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Yesterday marked a century of public sector trade unionism in Alberta

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Alberta Union of Provincial Employees President Guy Smith last night in the basement of Edmonton’s First Presbyterian Church, where public sector trade unionism got its start in Alberta 100 years earlier. Photo: David J. Climenhaga.

There will be no update on the Alberta election campaign today; your blogger was at church last night.

Let me explain: 100 years ago last night, a small gathering of people met in the basement of Edmonton's First Presbyterian Church to do something pretty brave.

To wit, they founded a staff association to represent them at their work as civil servants a few blocks away at the six-year-old Alberta Legislature Building.

The Great War was just over and doing work for the government wasn't yet routinely vilified by politicians and the press. Just the same, though, they'd been warned -- if they asked for a raise, they'd be fired.

Instead, they formed the Civil Service Association of Alberta and asked for a raise anyway. They elected a public works employee named W. T. Aiken as their president to do the asking. They chose as their motto: Unity, Strength, Protection.

In the fullness of time, those raises would come, along with some other important things, such as a pension (in 1923), group life insurance (1934), a 40-hour week (1955), four weeks vacation after 24 years of service (1956), and medical premiums partly covered by the employer (1968). At every step of the way, other workers in society benefitted too, as the things won by the CSAA for its members became normal in the workplace.

"Despite the threat of being fired, a small group of government employees pulled together and in this very building a hundred years ago today took a stand for themselves and their colleagues," Alberta Union of Provincial Employees President Guy Smith said last night.

AUPE is the successor organization to the CSAA. The name change happened in 1977, when Peter Lougheed was premier of Alberta and the CSAA achieved the status of a legal union. Today, AUPE represents public and private sector workers in many fields, and with close to 100,000 members it is one of Canada's 10 largest unions.

"It's no secret to anyone here tonight," Smith observed in the same room the CSAA founders had met a century earlier, "that workers can only achieve gains through collective action."

This is profoundly true. That's why since the boom years after the Second World War, when union membership was high in the democracies of the West and prosperity flowed to working people and their families, the forces of organized capital have waged a bitter fight to weaken unions and the rights of all working people.

Despite this half-century barrage of propaganda, polling in the United States last year showed 62 per cent of Americans still approve of unions and nearly half of non-unionized U.S. workers would join one if they could.

Because the benefits of union membership to working people are obvious, weakening unions can only be achieved in a free society by making society less free.

So the struggle to protect the fundamental rights of working people to bargain collectively for their own good and the good of society continues today, in Alberta, and around the world.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.  

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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