First of May has long been associated with celebrating the return of spring and warmer weather, but since the late 1880s the day has also been connected to worker solidarity.
This year, the occasion will be celebrated in Powell River for the first time in nearly two decades, according to David Doyle, a local historian and one of the event’s organizers.
Doyle is working with social action group The Council of Canadians to host the gathering.
“We’re hoping to have the first May Day in Powell River since the year 2000,” he said. “The Council [of Canadians] has stood foursquare behind the working class and the development of their rights and collective bargaining.”
The evening will be a celebration and commemoration and also an observance of the hundredth anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Doyle will provide an overview of the strike, which he described as a seminal moment in Canadian labour history. At the time, some 30,000 workers walked off the job to demand better and safer working conditions, and an eight-hour work day.
“It lasted six weeks and unfortunately it ended in violence and was suppressed, but overall for Canadians this was an historic moment that began the development of the labour movement here in Canada,” said Doyle.
Like the rest of the country, workers in Powell River formed unions early last century. As the first rolls of paper were produced by the Powell River Company in 1912, Local 142 of the Papermaker’s Union was organized. It was disbanded in 1918 when the company refused to negotiate with wages dropping by 16.5 per cent and workers considered disloyal fired, according to Doyle.
In the 1930s the Pulp and Paper workers successfully organized. Although the issues at stake have changed since the Industrial Revolution when labourers first began protesting for safer working conditions and the eight-hour work day, the importance of labour organization is still great, according to North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney.
“With income inequality, attacks on pensions and the rising gap between wages and the cost of living, worker solidarity is as important today as it has ever been,” said Blaney. “It’s great to see Powell River celebrating and reflecting on its history as a strong labour town.”
Evolving working conditions and the erosion of unions make the need for re-examining labour conditions and fighting for worker rights as important as ever, said Doyle.
“The world of work has changed dramatically. We’re into a whole new computer-based economy and what this means is things like the eight-hour day are slipping away,” he said. “The protections that the workers have earned over the years, we have to keep them in mind otherwise they will erode.”
The Powell River chapter of The Council of Canadians Solidarity Evening takes place May 1 at 7 pm at Union Hall, 5418 Ash Street in Townsite. It is open to everyone.
For more information, contact Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.