Canadian Unions Use Labor Day To Demand Changes

Workers push for improvements for the beleaguered manufacturing sector days after General Motors announced 1,200 job cuts.

TORONTO (CP) — Thousands of workers took to the streets across the country Monday to remind Canadians of the true meaning behind the last long-weekend of summer.
In downtown Toronto, the annual Labour Day parades kicked off with calls from labour unions for everything from more nurses, to lower post-secondary tuition fees, to improvements for the beleaguered manufacturing sector.
The slashing of 1,200 jobs at an Ontario General Motors truck plant days ago makes this particular Labour Day rally that much more important, said Canadian Auto Workers union president Buzz Hargrove as he marched with hundreds of fellow autoworkers.
''Unfortunately bad news kind of gets people's attention more so than good news,'' he said. ''We're seeing a lot bigger turnout here today than we normally see on Labour Day.''
While colleagues will be reflecting on some of the gains the auto sector has made over the year, he said the layoffs will be hard to ignore.
''It's not good news,'' he said. ''People are going to start winding up for further protest this fall to ensure that we get the leadership from the federal government to defend the interests of workers, families and communities, not just the corporate interest.''
NDP Leader Jack Layton said working families and the middle class are ''being squeezed'' by the manufacturing job crisis, and that it's time the government did something about it.
''Working people just don't have the revenues they once did because they're scrambling to find jobs,'' he said.
''The governments, frankly, have been washing their hands of the concerns of the manufacturing sector and this is wrong.''
With a provincial election in Ontario looming, Layton said it's time for a government that will put working families first.
In Halifax, hundreds of workers turned out for the annual Labour Day march and picnic.
The event on the Halifax Common brought together members from a range of federations and unions including the Atlantic Federation of Musicians who led the march, belting out tunes on their saxophones, trumpets and drums.
''Even if you never go on strike, withdrawing your labour is all you have as a bargaining tool,'' said Margaret Ann McHugh, an education officer for the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.
The NSGEU used Labour Day to launch a campaign to fight the province's plan to take away the right of health-care workers to strike.
An annual Labour Day barbecue for the unemployed in Edmonton attracted thousands of people, even though the city is full of help wanted signs.
Organizer Tom Olenuk of the Edmonton and District Labour Council said Alberta's booming economy has made housing and transportation much more expensive, leaving many poor people behind.
Olenuk said a $1 increase that took effect this month in the province's minimum wage, bringing it to $8 an hour, hardly makes a difference.
''The minimum wage to live at the poverty level in Edmonton was $10.50 an hour two years ago,'' Olenuk said as many people at the event waited in long lines for free hamburgers.
On the West Coast, the B.C. Federation of Labour also trumpeted a demand for an increased minimum wage, unveiling a 25-metre banner towed behind a plane as part of its campaign for a $10 minimum.
The current minimum wage in B.C. is $8 per hour, unless the employee is a new worker in which case it's $6 per hour. The so-called training wage lasts for the first 500 hours in a position.
The banner was towed over a park in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby where about 1,000 unionists and supporters celebrated Labour Day.
''We have a growing poverty problem in this province and poverty is usually due to not enough money in the pay package,'' federation president Jim Sinclair said.
''I think everyday should be Labour Day,'' he added.
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