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By Sid Ryan
Toronto mayoral candidate Jane Pitfield is trying desperately to kick-start a flat and nearly invisible campaign. Twice in the past month she has taken cheap shots at the city’s hard-working employees.
In mid-June, Pitfield openly mused about phasing out unions at city hall. Luckily, under Ontario law, it’s workers and not their employers who decide whether or not they’ll have a union. But Pitfield didn’t stop there.
In her latest manifesto published on the editorial pages of the Toronto Star, Pitfield boldly announced how proud she is that one of Canada’s greatest accomplishments was giving individuals the right to associate with a labour union, despite her previously stated desire to see unions phased out.
To further underscore her anti-worker bias and ignorance of workplace issues she incuriously states that we are past the time when unions are needed to protect workers from deplorable working conditions. Oh really, Jane? We obviously live in different worlds.
According to recent statistics released by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and available on the Ontario Federation of Labour website, Ontario had 322 deaths in the workplace last year and an astonishing 357,000 reported workplace injuries. However, the most sickening and disgraceful of all statistics is the 6,000 deaths due to occupational diseases such as cancers and lung diseases from exposure to chemicals and toxic substances in the workplace.
It’s clear Pitfield knows little about workplace hazards and even less about workers’ historic fights to win the right to organize and belong to a union. This set of rights was not given as some benevolent gesture by past Canadian governments as Pitfield suggests. There were hard fought battles in Canadian workplaces and on the streets of major cities all across Canada. History buffs can view a plaque at the corner of Grosvenor and Queen’s Park Circle commemorating the Toronto printers’ 1872 strike for the nine-hour day.
In 1919, Canadian workers returning from the battlefields of Europe joined with workers across the world to demand a better deal for themselves and their families. In Winnipeg, the returning soldiers found few opportunities and abysmal working conditions while employers had enjoyed massive profits raked in from the war contracts.
All across western Canada workers were forming themselves into organizations with the intent of forming one big union to take on big capital. In Winnipeg, the workers within the building and metal trades attempted to form a union. In the early 1900s, workers were prohibited from joining a union unless the bosses voluntarily agreed to recognize them or they won the right through strike action.
And, lest Pitfield or others think we’ve come too far since then, it’s only been five years since the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that agricultural workers in Ontario have the right to unionize despite government legislation prohibiting them from organizing.
Back in early Winnipeg, when the employer community refused to recognize the Building Trades Council and Metal Trades Council, members of both unions laid down their tools and went on strike. They were joined in an act of solidarity by the central labour body that took all their workers off the job. By May 15, 1919 every worker in Winnipeg was out on strike.
It lasted six weeks, ending only when mounted police charged into the crowd, beating them with clubs and opening fire on the strikers, killing two and wounding several others. This was followed by deportations, arrests and back to work orders by three levels of government. However, the lasting impact of the strike was legislation enacted throughout Canada liberalizing the right of most workers to join a union.
Contrary to Pitfield’s version of history, workers were hardly given the right to associate with a labour union as if it was an act of charity. The monumental struggle and sacrifice of workers to win this basic human right has been repeated time and again, from Oshawa auto workers facing Premier Mitch Hepburn’s threat to raise an army against them in 1937 to Lakeside meat packers in Brooks, Alberta who were forced into a vicious strike for union recognition in 2005.
Yet, if Jane Pitfield has her way, Canada will be joining an illustrious group of nations such as China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Vietnam where independent trade unions are prohibited.
I can assure her that organized labour will be active in the mayoral elections to ensure she joins the ranks of the unemployed. Perhaps then she will have a greater appreciation for a good strong union like CUPE to fight for her safe workplace, better wages and benefits.