With all the issues in the world today, especially the ones concerning a fair and equitable workplace, it is sometimes a little difficult to stay positive. We are continually seeing stories of corporate corruption, union busting and safety negligence. Unionism may be in trouble, but we must realize how far we have come in the last couple centuries. If we look at the battle this way, we are kicking corporate ass!
In the early 1800’s a work day was a minimum of 10 hours but typically closer to 16 hours and employees were expected to be at their jobs 6 days a week. This was a regular work week, there was no overtime. The early 1800’s was the era when the idea of unionism really began to take hold, and it was Robert Owen who first raised the demand for a regular work day to be ten hours but soon changed that to 8 hours when he coined the phrase, “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest.” The idea gained momentum and became a general demand of most unions by the 1850’s.
This regiment of six consecutive 8 hour days went on for another half a century before workers began to win the right to have a weekend. Having Saturday and Sunday off each week did not become a reasonable request until the 1920’s. In my workplace the maintenance department works four ten hour shifts as a way of getting a three day weekend while still working 40 hours a week. I look at this as a positive movement and believe we will one day get to a 32 hour workweek consisting of four eight hour days but it is a dangerous game as many of the employees are working their days off for extra overtime. Some of these guys are now working six ten hour days in a row (or more) and it does give the employer fuel to suggest that this is normal and we really should be working this amount… for straight time. A fight was had for our right to work a reasonable working day and have a leisurely weekend; we best be careful not to abuse it.
Workplace safety was seemingly non-existent in the 1800’s, countless mining explosions killed thousands of people and employers would just simply hire more people as they seemed to be indispensable. Over 5000 workers died building the Canadian Pacific Railroad and if that isn’t depressing enough for the workplace situation of that time, all of these men were Chinese working for around a dollar a day and being treated worse than animals. Last year in BC we lost 122 workers in workplace accidents and illnesses. This is still far too many however it is huge improvement from the days of building the railroad. We have also won equality in the workplace so that an immigrant or minority will be treated no different than anyone else.
The road ahead is uncertain, but exciting! Workers of the 1800’s would have never imagined a workweek that was reduced to just 40 hours, they never knew what a weekend was. Job selection was extremely prejudiced and workers were unsure if they would even make it home alive at the end of the day. We have come a long way and Unionism has prevailed. Even if we may feel slightly defeated in recent years, hold your head high and keep on dreaming. I have heard talk of dreamers representing the case for a 30 hour work week, and another for zero accidents; its dreams like these that will take us to the next revolution.