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We need to celebrate and defend the value of our work

For many Canadians, Labour Day represents the end of summer and the start of classes. But this year, theres good reason to remember what Labour Day is really all about and mark the occasion with a rousing hurray for workers.

Workers who risked their health and in some cases, gave their lives to treat the ill and stop the spread of SARS. Workers who scrambled to restore electricity after the blackout that left much of Ontario without power. Workers who still today are fighting forest fires in BC and helping those whove been displaced or left without a home.

Its heartening to see the outpouring of support for workers from their fellow community members, whenever an emergency happens. Its also during these times of crisis that everyday heroes merit a word of recognition from a politician, and a spot on the six oclock news.

But the fact is that week in and week out, millions of Canadian women and men are out there on the front line, providing the vital public services that keep our towns and cities running smoothly. They are the unsung heroes, working to ensure not just that we can handle crises when they arise but that we face as few crises as possible.

The cruel irony is that these very workers are under attack. Their jobs have been slashed. Their hours have been cut. Their rights to organize, to bargain and to strike are being eroded.

In Ontario and the States, for example, more than 160,000 workers were cut from the electricity sector as it plunged headlong into deregulation, mesmerized by market mania. The contribution of these workers to the integrity, efficiency and reliability of the power grid was sacrificed to the corporate greed of companies like Enron and FirstEnergy. It gives the expression last one out, turn out the lights a whole new meaning.

In British Columbia, thousands of health care workers permanent, unionized employees earning a decent family-supporting wage are receiving pink slips. These workers most of them women, many of them workers of colour are faced with a bitter choice. They can return to work as low-wage contract workers at half their current wages or they can look for new jobs elsewhere, in some cases after decades of service.

At a time when infection control has never been more important, we chuck out a skilled, experienced workforce to replace them with low-wage, casual workers who are unlikely ever to meet the highest standards needed to protect the health and support the recovery of patients.

This pattern of cutbacks, privatization and casual employment can be seen across the country in the municipal sector, education, social services, health care and utilities. And we can see each day its toll on the quality of our towns and cities, our schools and universities, our libraries and our ability to help families and children under stress.

Short-sighted ideologues push the notion that increasing profits and productivity trump every other social objective we might have as a nation. Rather than invest in our common wealth and promote our collective prosperity by creating useful employment and providing needed public services, they slash jobs and spending and gut public investment.

And politicians beholden to their corporate backers from Jean Chrt0069en to Gordon Campbell, Ernie Eves to Bernard Lord, Ralph Klein to Paul Martin talk big about the little guy but deliver policies that cut jobs, wages and services, undermining local economies and handing over increasing control to multinational corporations.

The time has come to put an end to this madness.

Work has value. Workers have value. Good jobs in the local community have value. The dignity of our work and of community services must be acknowledged and respected, not just when there is a crisis that has captured the attention of the media but 24/7, year round.

So this Labour Day, I have an important message for all Canadians. Keep this years emergencies in mind, the next time governments try to cut the highly-trained people who work so well when things go wrong. We need to remind politicians that community services and the workers who provide these services need on-going support and recognition 365 days a year.

On September 1 and throughout the year to come, lets join together, proud and powerful, to make sure unions, workers and all citizens work together to strengthen our public community services.

This Labour Day, workers are not demanding anything more than what our communities deserve: adequate staffing levels to provide vital services efficiently and effectively; decent wages and working conditions; and the resources that will allow us to do a job we can be proud of.

Judy Darcy is National President of Canadas largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing a half million women and men who work in municipalities, health care, education, social services, utilities, transportation, airlines, communications and emergency services. Judy Darcy recently moved to British Columbia.