Building a Modern Union – Part IV: Building solidarity was hard work
The Civil Service Federation (CSF) did not operate as a union. Its name said it all – it was a federation of associations. A key role was helping small local association come together into larger ones in an attempt to present a united front to the government.
The Department of Transport radio operators formed the “Canadian Communication Union” in 1941. Through the decade, they appeared in newspaper reports dealing with the government over wages. In May 1945, the 1,000 members took a strike vote even though strikes were illegal. It seemed to have work because a few days later the union announced it had secured pay increases of $150 to $280 a year for the operators. It was groups like this that formed the backbone of the Civil Service Federation.
In 1945 the CSF organized the first meeting of the Dominion Canal Employees Association in Peterborough, Ontario. Those in attendance were associations from Chambly, the Quebec Canals Office, Rideau Canal, the Trent and Welland Ship Canal, and Cornwall Canal. They joined forces to create a new organization from the many smaller ones. In the coming years staff at the Sault, Cardinal, Williamsburg, and Lachine canals would join.
The following year the CSF attempted to gather the scattered employee associations at the harbors creating the National Association of National Harbor Broad Employees. Montreal, Quebec, Prescott, and Port Colborne were the only members taking part leaving other locations with local employee association, if any existed at all. Building solidarity was hard work.
In 1949 the Meteorological Civil Service Association, representing employees in Meteorological Division of the Air Services Branch of Department of Transport adopted a new name, The Air Services Association opening its membership up to all employees of the Air Services Branch, including those working outside Ottawa. It became the champion for establishing a Federal Appeals Board. Like many of the employee associations who were lacking the power to bargain collectively, they operated institutions like a member’s credit union and a medical insurance plan.
At the 1952 convention of the CSF, members were calling for a shorter work week by removing the requirement to work Saturday morning. In addition, they wanted bargaining rights and unity of all the associations. 1952 also marked the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Civil Service Association of Ottawa, but unity was about to take a hit.
All was not well within the Federation because of jurisdictional disputes between the CSAO and other departmental associations. CSAO organized all employees in the capital region, as it had since its founding in 1907. Their activity upset many departmental organizations who resented them doing that. As the issue could not be resolved, the CSAO said it was thinking of withdrawing from the CSF. Then before the could act, in March 1954 they were expelled. The organization that in 1909 had brought together associations from across the country to form the Federation was now no longer a member. It, and its 10,00 members, were now independent from the CSF.
Yet rank-and-file members, time and time again passed unity resolutions. As early as 1945 CSF region councils wanted amalgamation but the leadership of the 70 or so associations were not supportive. The year before the expulsion of the CSAO, CSF delegates had voted 100% for one unified union in the government. The same thing was recommended five months later at the ACSC convention. But talking and motions did not result in action and things went on as always.
While most workers in the federal service wanted a unified union and laws that included the right to collectively bargain, the government was much less willing. In 1953 Prime Minister St. Laurent rejected collective bargaining in the public service out of hand. Workers were frustrated because they were trying to achieve a 5 day, 37 ½ hour, work week. They even had dreams of over-time pay for work over 40 hours.
The associations continued to struggle if only individually, pushing forward on issues in the workplace where they could. Issues like women’s rights was one area. Because of pressure on the government from the CSF, MPs, and the associations, in 1955 it announced it would examine the concept of hiring married women and letting those that married keep their jobs. There had been a ban by law in place except for the war years of course.
The grass roots members at every opportunity pushed the CSF towards unity with the CSAC. In 1958 the Toronto District Council tested its memberships views and conducted a referendum, much to the displeasure of the CSF national executive. When the votes were counted 1,239 wanted unity with only 79 opposed. The clock was ticking.