This playwright is trying to unionize Foodora — while writing about one of Canada's biggest strikes
100 years after the Winnipeg General Strike, Thomas McKechnie is exploring its parallels to today's struggles
Thomas McKechnie and I lived together for about a year. Several days a week, McKechnie would stumble home after a nine-hour shift as a Foodora bicycle courier, crash onto our couch and sprawl across the cushions. After an hour of pure exhaustion McKechnie — like clockwork — would open up his laptop and begin typing away at some script. He'd continue working on his writing late into the night. At around 2 in the morning he'd roll a cigarette, smoke on our porch then head off to bed. I rarely saw my roomate in the mornings. By the time I'd wake up he'd already be out the door on his bike, off to make a living delivering more food.
It isn't rare for artists to provide for themselves through other means than their art, but McKechnie's gig seemed particularly hard. His job with Foodora didn't come with set hours or benefits. There was no insurance in case of injury or allotted days off. While the gig afforded McKechnie the flexibility to pursue his creative passions, the position took a toll both physically and mentally. Day after day he'd continually hustle to afford living in Toronto, constantly aware of how little security there was with his work.
Meanwhile, as McKechnie was struggling with his day job, his artistic career was steadily rising. The playwright earned critical praise for his solo show 4 1/2 (ig)noble truths, trained at the prestigious Soulpepper Academy and had his work produced at venues across Canada. But even with the external success, McKechnie's focus was split between his writing and the precarious nature of his non-artistic work. If he couldn't bike, he didn't have a way to provide for himself. No matter how many accolades he achieved in drama, he didn't see a way out of that situation.
This year, McKechnie has taken great leaps forward, striving for new experiences with both his day job and his art. He was one of the people behind the effort to unionize Foodora, fighting for better conditions for the independent contractors. And themes of labour and unionization also also central to his latest play Remembering the Winnipeg General, a theatrical musing on the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. For McKechnie, pushing forward with a union and exploring the ideas in his art were both important steps to validating his struggles and the struggles of his peers.
The parallels between my situation and the situation in my play Remembering the Winnipeg General are actually heartbreakingly consistent with the realities of why I'm calling for a union.- Thomas McKechnie, playwright and bike courier
"My immediate goal for the union is to improve the lives of the workers at Foodora," he tells CBC Arts. "We have a dangerous job and we have no protections when — not if — something goes wrong. We are given no time and no resources to recover from these inevitable injuries and are facing financial hardship, permanent injury or worse. All this for pay that hasn't risen in the nearly four years I've been with the company."
"I think art is essential for communicating larger political ideas. Any political conviction that doesn't have artists working to support it will struggle to communicate. The parallels between my situation and the situation in my play Remembering the Winnipeg General are actually heartbreakingly consistent with the realities of why I'm calling for a union."
100 years ago during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, over half of the city's workers walked off the job. What began as a dispute between construction workers and their bosses bloomed into a full-scale insurrection with people demanding better working conditions and the right to bargain collectively. The strike was eventually broken up by the Canadian government through a series of arrests, amongst fear of communism rising. McKechnie's show blends history, humour and music to bring the strike to life, with a particular emphasis on the roles immigrants and women played in the situation. For the playwright, his art is a chance to communicate the political reality of his day-to-day life in a digestible form.
"We're asking the audience to realize that the formations of power seen in the general strike could be built in the very room they're watching the play in: that solidarity and support is the secret to people's power," says McKechnie. "I want work that evolves and changes — something that makes me grow as I do it and things that matter or have urgency to them. I like this in everything I do. That's what being a bike courier is like, it's what being a union organizer is like and it's what being a creator is like."
The convergence of his interests in labour and theatre has made McKechnie truly passionate about this project. He hopes audiences leave the show with a renewed sense of ownership over their labour and a need to assert their rights. The goals are similar to what he's attempting with the union. Ultimately, with both efforts, McKechnie is hoping to communicate ideas that improve working conditions for everyone — even if the means of getting there are quite different.
Remembering the Winnipeg General. June 26th-July 6th. The Owl's Club, 847 Dovercourt Rd, Toronto.