Building a Modern Union – Part II: Searching for unity
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 II: Searching for unity
The Civil Service Association (CSA) almost immediately started to talk about the need to unite the “inside” and “outside” service if federal workers were to have a strong and united voice. Inside workers were those who worked in Ottawa or at headquarters while outside workers were those who worked in regional or local office.
The CSA set up a unity committee that drafted bylaws and started planning a meeting of the various Dominion civil service associations across the country. On April 29th and 30, 1909, 34 delegates from a wide assortment of employee organization such as the Post Office, Customs, and various regional associations, the largest group being the Civil Service Association of Ottawa (CSAO), met on Parliament Hill. Again J. Lambert Payne moved the motion to call the new umbrella organization the Civil Service Federation of Canada (CSF)
From the outset the CSF was a very loose coalition of groups as none of the associations wanted to give up their autonomy. With transportation and finances being an issue within such a large country, the main work fell to those in Ottawa. Then, as now, there was much criticism and suspicion about the work ethic of federal works, often from the ranks of conservative MPs on the opposition benches. But then with criticism the government always provided poor financial compensation to their workers.
An odd arrangement with some of the local associations was they were led by sitting Members of Parliament. The MPs had fostered and used them for their own election purposes and since those associations felt they had a voice in Parliament there was reluctance to cede authority to a national committee. There were tensions, rivalries, and jurisdictional disagreements. At the 1911 convention the Civil Service Association of Canada, which was based in Winnipeg, refused to associate with the Civil Service Association of BC which were mainly based in Vancouver. BC delegates attended the convention, so Winnipeg did not.
The Civil Service Association of Ottawa (CSAO) established a women’s branch at a meeting attended by some 200 women in 1918. The CSAO created 2 seats on the executive to be held by women. They quickly became active organizers in the association. It was women that held the first strike by the “inside” federal government employees in 1918. The work demands of the First World War meant moving staff between departments and jobs. When 10 women who had not received the promised wage raise from $50 to $60 a month felt they were ignored, they held a sit-down strike at their desks refusing to work. Management quickly acted and they happily started typing once again with newfound respect and the 20 per cent wage increase they had been promised.
The Civilian newspaper ran an editorial in 1918:
Civil servants are wage earners – daily toilers for bread – just as are carpenters and engine-drivers and cigarmakers. They have their union just as the bricklayers and machinist have theirs. The only difference is that Civil Service unions are the poorest of the lot. They are not strong enough to enforce closed shop rules, and only recently have discovered that some are strong enough to run a successful strike.
The promised war-time bonus of $350 had become only that, a promise. The rank and file of the CSAO were growing restless and wanted action to be taken. The executive was more tamed and uncertain about taking a public stand with the war still underway. Then on Saturday night November 2, 1918, some 5,000 federal workers gathered in front of the newly built Parliament buildings ready to show the government their displeasure. Not since 1872 had so many workers protested in Ottawa. Much like today, the membership was encouraged to lobby their MPs and send telegrams. With rumour spreading that the government was thinking of cutting the bonus, speakers told the crowd that if the civil service did not react with anger and make its demands emphatically known, the government would certainly cut back the promised war bonus.
Peace finally came to the Western Front on Nov 11, 1918. Workers now expected that after the loss of so many loved ones, and the years of sacrifice, that they would be rewarded. But it was not to be. The bonuses where finally paid in 1919 but as feared the government reneged and the average paid was $175 – far below the promised $350. It was limited to the “inside” service, not paid to anyone making over $1,800 a year, and it excluded labourers. It was actions like this by employers after the Great War that lead to many strikes including the Winnipeg General strike in May 1919.
Workers were frustrated and angry with the government’s lack of concern for their welfare. Militancy was growing day by day. 1918 saw a nation-wide strike by letter carriers and the formation of a new militant union. The government had created the Public Service Commission with a mandate to regulate all those in the public service. In Vancouver and New Westminster there were discussions that with one employer there should be one union. They formed the Amalgamated Civil Servants of Canada that included Lightkeepers and Radio Operators. The organization would grow to have branches across the country. Noted for its militancy, it fit the feeling of the age but was also the start of a struggle as to what type of union would result from the new government structure.