BC Labour Heritage Centre – May 2020 Newsletter

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‘Girl Strikers’ during the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic

A campaign to raise the minimum wage in British Columbia spearheaded by the BC Federation of Labour’s first female president, Irene Lanzinger, and affecting 63 percent of women wage earners, concluded successfully in 2018. A century ago women performing low-paid work fought a similar battle for a living wage. They were limited to gendered work, navigating inferior working conditions, sexual harassment, and health and safety concerns. Women comprised 13 percent of the Canadian labour force compared to nearly 50 percent in 2015, typically working until marriage, their husband the sole wage-earner. Organizing into trade unions was challenging, and white, male-dominated leaders were unreliable in their support. Women employed as telephone operators, retail clerks, bookbinders, tailors, and domestic workers in Vancouver signed union cards in the early 1900s, but their locals were not easily sustained. Such was the case of a laundry workers’ union formed in the city in 1902 and dissolved three years later. Still women persisted. When a labour shortage caused by the First World War occurred between 1916 to 1920, union membership soared. Laundry workers in cities across North America were among those to take a stand.

In Vancouver, a total of three hundred workers at seven steam laundries – most of them female – joined a union over the summer of 1918. In early September, they went on strike for four months to improve wages and conditions within an occupation that was hidden, hard, and dangerous. Characterized in newspapers as “girl strikers,” most were over eighteen years old, working out of necessity. Their task of cleaning clothes, considered women’s work, was devalued, performed in households without pay, or delegated to low-waged domestic servants. Unpaid laundry work was assigned to females in institutions of confinement, including Aboriginal students attending residential schools across Canada. Systemic racism provides another dimension for analyzing the dispute. Owners of steam laundries exclusively hired white people, typically British, but also those from other European backgrounds, some workers anglicizing their names. Chinese residents, many bachelors and sojourners, comprised 8 percent of the city’s population. By 1912, fifty-three Chinese-run hand laundries existed in neighbourhoods around the city,…..(to read more click the link below.)



Lessons From the Spanish Flu

A new lesson plan written for our Labour History Project is available for download on our website. The document links to resources on the effects of the pandemic on British Columbians and others in Canada. The ferocity of the disease in indigenous communities is discussed. A series of questions are posed to encourage discussion among students that are timely to today’s COVID-19 experience.

Father Joseph Allard, the school principal, conducted funeral services at the mission cemetery. But, as he wrote in his diary, the “others were brought in two or three at a time, but I could not go to the graveyard with all of them. In fact, several bodies were piled up in an empty cabin because there was no grave ready. A large common grave was dug for them.”

 Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Volume 4, 119.


Let History Tell Our Stories.

BC Labour Heritage Centre chronicles the pandemic in 2020.

We are preserving a record of how BC workers and unions responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The BC Labour Heritage Centre is gathering material related to the British Columbia labour movement in real time and building an archival collection to capture this moment for long term preservation.

We need your help to document this period in history. What do you think will show generations to come the impact of this pandemic on working people? Press releases on job losses, petitions for danger pay and proper protective equipment, and interviews with workers are just a few ideas.

You can send a photo, scanned document, link or other material to Project Manager Bailey Garden.


BC Labour History Notes

Some remarkable work is being done at the Ka’atza Station Museum in Lake Cowichan where the International Woodworkers of America Archive is located. Henry John is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia history department who is working to organize and itemize the huge collection.


Dennis J Duffy, former audio-visual archivist at the BC Archives, has edited some fascinating footage showing Vancouver citizens and organizations marching in a mass May Day parade through downtown Vancouver and the West End on
May 1, 1938.

Read the story behind the film.


A donation from an individual sorting her father’s records has brought us two copies of Project News, a publication of the Relief Project Workers Union in 1938. The RPWU formed after the On to Ottawa Trek and was instrumental in organizing the occupation of the Vancouver Art Gallery and Post Office which resulted in Bloody Sunday.
Browse them here and here.


A chance encounter by one of our talented volunteers brought us a story about a union organizing drive at BC private hospitals in the 1970s — a topic relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic’s toll on long-term care facilities.
READ: The Stormy History of Union Organizing in BC’s Private Hospitals on our blog.


On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement by Rod Mickleburgh tells the important story of BC’s labour organizations in prose that is both accessible and engaging. The hardcover book also features over 200 archival photos. Read how unions have shaped the fabric of the province — at a cost of much blood, sweat, toil and tears.


Are you in isolation, quarantine or respite? Why not take a minute to send a note to someone? Our collection of BC labour history postcards and notecards are the perfect way to share your thoughts, and preserve the stories of BC workers and unions. 

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