When we talk about the history of Alberta we usually think of wide-open prairies, cattle ranching and oil -- seldom do historians talk about the men and women of the labour movement who helped Alberta grow and become prosperous. As part of this year's birthday celebrations, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is helping Albertans learn about the province's rich labour history. The Alberta Federation of Labour was born on June 14, 1912.
As a retiree, I had time to help out. Workers were the focus in the history we did. We interviewed hundreds of workers all over the province and recorded amazing stories of struggles, victories and losses. I had fun setting up the cameras and lights, filming and even conducting the actual interviews, and I learned a lot.
I learned that in the early 1900s, very active, progressive and sometimes radical groups of workers stood their ground against vicious attacks by employers supported by governments and police. They fought for the eight-hour workday, union recognition, health and safety concerns and more, and they won many of those battles for us.
Coal miners, laundry workers, garment factory workers, public- and private-sector workers, meat packers and many more painted a much different picture than how the history of our province is usually portrayed.
An ambulance driver in Calgary talked about how cutthroat the business was in the old days when private operators ruled. He told stories about the race to get to the "victims" and how fisticuffs were often used to decide which ambulance would take the patient to the hospital. Getting that pickup was the only way they would get paid. As I listened I couldn't help but think how lucky we are that he and others fought to change things.
We also recorded the memories of workers who were involved in more recent events in Alberta's labour history, like the Nurses and Postal workers strikes in the '80s, the Gainers and Fletchers' strikes of 1986 and the Calgary laundry workers strike of 1995.
The stories were transcribed and used in pamphlets, DVDs, posters, a website and included in a book on Alberta's labour history entitled Working People in Alberta: A History. It is published by Athabasca University and is a compilation of both academic and trade union authors. The book starts with stories of Native work and moves through the century.
The celebrations started in Medicine Hat on May 3 and continued up to the main event of June 16 with the "Celebration in the Park" at Fort Edmonton.
Some of the events were held at the Calgary Labour Temple on 11 Avenue SE, the site of many of Alberta's prominent labour moments. The temple was the birthplace of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) -- predecessor to the New Democratic Party (NDP) -- in 1932. Inside its walls representatives of many groups, including unions, decided to hold the CCF founding convention in Regina, Saskatchewan -- commonly known as the Regina Manifesto.
In Lethbridge, where the founding convention of the AFL was held in June 1912, the Labour Council joined with the Galt Museum to sponsor a concert by Canadian singer-songwriter Maria Dunn and a picnic in the park, which had a great turnout in a snowstorm.
The Edmonton Labour Council dedicated a monument as a tribute to families of workers injured or killed on the job.
Twenty-five museums and libraries across the province mounted labour history displays in honour of the AFL centennial. Many of the displays are still up. Red Deer is mounting a large stainless steel disc engraved with images of labour on a downtown building.
One of the highlights of the celebration was a labour history conference sponsored by the Alberta Labour History Institute June 13-15 in Edmonton, which was followed by a well-attended mini-non-delegated AFL convention in the Park at Fort Edmonton on June 16. Over 900 attended the celebration dinner.
These and the many other AFL centennial events held in communities around the province helped Albertans remember and learn about our rich and successful labour history. It also reminded me, as a union retiree, that I still have a lot to offer, and my efforts can still help make a difference for others.
Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.
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