(Not so) Happy Labour Day: How Did We End Up Here?

Labour Day, as my colleague David Doorey points out, is the time of the year when labour relations and unions can be guaranteed a bit of media attention. The “state of the union movement” was something I was thinking about not just because of Labour Day, but  while following the recent bargaining dispute between the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates (SPEA) and Candu Energy, and hearing about the latest anti-union diatribe from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The dispute between Candu and SPEA ended (kind of) this week when the two parties signed a memorandum of agreement.  Candu Energy used to be part of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, but last year became a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin, whose chair of the board of directors has expressed some breathtakingly ill-informed views about unions. Once bargaining broke down and SPEA’s members went on strike at the start of July, Canada’s federal government showed no interest in intervening, even with Candu Energy’s critical role in maintaining energy supplies in three provinces. Candu’s own strike news website frequently uses the word “competitive” in reference to Candu’s pay proposals, although it provides no basis for comparison (e.g. what the pay would be for a nuclear engineer could earn in a similar position at another nuclear energy facility in Canada or elsewhere).

SPEA’s members reluctantly accepted a final offer from Candu, which was not endorsed by the union executive. In their words, “we believe that prolonging the strike is not going to change [Candu’s] business plans, motivations, or position at the bargaining table”. However, as of this writing, although a memorandum of agreement has been signed, Candu has still not recalled the workers on strike, and the workplaces have not been reopened. So highly trained professionals with valuable skills that benefit the Canadian economy are sitting idle.

A calmer image for Labour Day: Labour Day Lake, on Vancouver Island. (Credit: Wikimedia)

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s contribution to Labour Day is to call for a Compensation Equity Act to “control the public payroll” since, according to the CTF’s research, more “government workers” than private sector workers have pension benefits. This comes at the same time that three British Columbia public sector unions have announced plans for a one-day strike next week because of lack of progress in their contract negotiations with the provincial government.

How did this get to be so backwards? Employers (smart ones, anyway) should value their skilled workers and treat them professionally, recognizing their worth to the company’s productivity and reputation, rather than invoke vague spectres of “competitiveness” as a refusal to seriously bargain. And the more constructive way to look at compensation is not “why is this little group of workers getting adequate benefits” but rather “why does this bigger group of workers not have adequate financial security for their retirement, and how can we ensure they do?” In my view, the backward discourse that workers (and unions) are simply greedy – and that asking to be compensated fairly and treated respectfully in the workplace negatively affects the economy and drags down society – is far more dangerous and destructive.

One of my favourite labour history books is titled From the Folks who Brought You The Weekend, referring to the role of unions in advocating for workplace reforms such as regulated working hours and mandated time off. So on Labour Day 2012, while I’m discouraged by what happened to SPEA and by the spurious reasoning of the CTF, I’m going to remember the positive improvements that workers and unions have achieved. And I’m going to hope that events like the Occupy movement indicate a change in society’s attitudes that might eventually turn the discourse around work and workers in a more productive direction.


  1. The situation is perhaps not helped by the fact many employees in professional positions (or professional-type, like scientists) tend to hold to the idea that a union (or association or society, call it what you will) is beneath them. As I was growing up, I was taught that unions were for the working class, and not for the likes of “us”. But, as a government employee, I pay into a union whether I like it or not. When we had a problem in my workplace, I got involved with the union, and even sat on the bargaining team for a couple of rounds. I met some amazing people. Speaking out for, fighting for, people’s workplace rights and, yes, their benefits, is not beneath any of us.

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