AUPE is celebrating 100 years of solidarity, and our past is inspiring members to fight for the future.
by Alexander Delorme, Communications Staff

One hundred years ago, on Wednesday, March 26, 1919, a small group of workers made their way towards Edmonton’s First Presbyterian Church. They were all members of Alberta’s disgruntled public workforce, and they were organizing. The First World War had ended a mere four months ago and things weren’t looking up.

Alberta boomed during the early 1900s. Edmonton was named the capital and expanded rapidly as the province’s population approached 500,000. But the good times didn’t last. The real estate boom busted, and it busted just as World War I began.

The war hurt Alberta and its workers. Provincial employees were constantly disrespected by the government, their employer. Not only were they forced to take a pay cut, but they were also unfairly levied a “patriotic” tax to help pay for the war effort. In fact, any employee who asked for a raise was considered to be handing in their resignation. Eventually, workers had had enough and on that chilly March evening one hundred years ago, they gathered together at that meeting at north Edmonton’s Presbyterian Church, determined to make things better for themselves and other workers.

That night, these provincial employees agreed to incorporate the Civil Service Association of Alberta. They adopted a crest, which carried the Latin phrase, Unitas Firmitas Protectio, or “Unity Strength Protection.” The CSAA held its first convention in 1921 and provincial employees from across the province proudly carried its banner for nearly 60 years.

“The CSAA was a movement of ordinary people dedicated to creating positive change for themselves and their fellow workers,” said AUPE Vice-President and Centennial Committee Chair Karen Weiers. “Their courage and solidarity is an inspiration to every member of our union.”

Forming the CSAA was considered insubordination by many politicians at the time. After its founding, the CSAA would go on to challenge the government through strikes, direct action and civil disobedience, all in an effort to make their working conditions more fair.

“The CSAA fought for a lot of things that we still regard as major workplace issues today,” said Weiers. “Pensions, a 40-hour work week, partial health care coverage; many of the benefits we enjoy today came about through their victories, and the fact that these are still workplace issues for some folks – nearly a century later – is a reminder that those with power will always threaten to roll back the clock on progress.”

The CSAA’s membership continued to grow as the years passed, and soon there was mounting talk about the need to become a legally recognized union. Eventually, the CSAA became the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees in 1976.

AUPE kept up the fight, quickly earning its reputation as a tough union that would fight for workers and all Albertans. From the ‘apples to oranges’ strike, to resistance during the Klein era, to modern victories like saving Red Deer’s Michener Centre, AUPE members have played numerous, important roles in shaping our province and making life better for all workers, not just themselves.

Which brings us to today, nearly a century since the founding of the CSAA, and AUPE is ready to celebrate 100 years of solidarity. Members and staff have already been hard at work getting ready for the big year, and many centennial initiatives focus on the proud history of what has grown to become Alberta’s largest and most diverse union.

New educational materials including web comics, commemorative books, historical artifact displays, and a Centennial-themed Arts and Labour History course at this year’s Advanced Labour School are just some of the things members can expect from AUPE’s Centennial Committee over the coming year. The goal is to show the valuable contributions AUPE members have made to this province, both in and outside the workplace.

Edmonton’s First Presbyterian Church, the site of the first meetings that led to the formation of the CSAA. Photo: Kurt Bauschardt

“These projects focus on the great things our members have accomplished,” Weiers said. “So much of our province has been built by the struggles and victories of AUPE members. We are proud to share this history with all Albertans, young and old.”

It is the Centennial Committee’s firm belief that historical knowledge and perspective are key to understanding AUPE’s present and future success. Celebrating our centennial is much more than looking at the past, Weiers noted.

“We have been speaking with our members, both one-on-one and in groups, to talk about who we are and who we want to be,” Weiers added. “Seeing that kind of solidarity amongst members is truly inspiring.”

In 2018, AUPE conducted its first Member Census since the CSAA surveyed its members in the 1960s. It found that nearly 75 per cent of AUPE members are women, and that an overwhelming majority of members believe in the value of wage equity and the importance of public services like health care and education.

“After 100 years of representing workers in Alberta, it is exciting to see how we’ve grown,” added Weiers. “It is important to get to know our fellow members so that we can stand up for the issues that matter to us in the workplace.”

But AUPE’s centennial isn’t just about educating ourselves and working together – it’s also a celebration. The union is planning several events in cities throughout the province, beginning with a celebration at Edmonton’s First Presbyterian Church on March 26, to commemorate that important meeting a century ago. AUPE has alsocommissioned a painting by renowned Indigenous artist Alex Janvier, which will hang in Alberta’s legislative building to honour Alberta’s Indigenous history.

“This is an exciting time,” Weiers said. “I can’t wait to celebrate 100 years of solidarity with our members. We’re ready for 100 more.”