2023 may well go down in history as an international year of militant strikes.
In Canada it will have been largely triggered by our public servants.
Federal government workers in Ottawa picketed at Parliament Hill for the right to work at home. Using the heavily subsidized erratic City of Ottawa public transit system, they marched on their government offices for the right to avoid going to their government offices. At the same time, they were receiving $200 per day non-taxable payouts from their union, while it is also reported that their pay cheques are continuing to be deposited into their bank accounts.
To be fair — given the dilapidated state of the six year-old Phoenix federal government pay system, it is also likely that some deposits are for work done more than 12 months ago. What a pity that MP’s aren’t on the same system.
The right to strike has a recorded history dating back to Egypt in the 12th century BCE. While most strikes take place in the private sector, individual politicians and government involvement with organized worker groups, especially in Europe, date back to the Middle Ages and the formation of guilds. Indeed, in western societies, the labour movement has developed along two main wings — the trade union movement and political labour movement.
In Canada, trade union formations preceded the latter although they are closely intertwined. Today’s New Democratic Party (NDP) was formed in Hamilton Ontario in 1961 as a merger between the eastern Canada dominated trade union Canadian labour Congress (CLC) and the predominantly western agrarian Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) political party.This merger allows the labour movement to concentrate on wages and benefits, workplace safety, and protection from discrimination and harassment. The NDP meanwhile focuses on promoting broad universal health and welfare services, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental stewardship, and promoting a predominantly labour union controlled workplace.
But government politics were intimately involved well before that. In 1872, the first strike in Canada took place in Hamilton and Toronto when printers struck for a nine hour work day (from 10 hours). Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald (a Conservative yet!) intervened for the workers and brought down legislation in their favour. The employers were led by George Brown, the founder of the federal Liberal Party and owner/ publisher of the Toronto Globe Newspaper. That union victory was formally commemorated by creating Canada’s Labour Day holiday.
The most violent and perhaps most politically influential incident was the six week Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 with 30,000 supporters and which spread nation wide to more than 30 cities. Arising from the fall-out of World War I with unemployed returning soldiers, economic depression and an influenza pandemic, it climaxed with Bloody Saturday as the RCMP used firearms to put down the Winnipeg protest. The political result was the formation of a labour-oriented federal political party — the CCF.
And so it starts again — with a post-pandemic economic uncertainty, national political disarray and workplace revolution. No wonder the Public Service Alliance of Canada decided to go on strike a long time ago — with professionally printed picket signs in full flower the first day of the strike.