One hundred years after the Winnipeg General Strike, workers still fight to protect their rights

This article by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published in the Toronto Star, on Sunday, December 29, 2019.

In this season of giving and overconsumption, maybe you’re taking a few days off or collecting some overtime pay on a statutory holiday. Perhaps you’re just enjoying some party-time slack in your 40-hour week.

Few of us know, or remember, these workers’ rights are the products of hard-fought battles waged generations back, including two that occurred a century ago, in 1919. That year, tens of thousands of workers put down their tools to wage the Winnipeg General Strike, while in far-off Versailles, the International Labour Organization (ILO) brought together business groups, labour and governments to make decent work the foundation of all progress.

Winnipeg’s General Strike was the biggest of many on the continent in 1919, bringing 35,000 people (about half the city’s population at the time) into the streets between May 15 and June 26. They sought limits on hours worked, better provisions for health and safety on the job, and the right to collectively bargain. The strike ended in bloodshed and death, and the birth of a political movement, which resulted in a new federal political party (the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which became the New Democratic Party).

In 1919, the 44 founding nations of the ILO pledged to adhere to the principles of abolishing child labour, an eight-hour workday, a weekly rest, equal pay for work of equal value and protecting all workers, including migrants. They also recognized the right of association, a precursor to the right to bargain collectively.

This year, the 178 current nations of the ILO reaffirmed the pledge to protect workers’ most basic needs: adequate minimum wage, maximum working hours, protections for health and safety, fundamental human and labour rights, and protection from violence, particularly for informal workers.

The sad truth is, for too many people even today, the declarations of 1919 and 2019 are still just words, not actions.

The centennials of the General Strike and the 1919 declaration raise hard questions: Will we sustain, let alone expand, gains towards decent work? And are we adapting workers’ rights for the coming century? On both counts, the answers are hardly encouraging. But there is a stirring comeback: a rising chorus of voices, demanding better.

The year began with the biggest general strike in history, in India, as about 200 million people protested a rollback in labour protections enshrined in legislation since 1926. In the U.S., more people took strike action over working conditions than any time since the 1980s. And in France, more than a million people have already protested cuts to pensions this month, with new voices joining every day.

Most workers have no channels for acting, or even talking, collectively. That may be changing. Here in Canada, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers launched a campaign in May to organize Foodora’s bicycle and car couriers in Toronto, in hopes of providing access to basic workers’ rights. In June, 300 Uber drivers in the Greater Toronto Area formed a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers to push back against unfair labour practices.

Workers are starting to rediscover the role of collective action and unions because there seems to be no bottom to how some employers will exploit them.

In another ruthless power play, some Canadian employers and immigration consultants are getting paid $50,000 for a promise of work permits and pathways to permanent residence, which often never materialize. The promise and fee keeps workers overworked and underpaid, but quiet and compliant for years. Not new, exploitation of temporary foreign workers is rising in tandem with employers’ reliance on them.

If 2019 taught us anything, it’s that workers’ rights are not permanent nor broadly shared without a good fight. Are you ready for the good fight?