Building a Modern Union – Part III: Militancy was growing day by day

At the end of the Great War workers were frustrated and angry with the government and businesses.  There was little concern for their contribution to the war effort or the welfare of their families. Militancy was growing day by day and while the Winnipeg General strike is the best-known strike of the age, it seemed like the nation was on strike. The Civil Service Federation (CSF) even invited Tom Moore, the President of the Dominion Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, to speak at its 1920 convention.

Despite that, some felt that the CSF was not militant enough. A few federal workers started organizing a new union, the Federal Union 66: Associated Federal Employees of Ottawa, that was chartered by the Dominion Trades and Labour Congress.  The leadership of the CSF quickly declared it an “outlaw” organization. The more conservative elements started promoting “anti-organized labour” propaganda and “red baiting” the new union. They wrote that those leading the effort had “given up shaving and taken to wearing red neckties,” a reference to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The CSF and its component the Civil Service Association of Ottawa (CSAO) were facing pressure from the new union and from their own membership to join the main body of unions in Canada. On Oct 29, 1920, the CSAO gave in to pressure and organized a government-wide vote in Ottawa on the question of affiliation.  While its membership stood at less than 1,000, everyone in the service including managers were invited to take part in the vote. 6,042 ballots were cast and to the great surprise of the leadership, the result was 3,208 to 2,376 in favour of joining the Trades and Labour Congress. Since only a sixth of those voting paid membership dues to the CSAO, no action was taken on the vote. However, this vote indicated a militancy in the rank and file of the service that was not reflected in the leadership. It was clear that federal workers wanted their associations to start acting like other unions in the country.

The Winnipeg strike cost many federal workers their jobs. The Federal Union 66 called for workers to be returned to their position and at their previous levels. They called on the Congress, who had not supported the strike, to now back these workers. The CSAO in turn called on the government to fire all Federal Union 66 members.

The Amalgamated Postal Workers of Canada, a largely western organization, held its 1921 convention in Vancouver. In addition to its 25 delegates, other staff associations sent “fraternal” delegates. Militancy filled the room. Many felt the need for an organization that would be an all-employees association. The motion was adopted and the fraternal delegates from the 6 other organizations became founding members of the Amalgamated Civil Servants of Canada (ACSC). There was now a third union committed to organizing all federal employees into one united body. With three associations vying for membership, Federal Union 66 slowly faded away.

By 1923 there were more women than men employed in the federal service, but the vast majority were barred from almost all senior positions. While this was an issue, it got little attention from the associations.  However, they were aware of the concept of equal pay because in May 1923 at the convention of the ACSC there were resolutions on the matter. Only these resolutions dealt with the single men of Civil Service being dissatisfied and not women. At the time single men were being paid less than married men and they wanted equal pay for work of equal value. Newspaper headlines read, “Principle of Equal Pay for Equal Work is Ignored by Federal Government.” It would take until the 1980s to include women in “pay equity.”

In 1928 the Amalgamated Civil Servants of Canada was the first federal union to open a national office in Ottawa with a full-time paid officer, Fred Knowles, National Secretary.  The following year when a delegation of Maritime Lightkeepers from both east and west costs came to Ottawa looking for pay raises it was to the ACSC that they turned to for help. This effort was another indication that the rank and file were committed to expressing their frustrations even if it meant travelling great distances to Ottawa.

Ten years after the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike the City of Winnipeg and the Manitoba government were re-employing strikers to their former positions but the federal government would not. The ACSC took up the cause of these workers. It persuaded members of the House and Senate to introduce a bill to re-establish federal employees who took part in the General Strike. They were to be restored to their previous salary levels and a fund of $100,000 was established to pay for this. For some workers it meant a back pay of $1,500.

While the ACSC was taking leadership for federal workers in Winnipeg, the Civil Service Association of Ottawa was officially opposed to the introduction of a 5-day work week, saying “it is not considered to be in the best interest of the public service to have this innovation adopted.” The associations competed for membership and while there was a difference in militancy between them, it often came down to which was offering a better group insurance policy rather than their views on the grander issues. Often employees signed card with two organizations but paid dues to neither.

As the depression took hold of the nation the government reacted, as all governments have done through history, by an attack on public employees. In 1932 Prime Minister Bennet’s government reduced wages by an act of Parliament from 5 to 10%.  It took financial decisions away from the Civil Service Commission giving them to Treasury Board where they have stayed ever since. It would take until 1937 for workers’ pay to be restored.

The 1934 convention of the CSF called for a car allowance for a private vehicle used for work, night differential rates of pay, that those in ‘prevailing work jobs’ be allowed to apply for classified civil service positions, and just to confirm their conservative views they felt that civil servants should not be given political rights.

As PSAC members have looked back at their history they often have seen area councils as only belonging to the Civil Service Association of Canada but by 1938 the CSF had established district councils to allow members association across departments to cooperate. Those “closer relations” were discouraged if it included fraternizing with the ACSC councils. Victoria became the first city to adopt a council and over the coming years most urban cities had a council. Many were social clubs in nature, but they did provide for the sharing of cross departmental experiences.

The depression was followed by the Second World War. In 1940 the federal government reacted by cancelling holidays for its employees. The first to go were Easter Monday and Remembrance Day.  By 1942 the workers found the government extended their work week by 5 hours without an increase in pay. They would work like that until late in 1945.  Wages were frozen at 1939 levels. There were complaints that many employees had been working 10 or more years without ever being offered permanency. That problem that would continue for many decades to come.


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