George Santayana’s often repeated quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has been used to describe the eerily similar mistakes nations and societies repeatedly make. Whether as a result of religious, political or financial fervor; social inequalities, discrimination and poverty are often the result of ignoring failures of previous generations and perpetuating flawed concepts. We don’t know our past and sometimes we deliberately choose to dismiss it to our ongoing disadvantage.
Precarious employment, discriminatory low wage strategies and lack of regard for safety, are themes the labour movement has organized around and continues to fight to achieve progress. Historically, workers gathered, often illegally, to fight for change; organizing into unions and forcing governments to change laws and companies to change practices. Despite some apologetic capitalist claims that “unions are no longer needed”, nothing could be further than the truth.
Child labour thrived until the 20th century in North America is still prevalent in the global economy. It was swept out of sight into work ghettos in Asia by the same international companies that profit from lack of workers’ rights legislation, but sponsor social events in this country to deceive us with their kinder face. We rarely pay attention to the plight of workers unless there is a terrible disaster, like workers being killed or disabled in factory fires or trapped in mine explosions. We are unmoved by the fight to achieve a liveable minimum wage by Walmart workers who work for one of the world’s richest families. The struggle can’t compete with our insatiable desire to see what the Kardashians are up to, or who will make it to the Stanley Cup finals. We are too easily distracted, to focus on true reality.
Labour has several days of remembrance, to honour those workers who were imprisoned, injured, or who died in order to bring justice to workers. Union activists ensure that past and current collective sacrifices are not taken for granted, or languish unrecognized by today’s beneficiaries.
March 8 was first declared International Women’s Day, to honour New York garment workers (mostly women) who struck in 1909 for the right to form a union and to improve their working conditions and wages. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 demonstrated the dangerous conditions employers foisted upon workers, leading to the entrapment and death of 146 workers in that tragedy. Subsequent strikes and actions to improve conditions for women have created positive changes, but there is still much to do. That date has since been recognized around the world and is dedicated to the struggle for full equality for women and girls.
April 28 is the Day of Mourning for Workers killed or injured on the job due to accident or industrial illness. Every year across the country, unions join together to mourn our dead and fight for the rights of their survivors, and those wounded in the course of their employment. Attempts by unions to make companies responsible for dangerous conditions resulted in amendments to the Criminal Code, commonly referred to as the Westray Disaster Bill (Bill C-45), with a few charges laid against negligent owners to date. A small but important step in the struggle to put safety ahead of profit.
And then there is May Day. This year marks the 130 anniversary of the May Day General Strike, by workers in the United States to fight for the 8-hour day on May 1, 1886. “Eight-hour day with no loss of pay”, was the rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of American workers who struck, protesting their condition of work; earning very little money per day, and working 6 day weeks with no overtime for long days. In Chicago where tensions were high, protests continued over several days and included support for McCormick workers who had been on strike for several months, and were being abused by Pinkerton security goons while scab workers enjoyed police protection.
On May 4, at the end of one gathering to protest police violence, and to build support for the 8-hour day campaign, police aggression was used to disperse the crowd. According to first hand reports, a bomb was thrown into the crowd by unknown person(s), which set off a terrifying confrontation, with police firing shots into the crowd of fleeing people. The result of the indiscriminate gunfire from police and others was the wounding of many dozens, possibly more than 100 people, and the death 11, including 7 police. That became known as the Haymarket Massacre on May 4, 1886.
Well known community activists were accused, even though there was no direct evidence against them. Four were eventually condemned and killed by the State (August Spies, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons and George Engel) becoming known around the world as the Haymarket Martyrs. The remaining 3 imprisoned were pardoned a few years later by the new governor who decried the public hysteria, the overt racism against immigrant workers and the general miscarriage of justice.
Canada has a wealth of working class heroes including Ginger Goodwin, Helen Armstrong and Madeline Parent, to name a few. Each rose up to challenge unfair legislation and vicious companies; inspiring workers to stand up for justice in the face of government brutality and biased media. Their importance to our history is clear if we take the time to know it. We are each the beneficiaries of their legacies.
May Day 2016 will be celebrated around the world to show solidarity with labour heroes of the past and celebrate the current generation of activists who sacrifice their time and energy for the greater good. The West Kootenay Labour Council is hosting a celebration on May 1st, from 11 am until 2pm at the Spirit Square in front of Castlegar City Hall. We invite all members of the public to join us.
Cindy McCallum Miller, President CUPW Castlegar Local