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July 3, 2019Alan Willaert - AFM Vice President from Canada
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When the gavel dropped to open the May 14 meeting of the Canada Council of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the tone was a mix of elation and trepidation. On the one hand, celebration had begun for the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, an event in history which forever changed the landscape for labour laws across the country. But the elation soon diminished, as provincial reports of Conservative electoral victories—and the bellwether that lies therein—sets the stage for what may become the greatest struggle the labour movement has yet seen in this country.
Does that sound dire enough? By what measure and to what do we point as the warning signs? To foresee where we are going, one must first establish where we have been.
The 1919 general strike, which, by the way, was lost, contained within it many of the conditions and scenarios we are experiencing today. Setting the stage was WWI, a horrific conflict that saw thousands of young Canadian men shipped to the European front, while Canada welcomed immigrants to replenish a depleted work force. When soldiers returned, unscrupulous employers gleefully pitted them against the new Canadians, forcing them to compete for ridiculously low-paying jobs. Canadians against immigrated Canadians—sound familiar?
Space does not allow for a thorough analysis of the strike, but suffice to say, when wages and treatment of workers were bad enough, when the hate had festered deep enough, the roughly 12,000 unionized workers of Winnipeg planned to walk off their jobs in protest. What was most surprising was the support from the non-union folks. On that fateful 15th day of May, 1919, 35,000 mistreated employees—almost the entire workforce—walked off their jobs and took to the streets in protest. And they stayed out for more than a month.
Riled by the audacity of the masses to threaten corporate profits, the large employers formed their own small association of the rich and powerful. A plan was hatched to blame the Bolsheviks for the strike, and the workers’ lot in life. (Russian collusion—it’s not just an invention of 2016 America). Phone calls were made to Prime Minister Robert Borden, who authorized use of the military to control the crowds, passed laws to make it illegal to demonstrate or congregate, and initiated additional policies to deport landed immigrants (without trial) who participated. He effectively created the most anti-labour legislation of the century.
The employer’s association, who called themselves the Citizens Committee of One Thousand, published their own newspaper, The Winnipeg Citizen, and laid the blame for the unrest on immigrants. Almost the entire police forced was dismissed, as they were sympathetic to the strikers and would not reject unionism for themselves. The mayor replaced them with hired mercenaries, or “special constables,” who, armed with clubs, would pummel groups of strikers at every opportunity. As the people continued to fill the streets, suspected leaders were arrested and jailed.
On June 21, or “Bloody Saturday,” a silent march was organized, as strikers were no longer able to demonstrate legally. The mayor called in the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) as well, to aid in dispelling the massive crowd. But violence erupted as the hired thugs charged into the crowd wielding their clubs, and the RNWMP fired shots. Two workers lay dead, many more injured. The next day, organizers called off the strike, fearing more violence and bloodshed. The strike was over, but the shameful deeds of employers conspiring with politicians—right up to the prime minister—would lead to a public reckoning and labour reform.
So, why do I say labour is gearing up for war? When seven provinces elect a Conservative government representing more than 50% of the population, and if the October federal election follows suit with a Tory win, the stage is set to allow the government to open up the Canadian Charter of Rights. That means everything is again up for grabs. Count on a push to remove the right of labour to organize, an attack on the Rand Formula, a push for right-to-work laws, including but not limited to introduction of right-wing politics on abortion, environment, and last. but equally dangerous, immigration laws and religious freedoms. A Conservative wave in Canada, considering the current conditions and influences from the US, would be catastrophic and take decades of more liberal-minded governments to correct, not to mention the damage to working folks and virtual elimination of a middle class.
How did we get here? The lessons learned in Winnipeg, so long ago, have dissipated. Time has separated those who fought for changes and those who enjoyed the benefits of change without a personal connection to the struggle. In addition, the perceived value of the conflict is diffused, along with the desire to maintain solidarity when needed. More simply, people have forgotten why unions formed in the first place, and have dismissed the value and achievements gained by solidarity when working people are the pawns of insatiable corporate greed. We are in serious danger of having to completely start over, and relive the horrors endured by those before us who believed in fighting for a better life, or just their fair share.
History once again is in danger of repeating itself. And, unfortunately, it will be because the silent majority, those who enjoy the benefits and fairness through union bargaining yet feel no connection to them, will refuse to speak or act on behalf of what is right. Only when those benefits—along with basic rights and freedoms—are gone, will they blink and ask, “What happened, and who is to blame?” It’s not too late to stop the bleeding, but we are five minutes to midnight.