THE GINGER GOODWIN GENERAL STRIKE

At 12 o’clock sharp on Aug. 2, 1918 – one hundred years ago today –Vancouver transit operators stopped their streetcars in mid-route, drove them to the barns and walked home. The city’s normally bustling waterfront fell silent, as 2,000 burly stevedores and shipyard workers streamed from the docks. Construction workers refused to pound another nail or lift another brick. They joined textile and other union workers across Vancouver who were also leaving their jobs. It was the start of Canada’s first general strike and the beginning of one of the most memorable 24 hours in the city’s history.

 

The mass walkout was timed to coincide with the funeral of miner, labour leader, union organizer and socialist Ginger Goodwin, shot dead less than a week earlier in the woods above the coal-mining community of Cumberland. Goodwin, a former vice-president of the BC Federation of Labour, had been hiding out to avoid conscription to the killing fields of World War One, a war he and almost all segments of the BC labour movement vigorously opposed. With justification, they argued it was a pointless conflict that sent ordinary workers to kill each other, while politicians and leading citizens far from the fray thundered about patriotism, and the rich got richer on the profits of war. Goodwin had had his status suspiciously changed from “unfit to serve” to “fit”, after leading a strike for an eight-hour day at the large smelter in Trail. He was felled by a single shot from Dan Campbell, a special constable with a dubious background, who claimed he fired in self-defense. But the coal miners of Cumberland and the BC labour movement believed it was cold-blooded murder, and their rage was palpable. Campbell, later charged and acquitted of manslaughter, beat a hasty exit out of town to save his skin. Goodwin’s funeral procession was as large an event as the gritty, working-class community ever had.

Headed by a brass band, the line of mourners accompanying Goodwin’s white casket to the cemetery stretched as far as the eye could see. Years ago, I interviewed a sprightly, life-long resident of Cumberland who remembered witnessing the poignant procession as a little girl. She recalled how much Ginger Goodwin, who spent several years in the mines of Cumberland, was admired by locals, for his fierceness in standing up for the miners’ cause during their epic two year strike from 1912-1914 and his prowess on the village soccer squad. “My father would never hear a bad word about Ginger,” she told me.

When news of Goodwin’s shooting reached Vancouver, leaders of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council responded with a call for a 24-hour general strike on the day of his funeral. “The time for talking was past,” said council secretary Victor Midgley, as the directives went out. “Workers should use the only means of protest they had, namely to quit work for the entire time stated.” Added labour firebrand Jack Kavanagh: “Whether shot in self-defence or without a chance, it does not alter the fact that he was of ourselves and the least we can do is stop work for twenty-four hours to punish the employers.”

The strike set off a firestorm among the city’s elite and a large group of returned war veterans who were whipped into a frenzy, some suggest by the Board of Trade and Canadian Manufacturers’ Association.. Accused of being both “Bolshevki” and pro-German, the strikers were hysterically denounced for shutting down the city in support of someone dodging the draft, while Canadians were dying at the front. Fulminated MP Herbert Sylvester Clemens: “If organized labour is to ally itself with draft evaders and lawbreakers, all right-thinking elements in the community will have to take steps to fight their danger.”

It didn’t take long. That afternoon, a mob of several hundred ex-soldiers gathered outside the Labor Temple, which still stands at the northeast corner of Dunsmuir and Homer, its old lettering clearly visible over the entrance. After a few inflammatory “calls to arms”, they stormed through the doors and began ransacking Council premises. Books, documents, correspondence and other files were tossed out the window. Tables and chairs were trashed. On the second floor, they crashed through an office door to rush towards Council secretary Victor Midgley, who crawled out on the window ledge to escape their fury. As they jostled to get at him, their way was blocked by courageous Frances Foxcroft of the Telephone Workers Union, who would not be moved.

Eventually, the shaken labour leader was allowed back in and roughly bustled downstairs to face the raucous crowd outside. By this time the crowd with mayhem on its mind numbered more than a thousand. “That is the man that is at the bottom of all the troubles,” yelled a soldier. “Make the skunk kiss the good old flag,” jeered the throng. Midgley’s glasses were knocked off, his collar torn, until his lips finally touched the sacred Union Jack, his offer to address the vetereans ignored, and police were able to bundle him back inside the Labor Temple. Several other labour representatives escaped by clambering down the fire escape and dashing down the back alley. Longshore union delegate J. Thomas was not so lucky. He found himself caught in the middle of the crowd, where he was severely set upon until he, too, reluctantly agreed to kiss the flag. When police attempted to haul him away to the station, soldiers surrounded their car in an unsuccessful effort to grab Thomas back, with shouts of “Let’s take him ourselves!”

Then, it was off to the car barns to intimidate trolley drivers into resuming service, which actually happened shortly before midnight, and finally to a packed, rowdy public meeting of self-proclaimed patriots, where speaker after speaker were cheered for lashing out at Goodwin and local strike leaders. “They are just as bad as the man who got shot in the front or the back – I hope both” shouted one inflamed citizen, to a thunderous ovation. was a common sentiment. The lone attendee to vote against a resolution calling for them to be forced into military service overseas was physically ejected..

The next morning, with the waterfront still silent, the fired-up war veterans, still exulting over their “triumphs” of the previous day, decided to take on the longshoremen and force them back to work. It was not to be. This time, when they tried to assail the union hall ramparts at Pender and Hornby, they got a surprise. “Charging up a long set of stairs, they were met by longshoremen who beat them back using chair legs as staves,” wrote historian Irene Howard. A tense standoff ensued, until Mayor Robert Henry Otley Gale arrived. He convinced the agitated veterans to appoint a committee to talk to a longshoremen committee, ignoring their demand that the Labour Council’s Jack Kavanagh be ordered out of the city.

The upshot was that the rioters marched off to the Cambie Street grounds, the dockyard workers returned to their jobs at a time of their choosing, and leaders of the Trades and Labour Council agreed to test the persistent accusation that the rank-and-file did not support the general strike by resigning and calling new elections. All but one or two were handily re-elected. By Monday morning, everyone was back at work, except for 50 shoe factory workers whose employer demanded they apologize for their Friday walkout before he would allow them back in.

In the face of fierce intimidation, pro-war hysteria and mob violence, the remarkable success of the first general strike of its kind signified the increasing radicalism of the BC trade union movement, particularly in Vancouver. Less than a year later, the city’s unions walked out again, this time for an entire month, in a sympathy strike to back the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The horrors of World War One and the failure of rampant capitalism to deliver any kind of economic justice to those who did the work led more and more unions to embrace socialism as the only alternative to a broken system.

Ginger Goodwin would have understood.

Advertisements

SOLIDARITY FOREVER?

Thirty-three years ago, the newly-relected Social Credit government of Bill Bennett brought down the most dramatic, yay outlandish, budget and “restraint” package in B.C. history. What happened next is detailed here in an essay I wrote a year or so ago.

11342377

On July 7, 1983, Bill Bennett and his Social Credit government, freshly elected to a third successive term in office, unleashed a revolution in British Columbia. This was a revolution from the right. Fueled by the radical conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman’s economic neo-liberalism, the Socreds took aim at all those elements in society they had never liked. With no advance notice, a total of 26 repressive bills came down the chute in a single day, along with a harsh government restraint budget that dramatically slashed social spending. Rent controls were abolished. Landlords were given the right to evict tenants without cause. The Human Rights Commission was shut down, its workers fired on the spot. The Employment Standards Branch was killed off. Scrutiny of Crown corporations was wound up, while the government tightened its grip over local school board budgets and community colleges, including course content. And on and on.

The worst of the onslaught focused on workers and unions in the public sector. Under Bill 2, they lost the right to negotiate almost anything except wages and benefits, even as wage controls were extended indefinitely. Bill 3, designed to pave the way for a wave of firings, wiped out job security and, incredibly, gave all public sector authorities the power to terminate workers without cause, regardless of seniority. (The first list of government employees to be fired included the names of B.C. Government Employees Union executive members John Shields and Diane Woods.) This was, indeed, “Black Thursday”.

The legislative barrage came at a dire time for the labour movement, already weakened by yet another NDP defeat at the polls and the sudden death earlier that year of Jim Kinnaird, the tough, able Scot who had headed the B.C. Federation of Labour since 1976. Kinnaird’s stopgap successor was Art Kube, a portly, relatively unknown, Canadian Labour Congress staffer with little real union experience.

Yet the fightback was immediate and intense. In fact, there has never been anything quite like the concerted Operation Solidarity protest that swept the province through four turbulent months during the summer and fall of 1983. The popular, union-led uprising against Premier Bennett’s Restraint Program brought B.C. to the verge of a general strike, involving hundreds of thousands public sector workers, with B.C.’s powerful private sector unions waiting to join in the moment anyone was punished for walking off the job. Resistance was further powered by an unprecedented coalition between the labour movement and community advocacy groups that had seen so many of their own rights trampled. Kube, his belief system forged in the social democracy of his native Austria, was to prove an adept leader and strategist, who steered this unlikely coalition until the wheels fell off at the very end.

George Hewison of the Fishermen’s Union was first off the mark. He called a meeting. Instead of the usual suspects, more than a hundred people showed up. They decided to hold a demonstration. Two weeks later, 20,000 people marched across the Georgia Viaduct. The rally featured IWA leader Jack Munro’s enduring observation on whether the numerous protest signs referring to “fascism” went too far. “If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, then it’s probably a goddamned duck!” he thundered. The crowd roared back.

Kube soon coordinated union action, bringing Fed affiliates and their bitter, independent Canadian union rivals together for the first time, under the banner of the astutely-named Operation Solidarity.

Social activists also threw themselves into the struggle. A myriad opposition groups sprang up. One left-wing lawyer complained his practice was going to seed. “All I do is go to meetings.” Kube harnessed this activism into a separate Solidarity Coalition, hired several organizers, funded the rambunctious Solidarity Times newspaper, and convinced the Coalition they were equal partners with the protest’s potent trade union arm.

Image 13

Demonstrations and wildcat strikes, including a lengthy occupation of the Tranquille mental health facility in Kamloops, soon spread throughout the province. Twenty-five thousand swarmed the lawn of the legislature. Elsewhere, even in Social Credit strongholds, protestors rallied in the hundreds and thousands. But nothing topped the day tens of thousands public sector workers booked off and crammed every nook and cranny of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium. Just when it seemed the old stadium was completely jammed, in marched hundreds of uniformed firefighters, led by their famed marching band. It was a chilling, emotional moment that no one who was there would ever forget. Hope and optimism were in the air.

But Bill Bennett refused to buckle, deriding protestors as losers re-fighting the last election. Despite heroic, marathon efforts by NDP MLAs to stall the legislation, one by one the bills were pushed through.

Solidarity leaders gambled on one more demonstration, this one in mid-October, organized by the Coalition. The turnout stunned those on both sides of the battle. An estimated 80,000 demonstrators thronged the downtown streets of Vancouver. It remains the biggest protest in the city’s long, stormy history. It was time to move to the picket line. Solidarity hatched a war plan, calling for a series of escalating public sector walkouts, culminating in an all-out general strike.

Two weeks after the huge October protest, 40,000 members of the BCGEU walked off the job – legally – while their negotiators demanded the turfing of Bill 2 and an exemption from Bill 3. A week later, thousands of public school teachers and other education workers defied the law and hit the bricks on an illegal strike, seeking similar job protection. Municipal employees and the province’s critical ferry workers were next in line, set to strike on Monday, Nov. 14.

Finally, the government got nervous. They began to talk seriously about issues that had inflamed B.C. for months. Norman Spector, Bennett’s right hand man, parachuted into round-the-clock bargaining with the BCGEU at the B.C. Labour Relations Board. Spector also met secretly with B.C. Federation of Labour heavyweights Jack Munro and Mike Kramer.

The end came in a series of dramatic events that concluded less than 12 hours before the threatened ferry workers’ strike. The BCGEU won a deal containing wage increases, the death of Bill 2 and a Bill 3 exemption that recognized layoffs by seniority. It was a victory of sorts, and BCGEU negotiators brought out the champagne at their union headquarters in Burnaby. It was now a union show. The Solidarity Coalition and its causes, which had been such a part of the four-month protest, were shunted to the sidelines. “How can they celebrate when they’re selling out human rights?” lamented one Coalition leader, bitterly.

But before the picket lines came down, Operation Solidarity still wanted a pact with Bill Bennett to confirm their limited gains. With Kube home sick, Jack Munro flew to Kelowna to “negotiate” with the Premier. Sensing Solidarity’s desperation, however, Bennett refused to make any public statement committing the government to anything. Over the phone, Kube told Munro to “get the hell out of there”. Munro stayed. With the unanimous support of Federation executive members back in Vancouver, he soon stepped onto Bennett’s darkened porch and announced an end to Solidarity’s magnificent movement. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

9172581

(Vancouver Sun photo)

Privately, the government agreed to Bill 3 exemptions throughout the public sector, keeping money saved by the teachers’ walkout in the education system, and consultation on a few social matters. Yet this seemed a pittance to those who had had such high hopes for so many months. Instead of a victory celebration, there was bitterness and confusion. People felt betrayed. Operation Sellout buttons became popular. Jack Munro was vilified, both inside and outside the trade union movement. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect union members to strike and sacrifice their own pay cheques for non-monetary, non-union social issues. But this was never articulated to the Solidarity Coalition, which was left out in the rain by the final agreement.

In the cold light of dawn, however, there were still significant achievements to be noted. Nowhere in Canada outside Quebec had a strong, militant labour movement been able to stop a government’s anti-union agenda in its tracks. In the end, after all its bluster, Social Credit completely capitulated on Bills 2 and 3. That clear triumph is often forgotten amid all the unhappiness over the so-called Kelowna Accord. Bennett, himself, was heavily damaged politically. He chose not to run again. The extent of the historic fightback also dampened public enthusiasm for his right-wing, neo-con Restraint Program, few elements of which survive today. It also ensured Bennet would never be hailed a conservative folk hero, except perhaps by the Fraser Institute, as were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For all of that, we can thank Operation Solidarity. And the Solidarity Coalition.

(and here’s what I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the 25th anniversary of the Kelowna Accord http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/back-from-the-brink-25-years-later/article20389444/)

3.2