Canadians are justifiably proud of medicare. Though it’s a bit moth-eaten, and many essential services—like drugs, dentistry. optometry and physiotherapy to name four– are not covered*, medicare has meant the vast majority of Canadians are not made into paupers because of illness, or injury.
Another thing Canadians should take pride in is our trade union movement and its exciting, and often daring history. Unions formed when tradespeople such as bakers, shoemakers, and tailors formed guilds and associations to defend their skills and their wages.
1889 report reveals horrors of child labour
By the latter part of the 19th century, Canada was in the grip of the industrial revolution – almost 100 years after it began in Britain, and decades after it began in the US. In Canada, 1889 marked the astonishing report by the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital, which excoriated the capitalist class for horrendous and unsafe working conditions in factories and mills, and the regular use of child labour—which resulted in terrible injuries and deaths of children.
Strikes were illegal before 1872
Though unions were technically legal, going on strike was illegal and many workers were jailed or worse for striking. The dreadful conditions in manufacturing continued as soldiers returning from the bloodbath of WWI faced a recession and poverty. Jobs were scarce, and of course there were no social benefits, no welfare, no old-age pensions and record levels of unemployment.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired many workers to consider what they could do to change Canadian society. In 1919 workers across Canada had had enough. The infamous Winnipeg General Strike saw more than 35,000 men and women walk off the job and Winnipeg – at the time one of the main industrial hubs in the county. The city’s transit, factories, shops and services were shut down. Milk and bread delivery were allowed only by permit of the strike committee. Helen Armstrong, “Ma”, set up the Labour Café – where striking women could eat three meals a day for free and men paid a few cents per meal to subsidize women’s meals and their own.
Even the city police went on strike. Opposing the strike were the city “fathers” and their “Committee of 1000.” Business owners and professionals backed the government which called in the Northwest Mounted Police (forerunner of the RCMP), to violently break up the pickets and the demonstrations. But the strike held for 45 days that summer. Across Canada workers in a dozen cities and towns struck in sympathy; the demand for unionization grew.
Unions gained more traction during and after WWII when once again, men came back from the war in need of jobs and decent housing. They were no longer willing to live in slums, having to pay for high school education for their children, and with little hope for their families’ future. A wave of strikes ensued. The threat posed by the Soviet Union also made the situation critical. The creation of a welfare state in the UK showed Canadians what a government attuned to people’s needs could do. Suddenly the British people divided by social class and extreme poverty won decent housing, free public education – including university—free medical and dental care, unemployment benefits and pensions.
The rise of consumerism and steady population increases, plus immigrants, expanded the need for manufacturing – unions were part of the capitalist “bargain” – a check to ensure at least some of the windfall profits got shared with the workers who made them.
Today, 31.8% of working Canadians are represented by unions—twice the union density of the US. In our public sector – which includes teachers, hospital workers, nurses and civil servants — 74.8%s are members of union. However, in the private sector, only 13.8% of workers are in unions. The precipitous rise of the low-wage service sector is something no one imagined 70 years ago. The fastest growing sector of the workforce are care workers, cleaners, hotel, taxi drivers, restaurant and bar staff. For the most part, they are low paid and have few to no benefits. Across this province, 106,000 or 25.8% of working Nova Scotians earn $15 or less an hour. Even bus drivers in Halifax earn a low wage — they start at $21.45 and many earn $22.88 an hour for a job with lots of responsibility, dangers on the road and often difficult late night contact with the public.
In Nova Scotia, our economy is based on tourism—and we are feeling the crunch. Though unemployment is at an all-time low here (5.9%), many jobs pay just over provincial minimum wage of $13.35 an hour. This province has long been a low wage job ghetto and unions should be key forces in raising wages and benefits – not to speak of improving workers’ rights. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives- Nova Scotia, has defined a living wage for Halifax as $22.05 an hour, $18.45 in Cape Breton. That’s 65% more than the current minimum wage.
Unions have to fight harder
This Labour Day, the role of unions is clear. I remember the big pink hearts painted on placards the transit drivers carried when they marched across the MacDonald Bridge while on strike in 2012. Unions have to re-capture the imagination and win the hearts of Nova Scotians. As 19th century American social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”
*except for emergencies, or post-surgery
Featured Image: Amazon workers’ protest (Shutterstock: Institute for Policy Studies)