How the local labour movement helped shape Kawartha Lakes

By Lindsay Advocate

CUPE workers stand together at Kent and Lindsay Streets in Lindsay.


By James Mulhern, president of the Lindsay and District Labour Council and David Rapaport, adjunct professor of sociology, Trent University. Both live in Lindsay.

On Friday, Nov. 4 and Monday, Nov. 7, hundreds of Kawartha Lakes education workers joined tens of thousands striking education workers across the province to protest Bill 28.  With their picket signs and union flags, they marched on Lindsay Street between Kent Street and Wellington Street in front of MPP Laurie Scott’s office.  Bill 28 was back-to-work legislation to impose a new contract for these workers and prohibit a strike. It didn’t work. CUPE workers recognized the attack on their democratic rights and their need for a reasonable wage increase. And they took action.

What we witnessed in early November was the proverbial ‘power of the union’ backed by worker members who demanded a fair contract and good-faith collective bargaining. The action was representative of the revival of activism and influence of the Canadian labour movement — in the country, in the province and in Kawartha Lakes. It is worth taking a closer look.

There are two strands in the history of the Canadian labour movement. The first strand is the more obvious; the representation of workers in their efforts to achieve a better standard of living. This strand is about improving the material conditions of life for workers, in opposition to the excesses of economic inequality. Unions use collective bargaining as the tool to achieve these ends, with the union negotiating directly with the employer on behalf of workers.

The second strand is about recognition and participation in the political and economic life of the country and the workplace. Until 1872 unions were illegal in Canada. That changed when our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, passed the Trade Union Act. In 1943, the Privy Council legitimized unions and collective bargaining by putting the legal onus on employers to negotiate with their employees in good faith where workers have democratically displayed a desire to be represented by a union, usually through a certification vote. The 1945 strike at the Ford factory in Windsor resulted in the Rand Formula, with automatic union dues deduction for all workers represented by the union. Those rights were reinforced in 2014 by the Canadian Supreme Court through its ruling that collective bargaining rights were indeed Charter Rights as guaranteed through the right of association. Thus, unions and collective bargaining are part and parcel of our social, economic and political landscape.   

Unions in Kawartha Lakes

Unions have a strong and active history and presence in Kawartha Lakes. 

In 1957, the Lindsay and District Labour Council was established by 10 unions, representing workers in the construction trades, the textile industry, the public sector, Hydro, and the Steelworkers.  It received its charter from the national labour body, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to represent workers and unions in Victoria County and Haliburton County.  The Lindsay and District Labour Council made its political mark early under the leadership of its first president, Tom Nye. In its founding year, a group of 30 workers, men and women representing 10 unions unanimously endorsed a resolution by the Lindsay Council to budget for industrial development.

A labour council is a localized central body comprised of union locals to act on behalf of all unions and all workers — to educate, to lobby, to form coalitions with like-minded groups and to establish a labour presence. Currently there are nine unions, comprised of 14 locals representing about 6,000 workers. This includes OPSEU, CUPE, Firefighters, OSSTF, EFTO, OECTA, UFCW, CUPW and IBEW. The Lindsay & District Labour Council encourages all local unions to participate, affiliate and communicate with the council.

The Lindsay Labour Council organizes the local National Day of Mourning every April 28 at Victoria Park to recognize workers who died or were injured on the job – with the slogan “we mourn for the dead but fight for the living.” It organizes the Labour Day picnic, and local political lobbying often in step with Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) campaigns. The labour movement participated in the campaigns to increase the minimum wage and to improve the CPP benefit for all Canadian retirees. The local branch of the Ontario Health Coalition is also a partner of the Labour Council, advocating for our universal health care system for all Canadians. 

The Labour Council also plays an important role as a community partner, such as local food drives or the Big Brothers Big Sisters Bowl for Kids Sake. It participates in the Lindsay Fair parade, the Santa Clause parade and it contributes a booth at the Lindsay Fair.

The list of accomplishments for the Canadian labour movement is long and it is universal.  What follows is a partial list; weekends, the eight-hour work day, child labour laws, paid vacations, equal pay for equal work for all workers regardless of race or gender, public and improved Canada Pension Plan, minimum wage, anti-discrimination legislation, overtime pay, Occupational Health & Safety legislation, protection from sexual harassment laws and paid holidays. 

These economic benefits have been of mainstream benefit for all of society. Income and wealth concentrated at the top-end is hardly smart economic or social policy.

Before the labour movement gained recognition and legitimacy, a large percentage of Canadian workers were living in poverty, with little or no access to decent health care and housing, with low literacy levels, with no sense of job security, no maternity leave, no pensions, no holidays, no weekends and no sick time. 

The history of Canadian unions is a history of advocacy for the downward redistribution of wealth and income. This benefits its own members, certainly, but it helps all workers as well. Minimum wage levels are influenced by wages negotiated in collective bargaining. The Canada Pension Plan came into play in 1965 after years of persistent lobbying by the labour movement for all Canadian workers. Employment Insurance appeared in 1940. The main issue of the 1981 strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers was maternity leave and benefits. This ultimately worked its way into Employment Standards regulations for all Canadian workers over the next few decades. It is not unusual to trace benefits that we now take for granted as either originating in collective bargaining or advocated by the labour movement.  

More recently, Canadian unions have responded to the plight of workers in the precarious labour market and the gig economy. The United Food and Commercial Workers and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers are organizing workers at Uber and Uber Eats. There have also been union-organizing drives at Starbucks, Walmart and Amazon.

CUPE education workers in Kawartha Lakes say no to Bill 28 

Bill Campbell is the president of CUPE local 977, representing education workers at the Trillium Lakelands District School Board; 850 workers in 52 schools. CUPE 997 members occupy non-teacher positions, such as custodians, education assistants, administrative workers and IT workers. Campbell reflects on those two days of political action by the membership of his local along with their 55,000 CUPE colleagues across the province.

“Over the past decade, CUPE education workers have received meager compensation increases due to regressive legislation; Bill 115 by the Liberal Government in 2012 and certainly by Bill 124, introduced by the Ford Government in 2018.” Both either eliminated or severely restricted compensation rates.  According to Campbell, education workers in Kawartha Lakes lost 11 per cent of their income in the past decade by not keeping up with the cost of living.

Local 997 represents education workers in Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton County and Muskoka County.  Campbell joined the Lindsay picket line on the Friday protest and the Bracebridge picket line on Monday. “We estimate that about 650 people joined our picket line in Lindsay,” making it one of the largest picket lines in local labour history.

“Local members supported the union and the two-day strike,” he said. “We did a lot of work in the year before November to explain the union strategy. They understood that their collective bargaining rights were being eroded, rights that offered the means to a proper standard of living.”

The Advocate asked Campbell about whether there was blowback from the public, particularly parents who were inconvenienced. Campbell said it was quite the opposite. “Parents by and large supported us. People off the street joined our lines. Businesses delivered pizza, doughnuts and coffee. The horn honking of support was overwhelming. The public was on our side.”

He said the public and their own members knew the meaning of our action.

“Not only was the quality of education at risk, not only were the living standards of education workers who look after our kids at risk, but so was democracy. The Ford government went too far and everybody knew it.”    

1 Comment

  1. Peter Votsch says:

    An excellent article, which I hope is read by workers and their families throughout the Kawartha Lakes region. Cheers and Solidarity to the authors!

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