Hi there! My name is Chantale Turgeon, and I have a story to tell you about how government employees came to think of themselves as workers and surged to the forefront of Canadian labor.
In the first half of the 20th century, Parliament and provincial legislatures grudgingly supported collective bargaining between workers and private sector employers. The public sector was considered different. Government employees saw themselves as civil servants and had no say in their working conditions. The few jobs governments created were doled out to individuals with connections to elected officials. A change of government meant wholesale firings of civil servants.
In 1885, Manitoba was the first province to legislate a Civil Service Act and made it clear that any request for a raise “shall be considered as a tendering of the resignation.” The view that public sector workers were servants persisted for decades. As late as 1964, Quebec’s premier proclaimed, “The Queen does not negotiate with her subjects.” Post offices were among the earliest public services to organize. The wages of letter carriers failed to keep up with rising costs of living- -they were not awarded even a single salary increase for thirty years. The Railway Mail Clerks Association formed in 1889.
A union of letter carriers formed two years later, and of postal clerks in 1911- -but they were lobby groups rather than recognized collective bargaining agents. During the turbulent years around World War I, civil servants faced high inflation and followed the lead of private-sector workers who established unions. Firefighters in Edmonton, for example, organized and won a collective agreement. Teachers at this time were angry that school boards decided unilaterally to dock pay for the war effort.
By 1921, two-thirds of Alberta’s teachers had joined the ATA, and there had been a significant strike of Edmonton teachers. Governments were typically intolerant of attacks, and reacted harshly, especially against those it considered instigators.
In 1924, a national strike of postal workers was broken by wholesale dismissals. Police who struck in Quebec and in Toronto met the same fate. Such firings set an example and helped discipline the remaining workers.
The government managed to suppress attempts of public workers to organize, in part because the civil service remained small right up until World War II, when barely 8% of the Canadian workforce was employed in education, health, or government service. Divisions among public employees also contributed to the problem. For example, efforts by a union to organize all federal workers met resistance from white-collar workers who regarded themselves as a cut above the blue-collar.
A large number of classifications in the federal civil service encouraged competition that obstructed efforts to create unions. Changing conditions in the post-war years eventually helped unions make significant breakthroughs in the public sector. The example of industrial unions was contagious, and federal employees envied the new rights and steady increases in purchasing power won by many workers.
The public sector began to multiply, both in size and complexity, and more workers were required to deliver the new programs of the welfare state. Hospitals, schools, and suburbs grew in step with Canada’s population and affluence. Most new union members from the mid-1960s forward were civil servants, municipal employees, health care workers, teachers, and others. Many worked in occupations that had no private-sector counterparts, like air traffic controllers and lighthouse keepers. Steady growth in government employment meant that by the end of the 1960s, one in five workers was a public employee.
In the decade after it was founded in 1963, the Canadian Union of Public Employees doubled its membership and passed the United Steel Workers to become Canada’s largest union. It was a sort of industrial-style association of the public sector. The face of organized labor was changing quickly. Public-sector unions like CUPE gained hundreds of thousands of female members reflecting the rapid growth of paid employment for married women.
The 1960s were a remarkable time of new militancy, especially in Quebec, where the Quiet Revolution was underway. Students and feminists protested, and a new generation of workers led hundreds of defiant wildcat strikes from 1964 to ’66. Rank-and-file union members angrily challenged the ‘deal’ of the post-war settlement, surprising not only employers and government but also union officials.
For public employees, the illegal national postal strike in 1965 was decisive. By 1967, the Public Service Staff Relations Act became law giving federal employees the right to choose between compulsory arbitration, mediation, or a strike. At long last public employees had collective bargaining rights similar to private-sector workers. The provinces followed Ottawa’s lead, and the provincial civil service associations all became unions.
By the early 1970s, every province had accepted some form of collective bargaining with its employees- -except Ontario and Alberta, which both refused to concede public workers the right to strike.
The Canadian labor movement would continue to grow for only about a decade. Union density peaked in the mid-1980s, with over 40% of Canadian workers organized in unions. Unionized public employees came to outnumber union members from the mostly male industrial workforce, which had begun shrinking—starting in the 1960s and increasingly after that, foreign-owned corporations started to shut down branch plants in Canada, laying off hundreds and even thousands of mill and factory workers at a time.
By 1970, Canada had tipped into a severe recession that made it seem futile to go on organizing. The deindustrialization of the Great Lakes region devastated private-sector unions and also meant that unionized public sector workers increasingly found themselves as the vanguard of a weakened labor movement.
It was a tough time to be a unionist. Soaring inflation, economic stagnation, and the energy crisis of 1973, all gave big business and the state the excuse they needed to crack down on unions. Wage controls nearly provoked a general strike in 1976, and the free trade agreements that followed increased the power of corporations and helped deregulate labor markets. Some call it neoliberalism, some call it globalization, but whatever the name, it hasn’t been good for workers or the public services they rely on. More and more people count themselves lucky to hold precarious ‘McJobs’ with deteriorating conditions and declining real wages. If public-sector unions don’t defend public services, who will?