Labour Day’s roots must not be forgotten: labour leader

Holiday stems from workers pushing for better conditions

For a day so steeped in history and meaning, Labour Day is at risk of becoming just another holiday, according to a local labour leader.

“I think all too often people think of Labour Day as simply the last day of summer and getting the kids ready to get back to school,” said Michael Eso, president of the Victoria Labour Council. “People should reflect on the history of how we got here today.”

Labour Day celebrations in Canada started in 1882 when unions were fighting for shorter work weeks of 54 hours. From Canada, it spread to the United States. Parades were the initial Labour Day celebrations, but the first Monday of September wasn’t made an official holiday in Canada until 1894.

Today, some British Columbians might feel labour rights have “served their time,” Eso said, “but you don’t have to look very far to see that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

He pointed to dangerous jobs, such as firefighting, paramedics or jail guards, as examples that might not appeal to most workers and labour rights help these employees stay safe on the job.

NDP labour critic Raj Chouhan said British Columbians should consider which direction the province is heading this Labour Day.

“When we celebrate Labour Day, I hope the Liberal government understands that (employees), for the last 11 years in B.C., their rights have been undermined by a change of policies.”

He cited as an example the whittling away of the Labour Ministry’s Employment Standards Branch, which now has 10 locations rather than the previous 18, and has had its staff nearly cut in half.

The birth and growth of B.C.’s labour movement is something people shouldn’t ignore. Rather, it should serve as a lesson, Eso said.

“We don’t want to be captured by our history, but we want to be able to learn from our history. Unions are as important today as they were in their formation, even though the circumstances may be different.”

Chouhan added labour rights are a vital part of any democracy.

“If we ignore the importance of labour’s contributions, that creates problems like we’ve seen in some other countries where labour is not respected,” he said.

Chouhan said Labour Day should remain a holiday for people who work hard all year, but it should also be more than just a day off work.

“We have to take a break and relax, that’s for sure, but at same time we must not forget the meaning of Labour Day,” he said.

Mark your calendar

The Victoria Labour Council is hosting a Labour Day picnic with games, clowns and food.

When? Monday, Sept. 5 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Where? Irving Park in James Bay, at Menzies and Michigan streets

Who: All ages. Kids eat free.