155,000 striking federal workers deserve our support -- and a fair wage increase


Right now, federal public service workers across Canada are on strike. With 155,000 workers out across the entire country, this is one of the largest strike in Canadian history. 

This means, inevitably, that there is a backlash of propaganda in the mainstream and social media portraying the workers as greedy, entitled, selfish -- and useless. 

The truth is exactly the opposite.

What are they asking for, and why?

According to a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, public sector workers' wages, adjusted for inflation, are at rates comparable to 2007. That's the equivalent of not getting a decent raise for sixteen years! 

That means that every year, these workers are falling further behind.

Through their union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the workers are asking for 4.5% wage increase, each year for three years.

At a time when most employers in Canada are raising wages by anywhere from 4% to 5.4%, that's a reasonable ask. A major survey of 2023 employment shows salaries in different sectors going up from anywhere from 3.1% to 5.8%.

And as we all know, the Consumer Price Index, usually used as a measure of the cost of living, is the highest it has been in 40 years in Canada: 7.6%.

The constant interest rate hikes, which serve to fatten the already obese banking industry while squeezing the rest of us, means that Canadians are spending ever-increasing percentages of their earnings on shelter.

The constantly rising cost of food is the subject of countless stories and discussions, as owners and shareholders of Loblaw, Metro, Empire (which owns Sobey's), and others raking in record profits.

Our two most basic costs -- food and shelter -- are ballooning. Those of us with decent salaries feel the pinch, when after mortgage is paid and the grocery shopping is done, there is little left for leisure -- which in turn has a devastating domino effect on the local economy.

Those of us without decent salaries are suffering. Surveys show that parents are skipping meals so their children can eat. Spending 75% of their incomes on housing. Taking out second mortgages. 

No one should have to face this, but certainly no one with a job should! 

Workers who haven't seen a material gain (adjusted for inflation) in 16 years have a legitimate grievance. A 4.5% increase every year for three years is quite reasonable. 

Who are the striking workers? What do they do?

These facts are gleaned mostly from Press Progress, who based the research on the workers' expired collective agreements (which are all publicly available online), and on interviews.

  • The largest group of striking PSAC workers are from the Programs and Administrative Services group. Of this group of about 90,000 members, 72% are women, and 61% earn less than $70,000.

  • These workers are data processors, bookkeepers, office equipment operators, secretaries, and court reporters. Several of these positions pay below $40,000, with some as low as $28,000! The classifications are highly outdated, and have not kept up with the private sector.

  • Among the strikers are Department of Defense firefighters. They earn 20% less than municipal firefighters.
  • Other positions include boiler plant operators, lighthouse keepers, power station operators, and aeronautics inspectors. There are specialists in drafting, engineering support, photography, and technical inspections.
These are highly specialized jobs that require a great deal of expertise. The same positions in the public sector pay substantially more. If government wages don't stay competitive, agencies won't be able to recruit the best talent -- which could have serious implications for the public.

Wages among PSAC workers have been lagging in the public sector for years, for decades. It's way past time that the federal government modernized these collective agreements and paid its workers a fair salary. 

"What about me? Where's my raise?" and other selfish, whiny responses

I have no doubt that millions of Canadians, both unionized and non-union, understand why strikes occur, and either support the PSAC workers or look on neutrally. 

The anti-strike rhetoric appears to come from two sources (with the usual disclaimers about generalizations).

One, rightwing pundits who hate the public sector and hate unions. There's no reasoning with the "starve the beast" crowd, the people who believe every service should generate a profit. However, it's always good to call out their hypocrisy. I'm sure they use public-sector services all the time. And I'm sure they expect those services to be fast, efficient, skilled, and up-to-date. 

The second source of anti-union rhetoric, from what I see and hear, is from non-union workers. I'm not getting a 4.5% raise, why should they?

I would ask them a few questions. If you could get a 4.5% raise, would you take it? 
Would you forgo a raise because someone else didn't get one?
If you had to stop work without pay for a while in order to get that 4.5% raise, would you do it? 
If you had this increase, would you think it was fair? 

I'd also remind them that when unionized workers get a better deal, wages in similar but non-unionized sectors also see increases. When employers are very anti-union, they will often cough up sizeable increases, as a presumed disincentive to organizing.

That's why people who live in communities with a higher concentration of union workers are better-off -- whether or not they belong to a union.

We union folks don't want to earn more than nonunion workers. We want all workers to be treated well and paid fairly, so that we can all enjoy a good life. 

We believe in solidarity, and that extends to all working people, those fortunate enough to belong to a union, and those who don't and can't. You might not support us, but we are fighting for you, all the time.

No one wants to strike. Being on strike is incredibly stressful, and a huge financial sacrifice. But when employers refuse to be reasonable, it's the only option.


what i'm reading: god's bits of wood + labour book club update

My BCGEU Vancouver Island Labour Book Club is happening! 25 people expressed interest, 18 people registered, and about 5-7 people have been attending. A few other folks are following the reading but not attending the discussions. I take all of this as wins. The fact that it's happening at all is a big win!

The first book we read was The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, which I had already read and wrote about here

The second selection was In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck, which I had read a long time ago, and enjoyed re-reading.

Our third and most recent title was God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sebème. Not only was this a fantastic read -- it was something I never would have found, had I not been researching titles for this project. Huge win!

* * * *

God's Bits of Wood is a fictional account of a railroad strike that took place in Senegal, then a colony of France, in 1947-48. 

Labour activists often talk about how past workers struggled to win the rights we have today, and our obligation to honour and continue that work. I will often say, "People fought and died to make this possible." Nothing could illustrate this better than God's Bits of Wood

The railroad workers and their families lived in total poverty. The men were practically slaves, and the women were slaves to their men and children. They lived in tarpaper shacks without running water or electricity. They had formed a union, but the colonial system ensured it had no power. 

During the strike, the workers and their families suffered extreme hardships and deprivations. The bosses turned off their water. They cut off their food supply. They were attacked. People were killed. 

A strike is a transformative experience: it changes everything. And again, nothing illustrates this better than God's Bits of Wood

While the men were gathered at the railyards and in the union hall, the women were alone in the village. They begin to move out of their submissive roles, to harness their anger, and to take charge of their lives. First one woman takes action. Then another. Leaders emerge. They plan collective actions. Not all the actions are successful, and some have dire consequences. But bit by bit, day by day, their lives are utterly transformed. 

At one point, a group of teenagers invent a campaign of their own. Every night, they slip into the European quarter, and use their slingshots to cast stones at windows and lampposts. The whites are terrified -- not so much of the broken glass, but of the knowledge that natives have breached their compound. 

This goes on for many nights -- until one day, one of the worst of the colonizers pops out of a hiding place and fires his revolver. Two boys die.

This is a turning point. The women organize a march to the capital. The men organize to support them and keep them safe. 

The women walk for four days. They walk through heat, and thirst, and desperation. News of their march spreads, and they are welcomed into the capital as heroes.

The French give in. The workers win every demand.

The workers -- and more than that, the women -- changed their culture and their lives. 

This was an intense, gripping story. It wasn't always easy to read, because the workers' suffering is so intense, but I couldn't put it down.

 * * * *

Here are some passages from GBOW that I wrote in my notebook.

From an organizer:

For the first time in his life, an idea of his was going to play a part in the lives of thousands of others. It was not pride or vanity he was experiencing, but the astonishing discovery of his worth as a human being.

As the men discuss what to do about a scab. Many argue for beating or even killing him. One man says:

If you imitate the hirelings of your masters, you will become like them, hirelings and barbarians.  . . . You have shamed him before his friends, and before the world, and in doing that you have hurt him far more than you could by any bodily punishment. . . . I do not think that there is one among us who will be tempted to follow in his footsteps.

The company sees its once iron grip on the workers has turned to straw. The bosses are desperate to divide the workers and crush their solidarity. One worker, who struggles to see himself as a leader, remembers this:

One day Doudou had had an argument with Drame, the lynx-eyed deputy supervisor of the shop. 'Why should the white men have ten minutes off for their tea when we don't?' he had demanded. Drame had reported the words to Isnard, who immediately summoned Doudou and told him, in front of all the other men, 'Go and make yourself white and you can have ten minutes, too!' Doudou had controlled his anger, but the humiliation had never left him. He had never again spoken a word to the supervisor except when it was absolutely necessary.

Now the hated Isnard offers Doudou three million francs, for him alone, if he will tell his comrades to abandon their demands and return to work. That's when the union activists know that the company has cracked. Doudou says:

Three million francs is a lot of money for a Negro lathe operator, but even three million francs won't make me white. I would rather have the ten minutes for tea and remain a Negro.

The book was so vivid and gripping, I actually shouted out loud when I read this.

* * * *

Ousmane Sebème (1923-2007), who I had never heard of before this project, was a Senegalese author, playwright, and filmmaker. Often called "the father of African cinema," he was the first serious filmmaker from any African country.

Sebème worked as a fisherman, a bricklayer, a mechanic, a plumber, and other trades. He taught himself how to read and write. He was drafted into the French army, and served in World War II.

As a dockworker, Sebème discovered Marxist and Pan-African worldviews. When an injury prevented him from doing manual labour, Sebème decided to become a writer. He went on to write novels, plays, and films, and to practically invent African cinema.

There is a documentary about him, called "Sebème!", made in 2015. I will definitely look for it.


something strange going on with this blog: a sad update

I was so excited. 

I thought all the thousands of lost comments might be coming back.

Now I am let down all over again.

A few weeks ago, I noted that very old comments -- from 2005 and 2006 -- have been appearing in the spam queue of this blog. This gave me hope that the thousands of comments that were lost would be magically restored.

When a big chunk of wmtc was accidentally deleted, and Allan and I restored the posts by importing a Blogger XML file, the URLs of the posts changed. I didn't know if comments on posts with changed URLs would be published. If the URL has changed, would the relevant comments have a place to post?

I asked this question in the Blogger Help Community. Unfortunately, the Blogger Help Person never understood what I was asking. Granted, it is a strange concept, difficult to explain. But their comments made it clear that they were not reading what I wrote. Perhaps they were monitoring too many threads, and giving each only a cursory glance? 

Now I've been moderating comments from the spam queue (not the spam folder, as the BHP noted) for an additional three weeks, for a total of almost eight weeks. I am still moderating old comments daily, all from legit wmtc commenters. The majority are from July 2005 to June 2006; a few are from 2021. None are from July 2006 to February 2020, the time span of the lost comments. I assume that because the posts' URLs changed when we restored the posts, the comments have nowhere to go, so to speak.

If I was able to upload a specific XML file, I could narrow that to May 2019 to Feburary 2020. But I cannot import the file.

So, the situation has not changed. The comments are gone. I am finally beginning to accept it.


what i'm reading: bread & roses: mills, migrants, and the struggle for the american dream

I'd be willing to bet my paycheque that Bruce Watson, author of Bread & Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, did not want his book to have that title.

The 1912 millworker strike in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts is now referred to as "the Bread & Roses strike" -- but it was never called that in its time. In fact, the misnomer became associated with the strike (despite what Wikipedia claims) only in the 1980s! 

Watson addresses this oddity in the book's introduction as well as in the epilogue. Having read his impeccably researched account of the strike -- and knowing what I do about publishers, and the compromises writers must make to be published -- I can all but guarantee this author did not want this title.* 

This book has been on my List since it came out in 2005, and I found a copy on my recent trip to Powell's in Portland. I'm so glad I did! It was riveting.

The story of the 1912 Lawrence textile worker strike is easy to love. 20,000 workers from all levels of mill work -- immigrants from 51 different countries who spoke at least 12 different languages -- had had enough.

They lived in abysmal conditions. Their work was dangerous, and the machines were constantly sped up, causing the inevitable, hideous accidents and deaths. 

They ranged from tall twelve-year-olds whose forged working papers claimed they were fourteen to men and women approaching fifty. Some were slightly older, but not many lasted that long in the mills. Inhaling fibers that floated through the dank, humid mill rooms, a third died within a decade on the job. Malnourished, they succumbed to tuberculosis, pneumonia, or anthrax, known as "the woolsorter's disease." They were crushed by machinery, mangled by looms and spinners. In a single five-year span, the Pacific Mill had a thousand accidents, two for every three days on the job. Those who avoided accident or disease just wore out like an old suit. Doctors and ministers in Lawrence lived an average of sixty-five years. Mill bosses could expect to live fifty-eight years. The typical mill worker died at thirty-nine. 

They had enough. They united. They walked out.

They stood strong against national and ethnic divisions that had been used to divide them.

They stood strong against hunger and the freezing New England winter, pooling resources to create a  soup kitchen -- something entirely new at the time.

The state militia was brought in, threatening the strikers with bayonets, beating them, and causing at least one death. The workers stood strong.

Their leaders were jailed. The workers stood strong. 

At one point they were offered a tiny raise. They had the courage to reject it, and stayed out, knowing that the owners were beginning to crack.

They created a democratic strike, making decisions cooperatively, and a joyous one, parading around the city, singing. 

They employed some brilliant tactics, sending their malnourished children to New York City and Boston to live with host families, for the children's health and safety -- and also for propaganda. Congressional hearings into conditions in the mills were held, and the muckraking press made sure that their stories of poverty and hardship were told.

Bread & Roses is a richly detailed book, but it's never boring and rarely bogged down. Watson created so much tension and suspense that I started to wonder, am I totally wrong about this? Did they not win?

But they did win. And what a win it was. 

The striking millworkers won major pay increases, with those at the bottom tier of the pay scale getting the largest percentage increase, as much as 20%. Beyond wages, they won at least a portion of every demand, compromising on amounts, but getting their foot in the door on entirely new concepts. 

And beyond that: they changed the labour landscape of an entire industry.

All along the rivers of New England, wherever mills had tapped the power of flowing water, fear of another Lawrence inspired sudden wage increases. On Saturday afternoon [only hours after a settlement was reached in Lawrence], mill owners meeting in Boston granted increases of 5 to 7 percent to 125,000 workers. The mill men caved in, one lamented, like "a row of bricks, one falling and knocking down all the others." Some boosted wages without even being asked, other to settle strikes in the making. All that coming week, the bricks fell. In North Adams, Massachusetts. In Greenville, New Hampshire. In Providence, Rhode Island. In Biddeford, Maine. They even knocked over the toughest textile town of all, Fall River, Massachusetts. By the time the last brick fell, some 300,000 workers had seen their wages rise thanks to the strikers in Lawrence. The raises would put ten to twelve million dollars into textile workers' pockets in the coming year, yet in mills that granted less than those in Lawrence, they would also stir a demand for parity, leading to copycat strikes.

This brought tears to my eyes. This is the dream: that workers rising will benefit all. And it was realized.

This was also an easy story for me to love, as it features the IWW (the organization that comes closest to representing my beliefs and worldview) and the radical luminaries Big Bill Haywood and Helen Gurley Flynn. There are cameos by Margaret Sanger, Ida Tarbell, and Emma Goldman. 

But although I love Haywood and "Gurley," as she was called, the activists I encountered for the first time in Bread & Roses were even more interesting. Joe Ettor, the IWW organizer, led the strike with an uncanny mix of toughness and empathy, democracy and strong leadership. I was in awe of him; his name should be a household word among students of labour history. Arturo Giovannitti -- worker, poet, editor, organizer -- was another fascinating and endearing figure. Both men were arrested, falsely accused of murder, and jailed. 

When at last the workers jammed the union hall to vote on the deal, the terms were read out in Arabic, Armenian, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latvian, Polish, and Yiddish. They sang songs of victory and solidarity for hours. They even voted to take a few days off before going back to work.

When it was all over, Haywood addressed the crowd.

You, the strikers of Lawrence, have won the most signal victory of any body of organized working men in the world. You have won the strike for yourselves and by your strike you have won an increase in wages for over 250,000 other textile workers in the vicinity, and that means in the aggregate millions of dollars a year. . . . You are the heart and soul of the working class. Single-handed you are helpless, but united you can win everything. You have won over the opposed power of the city, state, and national administrations, against the opposition of the combined forces of capitalism, in face of the armed forces. You have won by your solidarity and brains and muscle.


* A similar painful re-titling happened to my partner, about his book about the 1918 Red Sox. In fact many things about Bread and Roses reminds me of Allan's book.