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The Great Equalizer

Silver Donald Cameron sees strikes as an unfortunate, but necessary, last resort

by Miles Howe

Silver Donald Cameron plus Dog. Photo: Silver Donald Cameron
Silver Donald Cameron plus Dog. Photo: Silver Donald Cameron

Silver Donald Cameron, the Governor-General Award-winning author, would rather we see beyond the short-term inconvenience of the current transit strike in Halifax. Granted, it is cold, and urban sprawl being what it is, it has become increasingly difficult to get around the city.

The strike has an especially great effect on low-income Haligonians, who are more likely to be dependent upon public transit as their main source of transportation. But Cameron recommends putting the union, and the strike - the union's “ultimate weapon” - into a larger social context.

To Cameron, member of the Canadian Freelancers' Union, and treasurer of the Writers' Union, the union is a huge force for social justice in the community, and the strike is a necessary tool in the union's arsenal.

“So many people think of this just in terms of the inconvenience, like 'well, I can't get on the bus,'” says Cameron. “That's true, but the strike is ultimately the main weapon that unions have. The reason for that is, it has to hurt. You have to have some way that you can hurt the employer, and force the employer to sit down and bargain with you.

“One of the things that I would love to see would be a real focus on helping people to understand what the strike is all about, why it's important, and why it is that that kind of action is something that the unions have to be able to do, and occasionally have to do. Really the only way to equalize the power between the employer and the employee is to hit the employer in their pocketbook. In a sense, the general public, who want to do business with that employer are kind of collateral damage, but I think that most people don't understand what's at stake.”

Nova Scotia has a rich history of union involvement and action. However, in a system in which history is often used as propaganda or justification of the status quo, unions are frequently vilified, if not forgotten.

“We could go back to the 1925 coal miners' strike in Cape Breton, the one in which Bill Davis was shot dead,” says Cameron. “That was one of the strikes where you could really see where the entire establishment lined up against the striking workers. The whole system that we live in relies on people going along and providing their labour at whatever cost they're offered.

"But in those strikes there were warships lined up in Glace Bay Harbour with their guns trained on the town. They called up the army. There was a machine gun nest on the top of the mill at the Sydney Steel Plant. There were troopers riding through the streets of the industrial towns. There was one trooper in Whitney Pier that rode his horse up three stories of a hotel, beating everybody as he went. It was really unbelievable.”

One of Cameron's books, The Education of Everett Richardson, deals with the historic fishermen's strike of 1970-71. The story itself is fascinating, but it is important to note Cameron's motivation in chronicling this event: if he didn't do it, nobody else would.

“All this stuff just fades away. We remember other stuff; we remember for example on Remembrance Day the number of people who have made huge sacrifices to preserve our freedom by fighting in foreign wars. Well, these guys made huge sacrifices to preserve our freedom by fighting in the streets of Glace Bay, and somehow we don't seem to have the same honour for them.

“I don't think they're in the interest of the establishment to remember them. The courts are not going to be in a hurry to celebrate people who defy them. The business establishment is not going to be in a hurry to celebrate workers who stand up against them and say 'You're treating us unjustly,' and of course the other structures, like the media, belong to the business class and have the same attitudes and outlooks and interests.”

Silver Donald Cameron is slated to speak as part of a panel event on Wednesday, February 22. "The State of Our Unions: Tales from the trenches of labour in Nova Scotia" will take place at Just Us! CafĂ© on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, 6:30-9pm, and will be hosted by the Halifax Media Co-op. For details, visit: http://halifax.mediacoop.ca/events/9883

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