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Danny Cavanagh: Pushing back against corporate greed and spineless politicians for 100 years and counting

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – How much has changed in the last 100 years for workers? My answer is, not a lot. Our unions have been pushing back against the corporate agenda and corporate greed for a long time. We cannot forget those past fights. We just recognised 100 years since the Winnipeg strike and on June 11 we recognized Davis Day, when William Davis was shot 94 years ago in Glace Bay. Today we are still here fighting the same battles.

From May 15 to June 26 in 1919, more than 30,000 strikers brought economic activity to a standstill in Winnipeg. The strike ended in arrests, bloodshed and jail time. People back then were standing up against social inequalities, wages were low, prices were rising, employment was unstable, immigrants faced discrimination, housing and health conditions were poor. People were standing up to the enormous profits enjoyed by employers during the war. Most workers did not have union representation, but many were influenced by the hope of achieving greater economic security through unions.

William Davis was a coal miner who was killed during a long strike by the province’s coal miners 94 years ago as those workers fought against The British Empire Steel Corporation.  At the start of the strike the corporation cut off credit at the company stores, and the coal miners survived on relief payments and donations from supporters as far away as Boston and Winnipeg.

Like the Winnipeg strike the coal miners in Cape Breton were under attack by the corporate elite, when in the early hours of June 11, the company police recaptured the power plant.

That caused thousands of miners to march in protest, against the mining corporations and thirty-eight-year-old William Davis was among them.

Like in Winnipeg, the company police started shooting and fired more than 300 shots and William Davis was shot and killed. The Canadian army was called out to police the district and essentially to protect the corporation.  My point today is that the corporate interest is still strongly tied to government and how governments act, mostly what the corporate elites want, they get.

Back in June of 1925 a provincial election and the new government arranged for a settlement of the strike and continued with the recognition of the union. In that June 25th election the Liberals lost the election dropping to 3 seats from 29.  

My friends, our unions today are still fighting those same kinds of battles. Although they have stepped away from using gun fire, our constitutional union rights still get restricted by government legislation and even today workers who are defending those rights can get thrown into jail.

Workers are often criminalized like villains in the media and later the charges are often dropped/lessened. And remember, workers and union leaders are still killed today in many countries.

Often at events to recognize our past, the politicians are invited, and we often hear politicians talk about how they support workers and workers’ rights.  Many workers and their union would contend that often those words are simple sound bites. Many workers would contend that the politician’s ears are turned off when it comes to workers’ concerns.

That seems to be the case for the 120 injured miners who are waging a battle to have the ability to live a decent life by fighting for Workers’ Compensation entitlements. Like back in the days of the Winnipeg and coal miners strikes, it seems only after protest do the politicians listen.

In fact, back in those days’ political parties got tossed on their ear at election time. That may hold true come the next election. Sadly, those injured miners in Cape Breton today are still struggling to get the politicians to act. What do they get? More sound bites that we can’t do this or do that, because we can’t do it for everyone? To that I say hog-wash!

Today we see the corporations continue to be favoured by government just like back in 1925 when the corporations brought in company police and the army against miners.

To the politicians, I say it’s easy to help those miners who suffered an injury, change the Workers’ Compensation rules, the Federal Government will pay. What’s the big deal? You don’t stand up when corporate handouts are doled out and say we can’t do that because if we do it for one, we have to do it for everyone.

Why are the Cape Breton injured miners different?  Injured workers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, not excuses. I say to our political leaders let’s work and kick some doors open to make life better for workers. Let’s stop the tradition of kicking them closed when it comes to workers.

See also: Kendra Coombes: They stood the gaff – In defense of the Glace Bay miners who turned their backs on a Liberal MLA

As the Federation of Labour President, let me say that we are willing to work with our politicians and others to make life better for workers. We will stand up and defend workers, to make sure we have safe workplaces, to make sure no worker dies on the job or goes to jail for defending their rights.

One example of what I am talking about: In 1994, 1996 and 1999, private members’ bills to officially designate June 11 as Davis (Miners’ Memorial) Day were introduced in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. None of those got past first reading, not one.  It wasn’t until 2008 when again a private member’s bill to officially designate June 11 as William Davis Miners’ Memorial Day was introduced and passed. It is sad that that didn’t pass the very first time it was introduced.

I just ask this. — That our politicians stop with the lip service and show some real leadership when it comes to workers.

We will continue to honour workers like William Davis and we will stand proud that our unions will continue to stand in the streets to continue to defend workers’ rights and democracy.

I am disappointed that some 94 years after William Davis was shot by the company police, we are still fighting for workers’ rights and to ensure workers get the respect and dignity they deserve after a life of work.

To those of you reading this I say: never be afraid to speak up and defend your principles and values and to stand up for what you believe is right!

Let’s never forget that workers like William Davis stood up and let’s give pause that we all must continue to do the same, because if we don’t, who will.

Ask yourself how much has really changed since 1925?

Danny Cavanagh is president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour

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