100 years after the Winnipeg General Strike, Manitoba labour faces fights from outside and within

The Manitoba labour movement's challenges include slow growth, a hostile provincial government and the gig economy. Unions also have to contend with allegations of sexism, an inability to help newcomers and reluctance to adapt and change.

Slow growth, hostility and the gig economy challenge unions. So does sexism, stagnation and self-interest

Manitoba nurses rally in early May on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature. Relations between public-sector unions and the provincial government have cooled since the Progressive Conservatives assumed power, but organized labour faces other challenges, both external and internal. (Ian Froese/CBC)

When Stephanie Swain worked at a movie theatre, she was told to shred any and all staff lists — that's how worried her bosses were about the curtain rising on a union.

"They did not want unions getting in there and getting a hold of lists that people could use to talk to each other about forming a union," she said in an interview at a Vietnamese takeout shop in the West End. 

"I didn't really know what unions were, so I just kind of said, 'All right. I don't know why they're so concerned about this.' "

Swain, 38, is now a support worker at St. Amant and a director within the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, or MGEU, one of the largest public-sector unions in the province.

Swain didn't grow up in a union family that sang Solidarity Forever around the supper table. She wasn't radicalized by a mean-spirited boss or oppressive workplace conditions earlier in her life.

The 38-year-old Winnipegger became active in the labour movement in a very middle-of-the-road, Manitoban way.

"I was neither here nor there, but when I started at St. Amant and kind of learned, 'Oh, we're part of a union,' I was really curious what it actually was," she said.

"The more I learned about it, I was like, 'This is not a bad thing to me. This sounds actually like a good thing,' " she said. "It kind of really started from a place of curiosity. What is this thing people were so paranoid about?"

Stephanie Swain, a St. Amant support worker who sits on an MGEU committee, says organized labour has to modernize to better engage younger people, newcomers and women. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Manitoba labour activists say there's been an increase over the past decade in negative attitudes toward organized labour, if not outright hostility to unions. 

David Camfield, a labour studies and sociology professor at the University of Manitoba, describes this anti-labour sentiment as "negative solidarity" between union members and non-unionized workers.

"Instead of looking at what unionized workers have and aspiring to have those gains, they see those things and then feel resentment. So the idea is, 'If I don't have it, they shouldn't have it either,' " Camfield said in an interview in his U of M office, where one wall is adorned by a poster featuring labour slogans in different languages.

"That kind of wedge among workers is something which employers and governments can certainly use to try to feed anti-union sentiment."

The prevailing sentiment about unions is only one of the problems facing organized labour in Manitoba a century after the Winnipeg General Strike, a crushing short-term defeat that led to widespread, long-term gains for workers across Canada.

Today, the Manitoba labour movement faces a series of challenges, both external and internal.

On the outside, slow economic growth since the 2008 financial crisis has motivated public-sector and private employers to keep a lid on wage increases and limit other labour gains.

The emergence of the gig economy, exemplified by companies such as Skip the Dishes and a legion of young workers on short-term contracts, is threatening to roll back benefits won by unions for all workers decades ago, such as the 40-hour work week.

On the internal side, unions face criticism for doing a lousy job of reaching out to newcomers to Canada, embracing younger workers and creating an environment where more women can rise to the senior ranks of union leadership.

Organized labour also has been rapped for failing to keep up with technological and cultural change, focusing too much on the needs of union members and not doing enough for other Canadian workers.

"There's been a general weakening of unions, not just here, but across the board, and what constitutes that weakening of power is their ability to actually make a difference in the workplace and in society in general," said Camfield, who's also the author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers' Movement. 

"Unions have seen their power rolled back, incrementally nibbled away at. Looking back, 1919 was a dramatic defeat for labour in Winnipeg. There hasn't been an earth-shaking moment like that since.… It's been a much more slow, incremental weakening of power."

'They've shut us out'

If you judge the strength of unions on numbers alone, Manitoba's labour movement has lost very little ground over the past decade.

According to the Manitoba Bureau of Statistics, roughly 196,400 workers were covered by a collective agreement or union contract during the first three months of 2019. Those workers account for 35.3 per cent of Manitoba employees.

A decade ago, the union-coverage rate was only slightly higher, at 36.7 per cent, while the number of workers covered by a labour deal was lower, at 189,700.

(CBC News Graphics)

Union involvement, however, is concentrated in the public sector, where roughly seven out of 10 employees are union members.

That statistic alone explains the close connection between labour and politics, especially in Manitoba, where all three levels of government play a larger role in the economy than they do in Canadian provinces with more robust, market-driven economies.

During 17 years of New Democratic Party rule, first under Gary Doer and later under Greg Selinger, public-sector unions in this province had easy access to cabinet ministers, even if they didn't win many major new concessions.

Today, those same unions practically demonize Premier Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government, which passed a public sector wage-freeze bill in 2017 but has yet to proclaim it into law because of an ongoing legal challenge.

The provincial government also passed a bill to slash the number of health-care union bargaining units from 183 to seven, a move that has pitted the Canadian Union of Public Employees, or CUPE, against the MGEU as the two large unions jockey for members.

Kevin Rebeck, the president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said union leaders in this province are frustrated.

"This government doesn't talk to labour. They've shut us out," Rebeck said in an interview at the Ukrainian Labour Temple in the North End, the last remaining structure that served as an organizing base for the 1919 general strike.

"This premier in particular doesn't seem to listen to anyone and seems to march to his own tune."

So far, the premier's strategy appears to be working.

Even without a formalized wage freeze, public sector unions in Manitoba have settled for wage hikes below inflation in recent contracts. The MGEU-CUPE battle, meanwhile, may prevent both unions from lending their support to the NDP in the next provincial election, which Pallister announced this week will take place Sept. 10.

Rebeck nonetheless says Manitoba's tough-on-union government is energizing Manitoba's labour movement. 

"I think it's growing under this oppressive environment. I think the more government and business exercise greed and power and concentrating wealth at the top end, I think there's a reaction to that," he said, referring to Progressive Conservative government aims such as shaving one percentage point off the PST and cutting costs in order to reduce the provincial deficit.

"When did we decide that governments need to cater completely to business?"

Use or lose union muscle

During the Doer and Selinger years, Manitoba unions were accused of getting soft.

The NDP had been in power for only five years when the late activist Errol Black and left-leaning University of Winnipeg professor Jim Silver urged labour to be more militant in order to prepare for the next conservative government.

"In other eras, when faced with a hostile government, it was possible to call on workers to defend the gains that had been made in the past," Black and Silver wrote in a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives bulletin in 2004.

"Yet unless the labour movement changes strategy soon, such a call will carry little weight with the mass of workers in this province."

David Camfield, a labour studies and sociology professor at the University of Manitoba, describes a concept called "negative solidarity" as non-unionized workers, instead of trying to match the benefits won by unions, resenting those gains. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Camfield, the U of M professor, said those words were prophetic and Manitoba's labour movement did in fact grow complacent.

"Unions by and large were not prepared to deal with a more hostile provincial government," he said.

Manitoba Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Blaine Pedersen, the province's de facto labour minister, declined CBC News requests for an interview. Instead, Finance Minister Scott Fielding issued a statement, saying his government is making changes to the structure of its labour force in an effort to be more innovative and effective.

"We're making key investments that strengthen and foster innovation within Manitoba's public service, to meet the evolving needs of the people of our province," Fielding said in the statement, suggesting he could not comment further due to ongoing negotiations between the province and its unions.

'It just feels weird'

True believers within the labour movement chafe against the criticism that unions were caught flat-footed when the Tories took power.

"The labour movement is at its all-time strongest, in my opinion," said Andrew Wright, a 28-year-old provincial labour standards employee who serves as the co-chair of the Manitoba Federation of Labour's young members' committee.

"We have more ability today to reach out to workers that are unionized and to non-unionized workers."

Not all of his peers agree.

Swain, who jokes she has "aged out" of a young members' committee, said labour must do a better job engaging younger works, especially those who may not realize many of the benefits they enjoy were won by organized labour.

Swain said younger workers are less likely to see the need to hold union meetings in an actual hall instead of using technology to communicate. She's also heard complaints about the antiquated structure of these meetings.

"I hear from a lot of young people that they go there and it just feels so stuffy," she said, referring to procedures and motions that wouldn't have been out of place during the Great Depression.

There's also bewilderment among younger workers about the custom of union members referring to one another as "Brother" or "Sister," she said.

"That's the one thing I always hear from young people," she said, adding this language is not inclusive to union members who don't identify as male or female.

"If I'm talking to an older union member I will use the 'Brother, Sister,' but when it's someone younger, it just feels weird to do it."

Rebeck said young workers may not realize the history behind this language: A century ago, management spies at union meetings could not keep track of who said what if members simply used "Brother" and "Sister" in place of names.

This practice is of less use in an area when mobile phones can record both sound and images. 

Swain said when she brought young workers' concerns to union leaders, they shrugged off some of the input.

"Don't ask the question if you don't want to hear the answer," she said.

But she also said she sees more young people taking an active role in the MGEU.

"It's starting to change," she said.

"You need to make room for the young people to come in, but at the same time, you don't want to just kick the old people out, because they do have a lot of experience and knowledge to offer."

Too male and too white?

Another rap against unions is the absence of women at the leadership level, and the perception sexism is tolerated in certain shops.

This image has been perpetuated in recent months by a couple of high-profile incidents in Winnipeg.

In February, the operating officer of Canada's Building Trades Union remarked on the appearance of Liberal cabinet minister Patty Hajdu's buttocks and remarked he had the fortune of hugging beautiful women at an announcement about federal assistance for women interested in working in trades.

Then in March, Winnipeg Labour Council president Basia Sokol quit her post over what she described as bullying and degrading comments from her male colleagues.

Rebeck said unions are trying to be more inclusive. Swain said unionized workplaces are using training sessions to ensure women are free of harassment even in the most male-dominated shops.

"I think we really need to call that stuff when it's happening and not be OK with it," she said.

Unions have even more work to do when it comes to welcoming more newcomers to Canada into their ranks, Camfield said.

The issue is not overt racism, but structural inequality: recent immigrants tend to find work in jobs that aren't unionized, he said.

"In general, people of colour are unionized at a percentage that's lower than white people are unionized in Canada. But that's not because unions are keeping them out. It's because of where people get employment," he said.

"And the fact is, unions haven't succeeded in making breakthroughs in some parts of the private sector where [newcomers are] more likely to be employed. So there's definitely work to be done."

Camfield points to worker centres that offer services to newcomers in Toronto and Montreal as examples of effective help outside the traditional union structure

Thinking outside the union box

In the aftermath of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, workers across Canada — both unionized and non-unionized — reaped the benefits of organized labour. The 40-hour work week, a minimum wage and all manner of workplace health and safety benefits grew from the combined action of Canadian unions.

Union leaders often say many Canadians have forgotten the way organized labour won gains for all workers. But the same leaders face criticism for looking inward instead of continuing to fight for workers who are not unionized.

Emily Leedham is one of the organizers of Fight for 15, which is pushing to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. She says her own work at retail stores, making minimum wage, led to her interest in the labour movement. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"I think that's definitely something that the labour movement needs to reflect on," said Emily Leedham, one of the organizers of Fight for 15 — a push to raise the minimum wage — and the host of a labour-themed CKUW radio show called Rank & File Radio.

She plays no formal role within the organized labour moment.

"I would call myself a labour activist but I definitively exist outside the house of labour," said the 29-year-old former Calgarian, who got involved in labour after working at a series of minimum-wage retail jobs.

"That's why the Fight for 15 appealed to me. I was like, 'Is there anything I can do to change this?' "

Leedham also is pushing for labour to enter more businesses where people earn low wages and have precarious work Unions, however, have a poor track record of certifying small businesses, especially in the retail and restaurant industries.

"A lot of unions won't put up the resources to unionize a small workplace," Leedham said. "For a union drive, you want at least 50, 100 members in the workplace to kind of make it worth it, so to speak. So that's a challenge for sure."

Two Stella's restaurants, including the one adjacent the Winnipeg chain's bakery on Sherbrook Street, are rare example of restaurant-industry union certification. (Ron Boileau/Radio-Canada)

The high-profile certification of two restaurants in the Stella's restaurant chain, which was the subject of harassment allegations last year, is a rare example of successful labour organization at independently owned restaurants. 

Jonathan Alward, the Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said employees at smaller businesses are less likely to join unions because they're happier in a workplace environment that feels like a family.

"Small business owners are generally much more flexible. They're much more accommodating, if you have to go pick your kids up from school or something like that, and change your hours accordingly," he said.

"That's a lie," Leedham said. "They say, 'Oh, we're a mom and pop shop, we're a family.' All that does is reduce the formality between employer and employee. It blurs the lines."

Alward acknowledges smaller businesses are more likely to require help understanding and abiding by Manitoba's labour regulations.

Wright, the provincial labour standards worker, said it's common for small business owners to mistakenly assume rules in place in other provinces, or even in the U.S., apply in Manitoba.

Economics also plays a role. Labour studies Prof. Camfield said workers at some of the worst non-unionized jobs are more likely to simply leave than try to improve the workplace.

"People have to be committed to being there," he said.

"If there's a problem — a bad boss, whatever — they'll just quit because they can get something similar somewhere else."

Skip the Union?

This tendency to just quit also complicates labour efforts to enter a new workplace frontier: the gig economy, exemplified by Uber, which doesn't operate in Manitoba, and delivery services such as Skip the Dishes.

In Toronto, couriers for the food-delivery service Foodora are working with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers on a union drive.

It's a rare effort at certification in the technology sector, where businesses say drivers or couriers are independent contractors, not employees.

Manitoba Labour Federation president Kevin Rebeck says unions stand to be energized by the Progressive Conservative government. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

"It's really exciting to see how that will play out and how that will impact other companies, like Skip the Dishes and Uber," Leedham said.

Swain expresses similar optimism about the future of labour, pointing to a Canada-wide effort to push for a national pharmacare program and the potential for more engagement here in Manitoba.

"Nobody likes to have a government you have to sort of fight against," she said. "At the same time, I think that will really re-engage people and get people passionate about the long term."

The anniversary of the 1919 strike should serve more as an example for labour, rather than as something to celebrate, Camfield said.

Manitoba labour faces fights from outside and within

3 years ago
Duration 3:56
Manitoba labour activists say there's been an increase over the past decade in negative attitudes toward organized labour, if not outright hostility to unions. 3:56

"The challenge is to not be nostalgic about it, but to actually take that inspiration and use that to confront the challenges of the present," he said.

"I mean, the unions were crushed. At the same time, we got minimum wage later, there was a huge amount of solidarity. It was a defeat for workers in Winnipeg in 1919, but it didn't destroy the movement."


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?