our shop floor or office practices. We’ll jerk you around for eight hours on the job, but we’ll pay you enough money to buy a house, buy a boat, take it to the lake, buy a refrigerator, buy a washing machine.”

In other words, the salesmen of this New Deal sold the idea of comfort, a condition where our risk is reduced. Salesmen strike with fear to get our attention but close the deal by offering to quell the risks of everyday life. This deal was firmly established by the 1950s, a sweet deal that grew in terms of influence and importance as the economy became dominated by big business, big government, big unions resulting in collective bargaining, high employment, job security—obviously not for everyone all the time.

Downsizing started in the 1970s with a cutback in labor costs enabled by finding cheaper ways to make things overseas, and along with this we had the return of a deregulatory, laissez-faire creed during the Reagan era (“Greed if good!), which culminated in the meltdown of financial markets in 2008. This meltdown was nothing new but rather a re-occurrence of the risks and dangers of laissez-faire capitalism that is always there.

Taking risks is important; it’s a valuable function of the economy. Risk is rewarded and cherished and applauded. What’s different now, it seems to me, is that risk is calculated only on an investment banker’s computer screen, and the consequences of their risk-taking is not carried by the bankers themselves but lands in the laps of ordinary people who see their jobs and/or their benefits disappear.

Today, we seem to have a prevailing ideology that celebrates risks for the multitude while protecting the handful—hence the appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement that drew attention to the (undeserved?) privileges and (immoral?) practices of the 1% handful. Some economists say we are now in a big financial mess due to unsustainable debt. Unions seem powerless to stop this slide into financial irresponsibility and moral degeneracy. As a result of taxpayer bailouts for the automotive and financial industries, the unions now run the risk of being seen as part of that handful being protected from the consequences of the risk takers.

The deal is falling apart. Employers no longer guarantee eight-hour day, steady work, steadily rising wages. Employees no longer give unquestioning loyalty to their employers. Change is inevitable in any laissez-faire system. We’ve enjoyed a long period of relative stability and prosperity. The new global economy—driven by the emergence of China and other Asian countries as economic engines of growth—may be undermining the high standard of living we enjoy here in Canada, and putting downward pressure on wages and our ability to pay for a safety net of pensions, universal health care, and other cherished social benefits. Will this be the undoing of unions? Instead of helping to clean up the mess—involving new sacrifices and commitments—will they focus on insulating their members from inevitable change and its consequences?

We’re all in this mess together. How do we exercise our collective responsibilities–through unions, parliament, or other democratic means–to organize and manage society in a way that is humane and helpful to all? How do we soften the corrosive effects of laissez-faire capitalism? Unions, of course, will be part of this dialogue in the 21st C. But will they be a key player in solving these vexing questions?

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