Relief Camp Workers' Union
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The Relief Camp Workers' Union (RCWU) was the union into which the inmates of the Canadian government relief camps were organized in the early 1930s. It was affiliated with the Workers' Unity League, the trade union umbrella of the Communist Party of Canada. The organization is best known for organizing the On-to-Ottawa Trek during the Great Depression.
RCWU organizers worked covertly in building the union because they faced being blacklisted the camps, which were run by the Department of National Defence under the command of General Andrew McNaughton. Grievances about the camp system were numerous, from the poor quality food, the lack of leisure facilities (bathrooms and showers), and that the men were only paid twenty cents per day. Consequently, the RCWU's numbers quickly swelled. Much of the organizing drive for the RCWU took place in Vancouver at 52½ West Cordova Street. In addition to serving as the union's headquarters, this is also where men just arriving in town were directed to go before they signed up for relief camp work. Organizers would recruit these men into the union if they were amenable to the idea, and they were often given propaganda to smuggle into the camps.
The RCWU organized its first strike in December, 1934. Hundreds of camp workers went to Vancouver to protest conditions in the relief camps. That strike was short-lived, however, and the strikers retreated back to the camps and the RCWU began to restrategize. The next walkout was more successful. It began April 4, 1935 when men from relief camps all over Western Canada rode boxcars into Vancouver, where they remained for almost two months.
RCWU strike in Vancouver
While in Vancouver, they protested regularly to raise public awareness of their rights. RCWU organizers made it a priority to maintain discipline in the ranks so as not to alienate public opinion. One occasion in particular was an exception to this rule. During one of the RCWU "snake parades," marching in a zig zag through the streets, usually in columns of two, the leader noticed that the entrance to the Hudson's Bay Company Department Store was unguarded. Other stores all had guards posted and shut their doors because the protesters would parade through the stores to present their case to shoppers. This time, on April 26, the manager of the store telephoned the police, who promptly arrived and attempted to eject the men. A fight ensued, ending with broken display cases and several injuries. One police officer was severely injured. The demonstrators and other protesters converged for a rally at Victory Square, where Mayor McGeer came and read the riot act and the crowd dispersed. Another notable moment during the relief camp strike was when a group of RCWU strikers occupied the city museum for eight hours, coming out only after a promise was given that the city would given them money to feed the strikers for three days.
Intransigence of all three levels of government became apparent throughout the strike, with the civic government looking to the provincial and federal governments to take responsibility for the crisis of unemployment. The provincial Liberal government had been elected on the platform of "Work and Wages," a slogan appropriated by the strikers to emphasize that this promise gone unfulfilled. The federal Conservative government under R.B. "Iron Heel" Bennett, meanwhile, argued that policing and relief were provincial and municipal responsibilities, but if they could not control the situation themselves, a request could be made for federal forces under "aid to civil defense" provisions. This intransigence helped to generate public support for the strikers, even among conservatives who agreed that the "Red Menace" was a real threat to Canadian society and should be dealt a decisive blow.
The city, provincial, and federal police were all standing by during the strike, along with several hundred special constables because, the government claimed, it was part of a larger plot on the part of the Communists, on orders from Moscow, to spark a general strike in Vancouver. Another strike was developing amongst longshoremen, whose union was also under WUL leadership, and the government feared that the two might merge into one large strike, which might spread. The relief camp strikers, however, decided that they had accomplished all they could in Vancouver, and voted to take their grievances to Ottawa in what became the more famous On-to-Ottawa Trek.
After the Trek
The On-to-Ottawa Trek was crushed in Regina, and most of the men returned to the camps, but their efforts instigated the process which would lead to significant reforms and were later considered by historians to be an important turning point paving the way for the post war welfare state in Canada. In 1935, the Communists' abandoned the Third Period doctrine under which the WUL toiled, and many RCWU Communists left to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War with the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. The relief camp issue would once again descend on Vancouver in 1938 when the RCWU's successor, the Relief Project Workers' Union led another walk out and another series of protests. The climax this time came when, on May 20, 1938, a group of protesters occupied a number of buildings including the post office in the Winch Building (now the Sinclair Centre). Over a thousand men continued to occupy the post office for almost a month, until were violently removed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on June 18 in what came to be known as "Bloody Sunday." Many were injured (including several police officers) and 28 men were jailed. Protesters in Vancouver and Victoria demanded the release of the prisoners and the resignation of Premier Patullo.
Leaders of the RCWU included
- Arthur "Slim" Evans
- Earnest (Smokey) Cumber
- Matt Shaw
- Malcolm MacLeod
- Ronald Liversedge
- James "Red" Walsh
- Perry Hilton
- Lionel Edwards
- Steve Brody
- Bob "Doc" Savage
- Mike McCauley
- Bill Davis
- Gerry Winters
- Jack Cosgrove
- Steward "Paddy" O'Neil.
Lorne Brown, When Freedom was Lost: The Unemployed, the Agitator, and the State, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1987.
Victor Howard, "We Were the Salt of the Earth": A Narrative of the On-to-Ottawa Trek and the Regina Riot. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, University of Regina, 1985.
Ronald Liversedge, Recollections of the On To Ottawa Trek, ed. Victor Hoar. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.
John Manley, “Canadian Communists, Revolutionary Unionism, and the ‘Third Period’: The Workers’ Unity League, 1929–1935,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, New Series, vol. 5 (1994): 167-194.
Bill Waiser, All Hell Can’t Stop Us: The On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot. Calgary: Fifth House, 2003.
- Strike! A Model of Discipline and Tactical Brilliance, On to Ottawa historical Society