2019: Overturned streetcar: art installation at the site of Bloody Saturday in Winnipeg by Noah Gonick (filmmaker and artist)– in celebration of Winnipeg General Strike 1919.
One hundred years ago, the Winnipeg General Strike began. First the 300 women telephone operators walked off the job, followed by 30,000 other workers in all kinds of occupations – bakers, clerks at Eaton’s, factory workers, tram drivers, postmen, journalists, teachers, tradesmen and railway workers – even the city police and firemen went on strike.
Photo: 21 June 1919
For 6 weeks in the heat of early prairie summer, workers ran the city. The Strike Committee decided when and how bread and milk were delivered, which shops were open and what services provided. They held Winnipeg in a tight grip. For the first time in “modern” Canada, there was a huge action by organized workers to fight against the political elite, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (forerunner of the RCMP), and the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand. The Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand represented the businessmen, bankers and politicians in Winnipeg and the province, who normally controlled the lives of workers. The Citizens’ Committee claimed it was the Bolsheviks who were behind the strike. Obligingly, The New York Times ran a headline at the start of the strike: “Bolshevism Invades Canada.”
The strike heralded a new workers’ solidarity, grounded in the expression “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Workers ran a major Canadian city for six weeks. Trade unions made a breakthrough in that their shared aims and resolve paved the way to many victories and to massive organizing over the next fifty years.
It’s against this backdrop I look at what happened last week to YZ, mechanic at Halifax Transit. The racism, harassment and physical threats that happened to YZ continue to happen to hundreds if not thousands of workers across our city and province. Unfortunately – unlike in the Winnipeg General Strike — we see few unions that take on the problem of member-on-member violence and harassment. In the specific case of YZ (whose identity has been protected because he fears for his safety) the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has said barely a word either last week or throughout the 8 plus years it has taken for the YZ case to wend its way through the NS Human Rights Commission.
YZ is white. He is married to an African Nova-Scotian. He started work as a mechanic at Halifax Transit in 1979. Due to racial taunts about his marriage to a black woman, he went on long-term disability from 2004-06. He briefly returned but has not been able to work since January 2007. That was 12 years ago. In 2006 he filed a complaint of discrimination with the NS Human Rights Commission. In fact YZ had also become a support person for one co-worker in particular – Randy Symonds who was African Nova Scotian.
It took the Commission eight years — until 2014 — to launch a Board of Inquiry. The Board convened hearings for three years until 2017. In March, 2018 the board chair, lawyer Lynn Connors, released her decision which concluded that YZ had been discriminated against, and that HRM (his employer) had tolerated a poisonous work environment.
It took another year for Connors to assess and award the damages to YZ. That was the nearly $600,000 awarded to YZ, which was in the news last week.
The background to the YZ case is worth understanding. The attacks against him included:
- degrading and hateful comments.
- garbage left on his work bench.
- being given different and more “dirty” work to do.
- denial of a day off work to get married, when others got time off. The supervisor had seen YZ’s black fiancée drop him off at work. The supervisor then treated YZ worse and differently than other workers.
- a BBQ at the union’s social club, Club 508, where YZ and his wife heard a co-worker say “We don’t want those kind of people here, they weren’t invited.”
- a co-worker testifying that she heard someone say, “Blacks were not welcome” at the party.
- One particularly racist co-worker, Arthur Maddox, acting rude to YZ’s wife when she phoned to speak to YZ.
YZ’s wife wrote a letter of complaint about her phone call with Maddox to Transit management. The supervisor claimed he checked and it had all been taken care of.
By 2000, the taunting and harassment of YZ spread to two newly hired workers– African Nova Scotian Randy Symonds, who worked in the storeroom and mechanic David Buckle.
- Symonds was told that coal mining “was nigger work and for whops”
- Maddox said “racism should be a law and that you can shoot someone and get away with it”
- Maddox told Symonds was to “suck me boy”
- Maddox called Symonds racial slurs six to seven times a week
- Symonds was called a “New York ghetto dweller”
- Symonds was physically threatened many times by co-workers. Maddox jumped over the stores counter and physically threatened him.
- Co-workers made fun of Buckle’s hair and “hair-do”
- One mechanic hollered for all to hear that he refused to train “No Good-For-Nothing Indian.”Another said, “I won’t be training any fucking Indians.”
- Co-workers used the term “Got Buckled” if a job was not done well, was a dirty job, or something did not work right.
There was a reign of terror at Transit – and no one in authority intervened.
In May 2001, Transit fired Arthur Maddox (the especially racist worker). The union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), filed a grievance to get Maddox his job back. Not willing to subject himself to more antagonism and possible violence, Symonds declined to testify at an arbitration hearing. The employer was left without a strong case and agreed to a mediated settlement with the union. Maddox was reinstated with six moths of back pay a year after his dismissal. In the meantime, another worker had written graffiti on the washroom wall: “All minorities not welcome, show you care, burn a cross [signed]– a member of Baby Hitler.”
Maddox returned to work, seemingly vindicated. Six months later, he tried to run down YZ with a bus in the transit garage. YZ testified that he believed Maddox “blamed me and my wife” for his firing and that this was “revenge.” YZ reported this and the other incidents to management, and the supervisor said he could not recollect the incident with the bus in the garage, and did not investigate or take any action.
In 2003 Randy Symonds filed a complaint with the NS Human Rights Commission, demanding a public enquiry and $100,000. No other worker, not even YZ, would sign onto his complaint. Due to financial pressures, in 2006 Symonds accepted a settlement which a “gag order” kept secret. Not able to return to the poisoned work environment, he spent his last 7 months on Workers Compensation due to stress. Readers should know that in NS, Workers Compensation pays only 75% of earnings for the first 6 months someone is off the job. Symonds’ bullies and assailants – including Maddox – earned their full pay, benefits and pension contributions—while Symonds was, in effect, punished financially.
In January 2007, Symonds died tragically in a highway traffic accident.
Since the accident, according to an interview with Symonds’ wife and daughter, not one not one person from city management, nor any councillor contacted the family.
The union, the ATU, remains mute. In cases where the union bears some responsibility, the Human Rights Commission can name it as a co-party with management to the complaint, but the Commission seldom does so and did not in this case.
And, other than a recent online comment praising the YZ monetary award the wider labour movement has asked no questions. How could this reign of terror go on for 14 plus years? How could a black man become unemployed and then die due to the stress of living with the anger and threats directed at him by racist co-workers? How could a white man and his black wife receive such soul-destroying treatment for the mere crime of loving each other?
But when will anyone step up to explain what happened and how it won’t happen again?
Back to 1919, when 300,000 workers supported each other and their unions supported one another in the Winnipeg General Strike. At the time, workers in unions across the country also struck in sympathy. Today, workers who face contempt, ridicule and discrimination are on their own.
Equity Watch demands an independent forensic human resources audit of Halifax Regional Municipality. What we have here is a catastrophic system failure of supervision and of human resource management. Residents of HRM need to know not only what happened, but why it happened. So far, Jacques Dubé CAO of Halifax Regional Municipality, merely says “we have to do better” and HRM is “unwavering in our commitment to continually do better.” Equity Watch says this is not good enough – where is the investigation, what are the steps HRM is taking to ensure nothing like this ever happens again? The public needs to know.