The 1986 Gainers strike was a turning point for labour in Alberta.
The 1980s were a hard time for workers. Employers had gone on the attack after the 1970s inflation crisis. It was the time of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Brian Mulroney. Right-wing governments across the world competed as if running a marathon of privatizing public services.
“The ‘80s was when bosses around the world went on the attack,” says AUPE Executive Secretary-Treasurer Jason Heistad. “It’s when bosses decided they were tired of sharing the wealth with workers.”
In Alberta, bosses in the meatpacking industry attacked the pattern bargaining system, which brought employers into meetings with their workers’ unions to create industry-wide standards. But in the early 1980s, employers in Western Canada attempted to force workers into contracts below the national standard.
One of those companies was Gainers, owned by Peter Pocklington—who also owned the Edmonton Oilers. In the 1984 round of bargaining, Pocklington’s threats to close the plant led workers to sign serious concessions, including a nearly 50 per cent cut to starting pay and massive cuts to health benefits.
“Concessions are always a mistake,” Heistad says. “Once workers accept rollbacks, bosses always want more. They’re sharks who smell blood in the water.”
Two years later, in the next round of bargaining, the workers were not willing to passively accept further cuts. The company was highly profitable again—it was time for Gainers to redistribute some of those profits.
The boss didn’t see it that way. Pocklington pushed for more concessions. Workers voted to strike. Massive picket lines pushed back buses full of scabs from the plant, but then Gainers sought a court injunction against the workers’ confrontational tactics.
“Whenever workers are winning, the courts always step in on the side of the employer,” Heistad says. “They’ll criminalize any tactics that are effective. But workers are right to fight back!”
The injunction was granted and the Edmonton police stepped in. It was the first time the police used their riot squad, and for a while, a third of the entire force was assigned to strikebreaking duty. Police violence on the lines was rampant and picketers were arrested.
The workers had massive support from the public. Some of their solidarity marches in Edmonton drew up to 10,000 people. Churches and community groups throughout the city publicly voiced their support for the workers. The union also led a highly successful consumer boycott against Gainers products.
“People in Alberta know what it’s like to struggle, and they instinctively stand up to bullies,” Heistad says. “That’s why Albertans stand together when bosses come after workers and treat them unfairly.”
Finally, after months of crisis, Premier Don Getty stepped in to force Pocklington to return to the table. Eventually, the union and the company signed a deal which, while it failed to make back what was lost in the previous agreement, managed to save the workers’ pensions.
“There are so many lessons from the Gainers strike. First off, never accept concessions—once you open that door, the boss will always try to take more. Second, don’t underestimate how much the public will be on your side—working Albertans stick up for each another."