On June 4, 2016, the Alberta Labour History Institute commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the “Summer of 1986” when six major strikes demonstrated workers’ anger with employer and state efforts to make workers pay for a capitalist crisis. The strikes included Alberta Liquor Control Board workers province-wide, meatpackers at Gainers in Edmonton and Fletchers in Red Deer, Suncor plant workers in Fort McMurray, and Zeidler plywood workers in Slave Lake and Edmonton. The ongoing struggles of construction workers whose unions faced an all-out assault from employers and the state was also important in 1986 as the Dandelion movement continued to mobilize support for the rights of workers to unionize. Our event featured the Edmonton premiere of Maria Dunn’s video ballad, “Packingtown,” and the first Edmonton showing of videographer Don Bouzek’s documentary, “The Summer of ’86.” We also heard addresses by Lucien Royer, who spent most of his working life in labour movement work, regarding the context of the discontent of 1986, and by Simon Fraser University PhD student Andrea Samoil on the Gainers strike, subject of her MA thesis at Trent University. After all of these presentations, participants joined facilitated discussion groups to discuss the lessons of the summer of 1986 and how to apply them to today’s struggles. Participants in the 1986 strikes served as resource members to each discussion group. Facilitators then presented discussion group findings to a plenary.
We are pleased to present a summary of comments from the discussion groups. We tried to include all of the materials presented by facilitators but combined similar comments that came from different discussion groups. We hope that these comments can become the basis for future discussions within particular unions and progressive movements generally that attempt to link planning for today and tomorrow with lessons from our past.
1. LESSONS OF SUMMER OF 1986
A. WHAT WORKED IN 1986?
–public support that included support from communities outside of labour
–inter-union solidarity, including construction workers supporting meatpacking workers, and the unemployed supporting those in work struggling to receive liveable wages with strikers, in turn, later supporting the struggles of the groups that had supported them
— cross-Canada engagement: Strikers created a national conversation about workers’ rights that made workers across all sectors realize that the same employer injustices could happen to them if these strikers did not win their cause
–providing opportunity for supporters of workers’ struggles to be on the streets where they could feel a common bond rather than simply in their own homes: both on picket lines and in demonstrations at the legislature and outside plants
–the raising of funds to help strikers and their families get by since strike pay was modest
–emphasis on broken promises, e.g. Pocklington promised Gainers’ workers in 1984 that they would be rewarded if they made concessions and helped him get the firm back to profitability; they kept their part and he ignored his promises, simply demanding more concessions in 1986 despite the company’s increased production and new profitability which even he indirectly credited the workers for.
–Having a clear villain like Pocklington to point to
–Union locals were ready for strikes when they occurred. They had clear structures within which the strikers could participate. There was clear leadership but decisions were made collectively and then administered by leaders.
–Mutual support that strikers provided each other on the line and in their lives
–The national boycott of Gainers demonstrated that workers can inflict harm on a recalcitrant employer even when all instances of the state are on the employer’s side and scabbing cannot be stopped.
–The union local developed an effective communication strategy that assured a degree of sympathetic coverage even in corporate media which often either ignores strikes altogether or only provides the employer’s perspective.
–Having politicized workers such as Chilean refugees who had trans-national experience to apply helped to politicize workers who were stunned by the crassness of a particular employer, and were unaware of how workers in other contexts had fought such employers.
–Union daycare on the line, with older siblings taking care of younger kids, and donated food.
B.WHAT DID NOT WORK
–Scabs could not be stopped because the government (and its legislation), the courts, and the police were firmly on the side of employers.
–Different objectives on the part of the local union and national union hurt in the case of Gainers: the determination throughout the strike on the part of the local union to end the tiering of workers that the 1984 agreement instituted (with newer workers making poverty wages and having no benefits) was not ultimately as important to the national union which was skeptical that the workers and their supporters could win much more than the local’s survival after 7 ½ months of the strike. The local union leadership was not involved in the high-level bargaining. But they were expected to “sell” the contract determined at the top—by Pocklington, the premier, and a national union leader. Many rank-and-filers argued then and now that those who negotiate a contract should present information and let the members democratically decide rather than apply unbearable pressure to force a contract through.
–Too effective a boycott may have harmed Gainers in the long run since people who boycotted the brand may have been reluctant to return to it when the strike was over.
–The ideology of neoliberalism had taken root by 1986 and employers who did not want to negotiate knew that they had support from the government, courts, and police. That countered to some degree the solidarity that strikers achieved among themselves and across the working class and community organizations.
–Because the Gainers workers were unable to roll back the three tier system imposed by Pocklington in 1984 and unusual in Canadian labour at the time, other employers were emboldened to impose the same system, e.g. Safeway in 1997. The tiered system hurts unions among young workers because it makes the union appear to be solely the protector of the senior workers. Also, when new workers are hired on short-term contracts, they feel little belonging in that workplace or with the union in that workplace. Ultimately the senior workers are threatened too because management has an incentive to reduce their numbers in favour of precarious, poorly paid newer workers.
2. HOW DO WE APPLY THE LESSONS OF 1986 TO THE WORKERS’ MOVEMENT TODAY?
–We need to build capacity within the labour and progressive movements so that the requisite degree of solidarity among workers and within the broader society is present to win major victories by and for working people.
–We need to find a voice for all workers and to develop counter-narratives to the neoliberal and pro-capitalist narratives that dominate in both conventional media and social media. OUR responsibility is to shape the dialogue.
–Because of the importance of social media in communications today, we need effective strategies to make the best use of social media. But we should not ignore the traditional media, as hostile as much of it might be to a labour message.
–We need to build relationships across generations and among workers of different backgrounds rather than building silos or dismissing each other.
–We need to focus on clear issues that unite working people either in a given workplace or sector, or across sectors.
–We should not dismiss the power of emotions. The Right knows this and we need to frame arguments and strategies in ways that connect with people’s feelings. The arts—film, plays, music, art, poetry and the written word generally—all play a role here.
–The importance of solid strike preparation
–The importance of community involvement to support strikes
–The importance of cross-union solidarity
–Don’t be afraid to push for a greater vision. Connect specific struggles with big picture ideas.
–The importance of ongoing union mobilization and activity since it is easiest to prepare for militancy during negotiations and for a strike if workers are already educated about their rights and share common goals.
–It’s important to organize more workers in Alberta, where the union density is a pitiful 23 percent, and to innovate.
–That means as well adapting to the increasing precarity of work and trying to assure that precarious workers feel some empowerment from a workers’ movement that has their back
–We need to develop the skills that make solidarity among workers more likely and more effective in producing results.
–We need to have members recognize that they are the union, not some mysterious “THEY.” Members need to take ownership of their unions. While there needs to be leadership to administer unions, workers should have bottom-up control over their unions and leadership.
–Union democracy is essential so that workers feel there is some point to getting involved in unions.
–We also need to have union democracy/ grassroots control over unions so that local unions are not subordinated to a national union in a particular struggle.
–Solidarity means that each strike requires the participation of all unions and indeed all workers. Next time around it may be them who needs that solidarity.
–Communications at the local level within a particular union local and among other unions within the community are important.
–“Illegal strikes” and “illegal strike actions” can mobilize workers, sometimes right across the province as the Calgary laundry workers’ strike in 1995 demonstrated.
–Avoid nostalgia and connect to current conditions in industries (e.g. with meatpacking and other industries, the use of temporary foreign workers; in other industries, the replacement of permanent workers with precarious workers).
–Are police liaisons possible so as to reduce violence during strikes?
Working people built the NDP and gave it an electoral victory in Alberta in 2015. That’s an opportunity for workers, rather than an endpoint. Workers need to hold the NDP government to account, demanding pro-labour legislation to counter the well-organized employer campaigns to pull the government to the centre or the right.
–Anti-scab legislation needs to be one of labour’s key demands. Daycare is also a key demand. And in our demands for more comprehensive health care, the problems with the current WCB need to be highlighted.
–There needs to be constant campaigning for the rights of workers so that no party and no government at any time feels that it can take working people for granted.
–The labour movement needs to have a clear vision and counter-narrative to neoliberalism that connects their various demands and challenges the vision of austerity and market rule of neoliberalism. A “Labour Charter” elaborating labour’s vision should be produced through broad discussions within the labour movement.
–Workers need to be educated about their rights. “What is my right?” is something that workers should be able to answer in particular situations. They need to know their legal rights in Alberta and in Canada as well as their rights under international law. They also need to struggle to change laws that restrict rights that workers should rightfully have.
–There needs to be a national conversation on workers’ rights as there was during the Gainers strike.
–That conversation requires a worker voice that opposes concessions from workers on rights already won through past struggles. Concessions are what neoliberalism demands—a movement of income from workers to capital that wipes out the results of an earlier period of labour struggles.
–Working-class communities’ histories need to be recuperated and told, e.g. the history of Northeast Edmonton
–Unions need to fight for liveable minimum wages for all and be prominent in the fight against income inequality
–Unions and others need to remind their members and all of society of the benefits won through union struggles. They need to have programs of public education that get the message to everyone of the benefits that unions and workers’ struggles have brought to our society.
–Unions need to educate their members politically rather than just focus on “tools” education
–Education and struggles should focus not only on issues relating to a single employer but also to struggles that involve all workers such as the unjust ways in which the Workers’ Compensation Board operates and the negative consequences of trade agreements such as the TPP that ignore the interests of working people everywhere.
–Horror stories involving the treatment of workers need to be broadcast along with demands for structural change.
–Unions need to provide a space for actions by all workers, organized or unorganized.
–There needs to be solidarity with foreign/migrant workers. We need to profit from the union and political experiences that many of these workers have rather than assume that we alone know something about what workers’ struggles should look like.
–Unions or perhaps ALHI should be sponsoring well known anti-austerity speakers such as Robert Reich.
–We need to expose/oppose a legal framework that rigs the game by emphasizing management’s right to manage and requires unions to contain workers’ anger and move them away from direct action towards often drawn-out legal procedures that exhaust them and deliver little justice.
–Labour education throughout the curriculum starting in the early grades needs to be campaigned for.
–City and community tours that make labour history more real need to occur more frequently (Calgary Labour History Walking Tour is quite effective).
–We need to plan historical commemorations for the centennial of the national strikes of 1919 (beginning with Winnipeg but then spreading to many places, including Edmonton and Calgary for a month) as well as to make issues of importance to working people central in the campaign to re-elect our NDP government in 2019. Advertisements, especially on radio, help in these campaigns.
–Unions need to make plans for the next election, spending funds that can no longer go directly to a political party on shaping the dialogue about what governments need to be doing on behalf of working people.
–We need to use positive language, celebrating labour’s achievements in the workplace and in politics. We need to connect with Albertans’ values and demonstrate that austerity-minded politicians and think tanks that pretend to share those values are in fact corporate tools working against the interests of working people. We need a “positive counter-narrative” to neo-liberalism.