By Paul Moist
Ottawa, Ont. - Labour Day is a good time to reflect on the key issues faced by Canadian workers and employers alike. It is also a time to remember the great social and economic advances that have taken place both through struggle and through cooperation in our workplaces.
On a daily basis commentary on Canada’s macro-economic fundamentals indicate that our country, and by extension its citizens, is doing well. Unemployment rates are low, inflation is in check, and the Canadian dollar is strong. In general, the economy is performing well. But there is another perspective that tells a different story.
While our national unemployment rate fell to 32-year low of 6.1 per cent last May, a closer look indicates stubbornly high rates of young workers unemployment about 12 per cent per cent.
While employment growth fuelled by a resource and construction boom is solid, Canada has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2002. Most of these were good paying, full-time jobs in manufacturing. But more and more that industrial base rests in foreign hands, a trend that will have significant consequences for our future workforce.
Our country desperately needs a national industrial strategy; our future prosperity depends upon it.
Incomes are on the rise, but a closer look reveals a disturbing pattern. For unionized workers in workplaces with over 500 employees, negotiated pay increases have averaged 2.5 per cent so far this year. Meanwhile, CEOs gave themselves a 39 per cent increase last year.
There is indeed more wealth being generated in Canada. However, it is distributed more unfairly than at anytime in our history.
Real wage growth for workers measured over the decades also reveals a disturbing trend. From 1940 to 1970, real incomes grew by double digits in each decade. This slowed in the 1970s and 1980s, but families still saw their real incomes increase by almost 10 per cent during each decade. During the 1990s, real income growth plummeted and was stagnant for most of the decade.
While the economy has grown at a solid rate in recent years and labour productivity has rebounded, workers are getting a smaller and smaller share of the economic pie, while corporate profits and CEO salaries are taking a bigger and bigger share.
The income experience for Canadian women is an even bleaker story. While there has been a dramatic increase in the participation of women in the paid labour force, full-time women workers still only earn about 71 per cent of what men earn (2003 figures), reflecting an inequity that governments and employers have failed to remedy.
Labour force development issues abound in Canada and while much attention is appropriately focused on immigration levels to fill anticipated job vacancies, little discussion is focused on our education systems and employer investments in the current workforce.
The Conference Board of Canada cites Canada’s slip from 12th to 20th place between 2002 and 2004 in terms of the priority Canadian employers placed on employee training compared to our major trading partners. The Board’s own surveys continue to show that Canada’s employers invest less than other developed countries in per-employee training levels, including about 20 per cent less than employers in the United States.
The high school drop-out rates for Canadian youth remain worryingly high, and for those who complete a post-secondary bachelor degree, government retreat from post-secondary investment leaves graduates with an average personal debt of over $20,000.
Alberta, Canada’s richest province, has the country’s highest high school drop-out rate with one in four failing to graduate. Many view this as a scandalous disgrace. Yet there is little commentary and concern that the same 25 per cent failure rate occurs in the province’s apprenticeship programs. This is shocking in a province experiencing a resource/construction boom with almost daily commentaries about labour shortages.
A recent Alberta Federation of Labour study talks about a, “chaotic diversity of trade definition, trade training and trade standards,” having created a “rigid, inflexible labour market by preventing or discouraging the movement of skilled workers and apprentices between jurisdictions.”
The AFL study strongly urges that, “the Alberta government should make it a priority to work toward harmonization of provincial training programs, standards and trade definitions across Canada.”
I can’t think of a more important labour force development issue than this recommendation, yet such issues seem mired at the bottom of the heap when we witness dialogue amongst federal and provincial leaders.
There is indeed much for workers to celebrate this Labour Day. Workers built Canada and we continue to enjoy the stability and benefits of one of the most productive and stable economies in the world. Their unions help create the certainty and stability Canadians want and deserve.
Still, much remains to be done to address past and present inequities, and to fortify our communities to deal with the challenges of an increasingly uncertain world.
** Paul Moist is National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada’s largest union.
For further information: Louise Leclair, CUPE National Communications Director, 613-237-1590 ext 268; Mobile: 778-838-0699; Dan David, Senior Communications Officer, 613-237-1590 ext 267