May 2015 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Labour history

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The Canadian Museum of “History” is about to erase all mention of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 from its exhibits. It was a strike that changed the face of politics in Canada, but it’s headed down the memory hole.

History, they say, is written by the victors. And since 2006, Stephen Harper and his government have been behaving like victors rather than democratic leaders—compiling lists of enemies, ramming through anti-labour legislation, shutting down dissent wherever it might arise.

The museum’s management claims that there is no political motive behind this latest move. We’ve heard this before, of course. The Canada Revenue Agency claims to be neutral when it audits only progressive charities and think tanks like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives for being too “political,” but not conservative-friendly outfits like the Fraser Institute and the Manning Foundation.

A random process? Forgive me if I’m a little suspicious of this latest move, despite the museum’s protestations of innocence. And I am less than impressed when management over there insists that only a few academics will be upset by tearing out these important pages of the past.

In case this really is just a bad error in judgement, though, here’s a short history lesson for the museum’s managers.

The Winnipeg General Strike began on May 1, 1919, when building and metal workers walked out for higher wages. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called for a general strike in support of these workers, and solidarity was not long in coming. The women who operated the city’s telephones were next, and two weeks after the initial strike, 30,000 union and non-union workers had hit the bricks.

The photo, above, is of the replica of the Winnipeg Labour Temple, which is to be removed permanently from the museum. (The original was ploughed under in the 1960s to make way for the new Winnipeg city hall.) This meeting-place served more than eighty unions, and became the nerve centre of the strike, where strategy was planned and votes were held.

Needless to say, the employers and the municipal government fought back. The police, who were in solidarity with the strikers, were fired and replaced with 1,800 goons called “Specials” who were issued horses and baseball bats. Politicians called the leaders “bolsheviks” (today the word would be “terrorists”), and the press was stridently anti-strike. The strikers’ own newspaper was shut down. The general strike ended with the killing and wounding of several strikers by the “Specials” and the Royal North-West Mounted Police, followed by mass arrests and trials of the strike leadership.

Yet that was far from the end of the story. The massive resistance and solidarity shown by workers in Winnipeg (and by sympathy strikers across the country) was not wasted. Shortly afterwards, four strike leaders were elected to the Manitoba legislature. One was J. S. Woodsworth, later elected to the House of Commons, whose efforts there led to the introduction of the Canadian old age pension. He went on to help found the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, and became its first leader. The CCF became the NDP in 1962.

Now the NDP is surging in the polls. Even when the secret report on deep-sixing the exhibit was issued, the government was losing popularity. Is it too cynical to suggest that Harper is not keen on preserving the history of workers combining in solidarity and risking everything for social justice?

The truth is that all history is labour history: “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.” But too much of what we do is left out of the official stories, because it’s not considered important enough to preserve. Maybe this miserable decision by the Canadian Museum of History is just more of the same, after all. But it highlights the need for the labour movement to safeguard our own history, our own stories and memories—so that we may continue to learn from and be inspired by them.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Defending our rights

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PSAC on the march.jpg

With the tabling of the Budget Implementation Act (Bill C-59) on May 7, the Harper government has tossed aside any pretence of collective bargaining. Sick leave is the immediate issue—forcing members to choose between going to work sick or losing pay—but there is even more at stake.

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the right of workers to bargain collectively. It has ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees it. But this government apparently believes that rights can be taken away any time it wishes.

Bill C-59 allows Treasury Board to remove language from our collective agreements outside the bargaining process, end-running the Public Service Labour Relations Act. So we postponed our bargaining session in May—I hesitate to say “bargaining” table—after C-59 was introduced. It’s not bargaining when the outcome is determined by one of the parties in advance. That’s bullying.

Upholding basic rights has always meant a fight for the PSAC. Almost twenty-five years ago, public sector workers won the right to be politically active, after their case was taken right up to the Supreme Court of Canada. Even when various managers send threatening memos—and this is already happening in the lead-up the 2015 election—most of our members now know their rights. When managers cross the line, we’re on hand to remind them.

Pay equity was another glaring example. Treasury Board fought the PSAC for nearly fifteen years, until ordered to pay up by a federal court. $3.2 billion was paid out to members and former members. Canada Post wouldn’t settle with our members for 32 years, even though the outcome was inevitable—they had to pay out another $250 million.

We won. We keep winning. We don’t quit. Rights are non-negotiable.

Now comes this new challenge to our rights, one that strikes at the very heart of unionism. We’re going to win this one too. People fought and died to win union rights, and we would dishonour their memory and betray our members by giving in.

But a fight for rights is really everybody’s fight. Today it’s the federal public service unions, united in a solidarity pact to resist the great sick-leave takeaway. Tomorrow it could be unions across the country.

We have to show this government that Charter rights are not up for grabs. They can’t be taken away by passing a law.

Prepared to stand up? I sure as hell am.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Time to rock and roll

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PSAC Quebec convention emergency resolution vote.jpg

Our Triennial Convention, the supreme governing body of the PSAC, has met and set our course for the next three years. I am sincerely grateful for the trust that the delegates have placed in me and National Executive Vice President Chris Aylward to continue in our roles to ensure we grow and strengthen our Union.

This was one of the best conventions that I can remember, and I’ve been around a while. The delegates were serious and committed. Many were new. The level of debate was high, respectful, and civil. Issues, not personalities, dominated these discussions.

A number of important resolutions were passed. Our budget was set for the next three years. We threw our support behind a national child care campaign, and stood in solidarity with our Aboriginal sisters to demand a federal government inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. Over $100,000 was pledged to help our brothers and sisters working for the town of Hay River, NWT, on strike for more than three months.

Now we must move forward into action. The next few months will be key. Because, make no mistake, if the present government is re-elected, the attacks on workers and citizens will intensify.

At the beginning of the Convention, delegates voted unanimously to put $5 million from union reserves into the most important campaign the PSAC has ever undertaken.

The debate on the Emergency Resolution was clear. Delegates were of the same mind. They supported the key messages, the call to action, and the funds to make it real. The resolution was a re-dedication to the fight that lies before us.

Our rights as a Union are at stake. As I said before Convention began, if there was ever a time to stand up, that time has come.

Now Convention has taken that stand, without a single dissenting voice.

We must defend our fundamental collective bargaining rights, and by “we” I mean all of us, leaders, activists, rank and file members. We need one voice, and we need actions in the workplaces, in the regions, and all across the country to demonstrate our solidarity and our commitment to Canadian values of fairness and respect. Together, we must say No, and we must show No.

No to the anti-labour legislation that the Conservatives have made a key element of their rule. No to taking away our sick leave by more legislation, while pretending to negotiate. No to destroying our environment, attacking human rights, and muzzling the opposition.

No to the Harper government.

We need a change. A new, positive direction for our country. One where the rights of workers and unions are respected. One where human rights are upheld. One where public services are fully restored and accessible to all citizens.

We have only a short time before the October federal election, and there’s a big choice in front of Canadians. The PSAC is ready and able to play its part, and if Convention is any indication—we will!

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2015 listed from newest to oldest.

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