Taking a moment to listen to the valuable lessons of history
In the July issue, we published an article on page 14 regarding the old smokestack by Fort Road. The article mistakenly stated it was the old Gainers meat packing site, but it is in fact the Canada Packers meat packing plant. The strike itself took place at the Gainers site.
Thank you to all the readers who contacted us regarding this error. We will be revising the article and publishing it in a later issue, likely online.
In 2015, my partner and I moved to Edmonton and settled in Eastwood. Getting to know our new community, I would often take our dog to the path that runs along the LRT tracks. Northeast from Coliseum Station, once you pass under Wayne Gretzky Drive and over the Yellowhead, you’ll come to ETS’ new Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage. Seven hundred people will work there.
When we first walked around the 13-acre site, before construction of the garage began, the place was a ruin and had been since the end of the last century. Piles of dirt and jumbles of broken concrete, metal joists, old wiring, plumbing, and the shattered remains of foundations with stairs that led nowhere made for a landscape evocative of a war zone. Or perhaps like the remnants of an ancient civilization.
Rising from the rubble, incongruously intact, a massive terra cotta chimney was home to roosting pigeons. It was all that remained of the Gainers plant, the former industrial heart of Packingtown. Once one of Edmonton’s working class districts, Packingtown was where thousands of workers and their families lived near their jobs, in houses where many of us today now live.
This end of town was home to the second largest meat packing industry in North America, next to Chicago’s Union Stock Yards. The area once thrived on account of the trade it generated, but because cheaper labour could be had in the United States, it stopped being a meat packing centre in the 1980s and Packingtown was in decline.
In 1986, the owner of the Gainers plant decided the business wasn’t profitable enough. That year when the workers’ union contract came up for negotiation and they sought pay equity, the owner of the plant, Peter Pocklington, dug in his heels. Pocklington owned the Edmonton Oilers too, so they considered it an insult that he could afford to pay a million dollar salary for one hockey player but not give the meat packers a raise. The workers didn’t give a wick about the profits. There was a lot more than someone else’s dividends at stake for them, so they made a stand and went on strike.
Given the times, strikes were not unusual. They were breaking out across the province. The economy had tanked that year as the booming oil industry busted, so even oil workers were on the lines in places like Fort McMurray. But the bitterest struggle happened in Packingtown and the strike lasted six-and-a-half months.
Pocklington refused to negotiate and hired replacement workers instead. He tried to break the strike by bussing them in. This outraged the workers, and so the buses were armoured when chunks of pavement began to fly.
The Edmonton Police Service were deployed. The resistance of the workers was so intense that the city was close to calling in the army. Instead, they used court orders to limit the number of strikers allowed on the line. Arrests were made and police tactics were enough to divert the struggle away from the picket line. A national boycott of Gainers products and a mass protest of 6,000 people on June 12 at the legislature followed.
Enough pressure, between the pickets, protests, and the boycott, was brought to bear that the premier got involved and a contract offer eventually appeared on the table. It was nowhere near the workers’ original demands. After a two year wage freeze, the third year would only bring a small raise, but the workers would keep their jobs.
They had been pushed to their limit; six months is a long time to be living on strike pay. Circumstances compelled them to take far less than what they had struck for in the first place, but they bought themselves time. The plant would stay in business for another 10 years.
Quoted in 2011 as to what he wished he could have done differently in 1986, Pocklington said he wished he’d closed the plant. The only thing that stood in his way back then were the unionized workers demonstrating for us how resistance is anything but futile.
Pocklington eventually got out of the meat packing business. In 1988, the Conservative government handed him enough cash to cover the wage increase and more. After accepting the $61 million, Pocklington sold the plant and walked away. By 1997, after being sold again, this time to Maple Leaf Foods, the plant was shut down despite another strike. It was demolished in 1998. The site would be a wasteland for nearly two decades afterwards.
The new ETS garage is a welcome sight on the lot. While Packingtown is history, the old struggle between the priorities of capital and those of the working class is not.
The smokestack is no cenotaph. Its testament should not mourn the passing of an era. History has more than moribund sentimentality for us, if we choose to listen to what it has to say. As the last remnant of Packingtown preserved for posterity, it is no longer symbolic of ruins. Standing over a new plant, of sorts, it is a memorial to resistance. The smokestack ought to be seen as a reminder of the workers who fought to save their plant and their community, not the hubris of the wealthy few whose priorities meant its destruction.
Featured Image: The smokestack of the Gainers plant is an important part of our history. | Kevin Bell