Labour Day Grew From a Great Vision of What 'The Power of the People' Could Be...But

As E. J. Dionne said, "The union movement has traditionally espoused a set of values—solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. From this followed commitments to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, and to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room. Dionne goes on to say that, "these values are increasingly foreign to American culture".

Woke up today, Labour Day, wondering: Where did these values go? In those first semi-conscious moments it seemed like i was watching/listening to the great ghosts of North America's labor/labour movement's long history roll over in their graves. An ethereal Eugene Debs, a committed American union leader and one of the founding members of the Wobblies [the IWW - Industrial Workers of the World] upon seeing the sorry state of today's labor movement moaned that "even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over ... and being kicked".

Labour Day grew from radical roots. No one told the story better than Howard Zinn author of 'A People's History of the United States'. Though Zinn's masterpiece focuses on the US it's Canada's history too. Canadian authorities of that time were challenged by the Knights of Labor [and others], which organized not just the skilled trades, but all workers, including women. Pierre Berton's grandfather, Phillips Thompson, was a Knight of Labor and in his book, 'The Politics of Labor', published in 1887, he warned "capitalism is a wrong, an usurpation, and a growing menace to popular freedom." Thompson further pointed out that "the poverty of the many is caused by the unearned, and therefore stolen, wealth of the few."

In those days before the labor movement had been co-opted by the elites and transformed into another special interest group the movement offered an alternative vision to today's consumer capitalist mono-culture. As Abraham Lincoln said his first state of the union address, "The real makers are the many ground-level workers who actually do the making. Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

When i left college in the early days of 1969 labor organizing was what i dreamed would be my little part in the great global fight of the workers of the world to unite because, as Marx said, they "had nothing to lose but their chains". It took about 5 years and being an activist in 3 different unions to extinguish that flame.

Even by then, the early 70s, the majority of union members never considered the wider community a priority, above all they valued their own material advancement. For instance in every negotiation the bosses side offered a choice between job security and wage increases as they neared completion. Time and again i rose at union meetings to explain that the wage increases would be paid for by the job losses of the most junior workers which would only impoverish the greater community. In addition i'd argue that the work those junior workers did would eventually be done by inappropriate technology - machinery - which would be financed by the bankers thus enriching the elites by impoverishing their fellow workers and the broader community. Finally, attempting to appeal to their self-interest, i argued that each of them would suffer the same fate sooner or later as they became the most junior members and became vulnerable to this insidious logic. Inevitably, the majority of members were more interested in buying a bigger boat or? and voted for the raise.

The labor movement and the working classes lost much of their clout during that era when they voluntarily chose to embrace their chains when they accepted defined contribution pension plans and eagerly bought into the RRSPs and 401k flimflams. From that day forward the proletariat began to believe that they had a stake in the system that was actually enslaving them.

Today, Labour Day 2013, the share of income which goes to corporate profit is the highest it’s been since they started tracking it in 1929, while the share going to people – as salary and wages – is the lowest. Today we've become a fast food culture, while the many track their meager slice of the 'market', the banksters are running things as they have been for hundreds of years.

Labour Day grew from a great vision of what the power of the people could be. Ah, but we were smarter then, we're dumber than that now.