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Labour Day Message: Lean and mean has gone too far
By: Buzz Hargrove, CAW National President
Last Updated: August 28, 2008

In the final weeks and days of my tenure as president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, I am troubled by the sheer volume of bad news stories that are emerging from the economy in Canada and around the world.

Government resources diverted to propagate wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently Georgia have left citizens questioning the priorities of those they elect. Oil and food prices have soared to the point of making basic necessities out of reach for far too many people. Combine this with a global financial capital crisis that has seen millions of people lose their jobs, their homes and their life savings and the shift of production of manufactured goods to developing countries, it becomes clearer that these challenges point to a fundamental shift in the economy and perhaps even a change in our social structures.

What working people are faced with today is more than just the boom and bust that we have known in decades past. Severe infrastructure deficits and social program strains are a product of wrong-headed tax cuts that have catered to the business and corporate classes over time. Income inequality and the persistence of poverty are deeply connected to the absence of important industrial policies designed to promote good, family-supporting jobs. And the restructuring of our economy away from value-added manufacturing toward heavily polluting resource extraction is a result of poor economic management and misguided trade policy.

Our economy is at a critical juncture. As we head into Labour Day this weekend – and a possible federal election in the coming weeks and a U.S. election this fall – we have an opportunity to reflect on the current state of our country and demand more from our elected leaders, who up to this point, have lead us all down a dangerous path.

The challenge that lies ahead, although seemingly insurmountable, must be seen as an opportunity, a springboard for working people to question the political and economic choices that are being made on their behalf.

As working people, we must insist on the re-focusing of our economy in the interests of Canadians – all Canadians. From the ones who assist the elderly in long term care homes to those who work in the country’s highly productive but rapidly disappearing manufacturing sector – all citizens have a vested interest in having a greater say in what our economy looks like.

It’s clear that this already started to happen. This past spring, citizens spoke out against the sale of the space division of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to U.S. arms manufacturer Alliant Techsystems. What was at stake was a shining example of Canadian innovation, funded by Canadian taxpayers through government subsidies. Citizens would not tolerate it –the sale was stopped.

Many Canadians are demanding their tax dollars be used wisely - such as support regional development initiatives, and supporting government efforts to use public funds to buy Canadian products.

Canadians are also speaking out against the false promises of right-wing governments and pundits that free trade, deregulation and privatization policies would bring about prosperity and higher standards of living - policies that have only made things worse for millions of workers.

In the U.S., we see this in the momentum that has gathered behind Democrat presidential hopeful Barack Obama in the vision of change that he symbolizes. Here in Canada, we can harness this energy for our own goals from reversing the growing equality gap to bringing home our troops.

Change is on the agenda. There’s no doubt. And labour has an important role to play. This Labour Day, it’s important that unions recommit themselves to being the vehicle for this change – moving it beyond rhetoric and making it a reality for Canadians.

I’ve seen a lot of changes during my 16 years as the president of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Our union has grown from 170,000 in 1992 to over 250,000 members, today. The CAW now represents workers in all parts of the economy, which makes us stronger as whole.  

Workers recognize that when they get together in a union, they can exert far more power than they ever could as individuals. Power to make our workplaces safer and more tolerable, power to make our communities stronger through public health care, well-funded schools, fair trade and environmental sustainability to name a few.

The diversity of our union has strengthened the organization and expanded its scope, something that has made me immensely proud.  

Union members, with their diverse experiences and progressive vision for a stronger and more equal Canada, are well-positioned to move this fight for change forward.  To be the platform on which the voices of all Canadians can be heard. And to strengthen the resolve of all citizens to believe that, at this critical moment, together we can lead Canada toward a better future.

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