Churches played key role in Gainers' strike

Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

May 30, 2016

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event at the Alberta Provincial Archives commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Edmonton Gainers' Strike.

This bitter strike, which went on for more than six months and put more than 1,000 employees on a picket line, is still remembered by those involved, including many in Edmonton area churches.

The strike began June 1, 1986. This was a time of economic recession in Alberta with high unemployment and reduced government social supports. The Gainers' plant was owned by Peter Pocklington who was aggressively seeking to cut the wages and the benefits of his employees.

The workers, who had been pushed to accept wage and benefits cuts in contract negotiations two years earlier, were determined to stand firm, seeking parity with other meat packing plants in Western Canada.

Right after the strike started, there were violent confrontations at the street entrance to the packing plant as hundreds of strikers sought to prevent buses full of strikebreakers from entering the plant. The stakes were high because Alberta law was not clear about whether the strikers or strikebreakers would be employed when the strike ended.

Also, it was learned that the employer cancelled the employee pension fund at the start of the strike. Soon there were mass arrests and court injunctions.

The extensive media coverage challenged many in the Edmonton area churches to get involved. An ecumenical organizing committee came together, which included members of the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission.

FRANCISCAN PARISH

St. Francis of Assisi Parish, located a few blocks from the plant, had a long history of ministering to the meat-packing workers over several decades. A week into the strike, the pastor, Franciscan Father William Collins agreed to provide the venue for a large rally of 3,000 people. He was one of the speakers at the rally.

Later that week 8,000 people gathered at the Alberta Legislature to express concern about was happening at the Gainers' plant. Redemptorist Father Ed Kennedy was one of the speakers on the Legislature steps.

Also during the first week, the ecumenical committee started organizing morning prayer services. Six mornings a week, Church members and others gathered at St. Francis Church at 6:45 a.m., and walked behind the large wooden cross used in the downtown Outdoor Way of the Cross to a site close to the plant entrance.

ECUMENICAL PRAYER

Clergy and lay representatives from several denominations took turns preparing and leading a service of Scripture readings, hymns and intercessory prayers for all impacted by the strike. As the strike continued into September, the prayer service schedule shifted to two days a week until the strike finally ended in mid-December.

There were other ecumenical gatherings, including evening worship services at Edmonton churches, meetings with labour leaders, Gainers' management reps and the farmers supplying the cattle and hogs. Some Church reps and organizations participated in the national boycott of Gainers' products.

Over the six months, several hundred people from local churches had experience of being present and participating in this historic labour struggle. Some followed up this involvement by participating in the subsequent Alberta government Labour Law review.

For Catholics, this experience led to a direct engagement with Catholic social teaching. The dignity of human work is the central theme of Catholic social teaching.

PAPAL ENCYCLICAL

In 1981, St. John Paul II issued his encyclical On Human Work. He spoke of "the need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers" (8). He called for unions to be "a mouthpiece for social justice for the rights of working people" (20).

A month before the strike on May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the Canadian bishops issued a pastoral statement Supporting Labour Unions: A Christian Responsibility.

This was incredibly timely. Catholic reps passed out thousands of copies of the bishops' statement at public rallies, meetings and local churches during the strike.

Thirty years later, we do not hear much about the issues of worker justice in our local churches. Yet the issues are still with us in the struggles of temporary foreign workers and those who receive a sub-living wage and have to go to local food banks to provide for themselves and their families.

(Bob McKeon: rmckeon55@gmail.com)