Building a Modern Union – Part I: Building a union for federal workers

An organization like the Union of Canadian Transportation Union (UCTE) or the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) does not spring out of the air fully formed. These are organizations that were built on years of hard work and effort. It is too easy to forget those that built our movement. The names of the people and the organizations that help make us who we are today.  Our history is a long one, greater than the past half century.

Part I:  Building a union for federal workers

Federal workers had started to organize themselves at the turn of the last century. They were not called the unions yet but the intent was there.  The late 1800s had seen a boom in workers unionizing and the development of laws to legalize unions. There was interest in the federal government but what was missing were laws that would protect workers who organized.  This, however, did not prevent them from forming organizations to improve their working condition. The post office letter carriers had formed an association in 1891 and many workplaces had mutual benefits societies.

The creation of the Department of Labour in 1900 brought into the federal service for the first-time employees who were experienced with unions.  The Labour Gazette, published by the department, made national union news readily available to workers, including federal employees, for the first time. Between the newspaper and the new people recruited, federal workers were being provided with valuable resources. A new culture was developing for workers who understood the need to organize. Because a quarter of federal government employees were concentrated in Ottawa and housed in relatively few buildings, it was easy to communicate across department lines. They also used social activities like the Civil Service Amateur Athletic Association to get to know each other. Here they could share their grievances in the locker rooms in the basement of Parliament Hill.

Frustration grew quickly with the wider changes that were happening in society. Promises were made about improvements in wages by the government that never materialized. There was an organization known as the Civil Services Committee, which was made up of senior members of the service, would speak to the government on behalf of the civil servants. The government had no requirement to act on what it heard from them and mostly did not.  It was a committee that was neither representative nor effective. This all added to the workers pent up frustrations. Younger employees who were unsatisfied with the pace of things wanted change in their workplace.

In April of 1907, a letter was circulated to all departments asking them to elect representatives to attend a meeting with the intention of forming a new union to represent their interests. It was said that the whole civil service was abuzz with talk. On April 29th staff from most departments met and elected their delegates from each of the classifications. Then on May 13th they gathered in an overcrowded Railway Committee Room in the House of Commons.  The drafter of the letter, and the person to open the meeting, was J. Lambert Payne, an employee of the Rail and Canals, the forerunner of what would evolve in time to become the Department of Transport.

Payne had been active in the athletic association and was a key organizer for a union. He was elected the secretary of the meeting and was the first to speak. He set out the goals of the organization they were forming. At the end of his speech, he moved the following motion:

“That this convention, composed of delegates representing practically all of the departments and all classes in the Civil Service at Ottawa, desires to record its appreciation of the services rendered by the Committee appointed some years ago to deal with certain matters affecting the interests of civil servants at Ottawa. And view of the conditions at present existing, we hereby declare in favour of the immediate organization of civil servants under the title of The Civil Service Association.”

With the passing of the motion the delegates cheered the formation of their new union.

That night in the room were employees from the Marine Department, Railways and Canals, and Naval Services. Those departments would eventually be combined into the Department of Transport in 1936. With membership representation from all government departments in Ottawa it was the start of a pan-department union.

The Civil Service Association (CSA) was not slow to take action. The union quickly presented its view to a newly appointed Royal Commission set up to “look into all aspects of the civil service.” It began publishing The Civilian newspaper that was widely distributed in Ottawa. At one of its early meetings Alphonse Desjardins, the founder and President of La Caisse Populaire de Levis, the first credit union in Canada addressed 150 people. When that meeting ended those in attendance agreed to the founding of the Civil Service Cooperative Loan and Credit Association. The CSA also lobbied to end patronage in the public service supporting appointments on “merit and character alone.”

Employees in the federal service were called “inside” and “outside” rather than headquarters and regional or local staff. The weakness of the CSA was that it was only based in Ottawa representing only “inside” employees.  The need for unity was evident

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