Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Labour Action in May 1918

Civic Workers versus City of Winnipeg, May 1918 
While many people know of the Winnipeg Sympathetic General Strike of 1919, only a few are aware of how Winnipeg civic workers a year before set in motion the political dynamics for 1919.
     Pressure to change the relationship between workers and employers, between the unions and industry, started building around the turn of the 20th century. While there were certain definable trends that were predicable – for example, demands for wage increases met efforts to limit wage increases – the situation was very unstable and chaotic, evolving. 
       Leading to the Winnipeg strike were significant years when both parties were testing each other on what was possible in asserting some control over their opposing interests. Though much of the tension of the time was confined to specific workplaces, they were starting to coalesce in both the traditional trades and in the more progressive industrial unions, into union councils and federations representing a collective of unions.
 In 1906 a series of strikes in Winnipeg brought out the military, private security and legal injunctions to stop union picketing of employer’s facilities. The situation was dramatic. With the commercial growth and large immigration that created a booming economy there was more space for demanding increases in wages and some reduction in work time. Workers were more plentiful and there was work for both skilled and unskilled labour as industry was being resourced and encouraged to produce more. The Street Railway Union (Local 99) was bargaining with the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company (that owned and ran the street cars) and went on strike. The company hired a detective agency to protect drivers they brought in from Toronto to keep the streetcars moving and to break the strike. Violence would often break out on the picket line as union members tried to stop the trolleys and the hired security would respond aggressively. The Mayor threatened to bring in the military but because the public was generally sympathetic to the workers and the union, he held back and instead agreed to allow mediation that did find a position both parties ratified. The workers got a wage increase but employers did not have to accept the union as a representative of the workers.
Later that summer, workers for the big three metal companies went on strike for wage increases and union recognition. To bring in strike breakers the employers sought and were given a court injunction to stop union picketing which minimized the union’s ability to pressure the employer. Within a month workers went back to work with a small wage increase but again without union recognition. The result of these strikes was that workers saw more clearly how the government and the courts were positioned to support employers, to the union’s disadvantage.
      During the First World War, the growing need to support injured soldiers and their families left behind also influenced the development of government involvement in social welfare. Schemes to provide rehabilitation services, income support and pensions started so that in Manitoba the first mothers' allowances legislation was passed in 1916. Several provinces followed with mothers' allowance legislation of their own, which were initially restricted to minimal support for ‘deserted’ and widowed women.
In the final decades of the 19th century there were examples of strikes that made small gains for the unionized members. For example, the International Typographical Union started in 1894 went on strike in 1896 and was able to secure an eight hour work day. Boiler Makers, Brakemen, Bricklayers, Stonecutters and Plasterers Unions in 1884 struck and were able to increase wages from $3.50 a day to $4. Railway unions in 1883 and 1892 were able to get jobs back for union members fired by their employer. Incrementally the unions were demonstrating the value of collective bargaining for members, and while employers were making concessions there was still overall resistance to accepting union representation.
The Dominion Government Department of Labour issued a report in 1918 on Strikes and Lockouts in Canada 1901-1916. In that period, there were almost 1,600 strikes (about 100 a year though peaking in 1911) involving 9,430 employers and almost 400,000 employees, at a loss of over ten million working days. “The majority of the disputes in the period 1911-1915 were due to questions of wages and hours, about 70 per cent of the disputes and 63 percent of the time loss being due to this cause,” was reported in the document (page 7 and 10).
In 1916 the Manitoba government set up the Fair Wage Board to help define minimum wages for government and private sector employees. It would issue wage schedules but had very little power to enforce the schedules, so that there was still a fair amount of discretion employers could apply. The Norris government also introduced the Industrial Disputes Commission that gave labour and employers a forum for dealing with some workplace issues, but it still allowed court injunctions to stop union picketing which the unions vociferously wanted removed. Federally the Borden government issued Orders-in-Council in 1918 which acknowledged workers could form unions which could negotiate hours of work and wage standards.
By 1918 there was a cadre of workers and union leaders who had experience dealing with intransigent employers and extracting small wage gains but who had failed to secure collective bargaining recognition. They were testing their union muscle in an environment where issues of rights, wages and democratic input were being discussed in public. In May, contract negotiations with Winnipeg City officials stalled for electricians, water works staff, sanitation workers and stablemen, over a wage increases. City officials had recommended increases of 12% that the unions basically agreed with. When the City responded with a straight $2 a week increase, the unions refused and threatened to strike.  Immediately there was talk in other unions about a general strike in support, particularly from the Steam and Operating Engineers, Telephone Operators and the Typographical workers. 
City Council passed the Fowler Amendment (presented by Alderman Frank Fowler) which stated, ”All persons employed by the city should express their willingness to execute an agreement undertaking that they will not either collectively or individually at any time will go on strike.” (May 15th) The employer’s actions infuriated the unions, turning a wage oriented confrontation into a battle over the right to strike. Of particular concern for the City, was the firefighters right to strike. The result, both sides dug in their heels and for three weeks, 40 unions and about 15,000 workers were on a general strike.
The spectre of a long general strike brought in the Dominion Government which was still embroiled in the war and therefore very sensitive to the effect of a work stoppage, particularly if the railway workers were involved. Senator Robertson, on behalf of the Minister of Labour intervened (May 24th) in Winnipeg to find a settlement that gave the City unions recognition and the right to strike, withdrew the Fowler amendment and modified the wage schedules which the unions wanted. He went on to help settle a Vancouver shipyard strike in June and a postal strike in July using a similar approach of finding compromise. Within a few months, there were three other unionized sectors that were in bargaining and on the brink of striking. The metal workers were bargaining with the big three steel companies, and as usual the employers were not willing to increase wages or decrease hours of work and were especially resistant to recognizing collective bargaining. A strike of letter carriers brought out support from across Canada at the same time.
All of the 1918 strikes made some small wage gains but only the civic workers were able to get Winnipeg Council to accept their unions as official representative of the workers in contract negotiations. However, the tactic of a general strike demonstrated a union solidarity that encouraged the workers and threatened employers and the government. Both parties to this confrontation saw a mounting ability of the unions to backup their contract demands with significant economic action and consequences.
The labour agitation in early 1918 set the stage for a number of union and government actions that would lead to the 1919 sympathetic strike, and lay the foundation for labour-management relations for decades to come. The Dominion government for example, by Order-in-Council passed in July, 1918, made a policy declaration that "All employees have a right to organize in Trade Unions, and this right shall not be denied or interfered with in any manner whatsoever, and through their chosen representatives they should be permitted and encouraged to negotiate with employers concerning working conditions, rates of pay, and other grievances."
Coming out of 1918 and what the civic workers in Winnipeg achieved, unions felt empowered. Government felt threatened.

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