Labour Day 2017 Message from Robert Blakely, Canadian Operations Director, Canada’s Building Trades Unions

Aug 31, 2017

This Labour Day marks the end of the summer of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The land that is now called Canada has been inhabited for somewhere in the range of 13,000 years. There have been “Canadians” since the time that the continental ice sheets receded. We need to understand that and to honour that portion of the Canadian legacy. We need to make sure that there are appropriate places for Indigenous Peoples within our Unions. It is the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do; much of the work we are doing, or hope to do, is being done on someone’s ancestral territory. If that work was being done in your home or on your land you would most assuredly want to be consulted and have a “piece of the action”. It is not too much to say that we need to do a better job in making sure that Indigenous Peoples are our brothers and sisters in the fraternal sense of the word from here on in. We also need to think about expanding past male dominated workplaces. Pale, male and stale is no longer cool! It’s time for rebirth and renewal. Women, youth, new Canadians and Indigenous Peoples are vital to that! We need to stand up for what’s fair and right. The challenge for our unions is how to foster and build on the desire for a fairer society and how to turn that support into our organizational strength.

Our times are interesting; there are calls for the name of our first Prime Minister to be stricken from public buildings and schools. We seem to be hell-bent in applying the mores of today on the events of the past. The truth is that whatever the conventional wisdom of the past was it is just that, the conventional wisdom of what is past. There will be a time when we are all dead and gone where what we have done will be judged against the backdrop of the conventional wisdom of some future time. We ought to be kind to the works and deeds of our ancestors when realizing that there will be a time when our works and deeds will be also judged against a standard that we cannot yet see or perhaps even understand. Acknowledging our history, the good, the bad and, the ugly is integral to a valuable understanding of the condition of being human. That allows people to build, and, as well may be necessary, also to change, upon a secure foundation.

The reason for this long-winded introduction is that we as unions need to consider that Labour Day is a day to celebrate those very works and deeds. Samuel Gompers got it right when he said that “Labour Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country….. in that it is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation”. Labour Day is a day for us to remember the importance and dignity of work; how far we’ve come and how we got here. What we have today is a result of incrementalism, each year and each collective agreement that goes by adds a little bit; our path has had both positive gains and negatives. That is been the case since bargaining began and it is appropriate to have momentary negatives so long as the trend continues in a positive way. That has been our history, depressions recessions and momentary dips are counterbalanced by good times and the ability to be able to do more at the bargaining table because of those times. Meeting the market is something that we need to do; I learnt something very basic (and very common sense) a while ago. In the competition between jobs and wages, always pick jobs. To my chagrin there was a time in which I thought that wages and conditions were the things that were most worthy of our protection. The truth is that if you keep the jobs, wages and conditions will inevitably follow and will improve. It will reduce the seesaw effect of momentary dips and smooth out the “booms”. We bargain and we bargain hard, sometimes that energy is directed to maintaining what we have accrued over previous rounds. Sometimes it is bargaining hard to get “more”. That is cyclic and normal. It is not unnatural to assume that sometimes our wages will be trimmed. Let me put this another way, if our wages will not support our contractors being competitive and winning bids, what reason is there for having the highest wage rate in the jurisdiction if it will not allow your contractor to get a job? I listen to people all the time to talk about how “we” fought for this or how our forefathers (and foremothers for that matter) died for double time. That is absolute rubbish. No one died for double time. Double time came to the fore in the late 60s and developed in the 1970s. What we need to do is preserve the markets that we have, by ensuring that whatever the wage rate our wages are the best in the industry, and that what we earn is appropriate to what we contribute. Our labour has very significant value and we need to maximize the return on that value. We can maximize the return on value by dominating various markets and market segments. If we are 15% of the market we are irrelevant in determining what the wages and conditions will be in the marketplace. If we are 85% of the market, the market cares very much about what our wages and conditions will be and, the remaining 15% will have to adopt wages and conditions very near to what we enjoy simply to stay in the game. That ought to be our goal for the next 150 years.

The Federal Government did two very significant things in respect of the Labour Movement this spring and summer; they repealed the very onerous and anti-labour bills C 377 and C 525. The second thing they did was to adopt Convention 98 of the International Labour Organization’s core conventions. Convention 98 has been around since March 1949. Convention 98 protects the Right to Organize and the Right to Collective Bargaining. So, for nearly 70 years successive Canadian Governments did not accept the right to organize or the right to meaningful collective bargaining as worthy of support by Canada. This Convention has the force of a treaty and will bind Canada and provincial governments to the covenants within the Convention. This summer the Minister of ESDC and her Parliamentary Secretary have been on the circuit of Labour Events. They have had one core message that ought to resonate with us. That is that union membership is the best passport to the Middle Class and to remain there. For that reason, the Minister and her government see it as their duty to increase union density in Canada. We finally have a government that thinks what we offer is worthwhile!

Let me close with a final thought if we want the absolute best wages, the best conditions and the most appropriate overtime we’re not going to get this by demonstrating in the street or by holding our breath until we turn blue – – – we are going to get it by organizing the unorganized. There is a climate to support organizing in this country that has not existed for a very long time. If we are judged by any legacy let us be judged by the old labour motto “what we desire for ourselves we desire for others”. That means making the working conditions and wages for other people who have our skills (or would like our skills) union wages. The world will be our oyster if we boldly step forward and seize it.

I would like to thank all of you for what you do every day in building and maintaining our country. Your work is second to none but the reward for doing good work is to get to do more and more. The Canadian Executive Board and the Staff of the Canadian Office join with me in wishing you all the best for the holiday that your work and skills have earned for everyone– Labour Day!!

Robert R. Blakely
Canadian Operating Officer