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How Edmonton women workers organized local cafes

Jul 11, 2018

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How Edmonton women workers organized local cafes

It was 1935, the height of the Great Depression, and unemployment in Alberta was sky-high.

None of the conditions seemed ideal for a sudden collective action, but that didn''t stop 150 Edmonton women from walking off their jobs waiting cafe tables in search of a salary that could put food on their own.

Under provincial laws, the women were supposed to be paid a minimum wage of $9.50 a week. But, in a move that seems familiar even today, cafe owners took advantage of the desperate times by forcing the women to give back an average of half their wages under the table just to keep their jobs. The woman quickly grew fed up.

"Waitresses have to supply their own uniforms and also launder them. By the time you pay your room rent with your wages there is practically nothing left," one of the strikers told a newspaper at the time.

After the strike was over, a local police official admitted that the women''s claims were true: "Girls employed in some cafes were living together three to a room in order to pay the rent and had absolutely no money left to buy clothes," he said.

The women organized and became the Restaurant Workers Union. They set up picket lines, promising to force cafe owners to pay their workers the minimum wage they were owed. The pickets, they promised, would last until every restaurant in the city either agreed to pay up or were forced to close up shop.

The union printed an agreement they demanded the cafe owners sign. It stipulated that the wages of waitresses would be $9.50 per week, with two meals a day.

"We''re going to stay right here until this agreement is signed," said Olga Shipkum, one of the leaders of the movement.

The courage of the women immediately paid off. In just 24 hours, the strike had done more to help cafe and kitchen staff than months of effort directed through the provincial wage board.

By May 13, union president Marion Lewko reported that 34 cafes had signed the agreement, while two others shut down because the owners claimed they couldn''t afford to pay their workers the minimum wage.

Some cafes ultimately never signed the agreement, but the new union''s successes showed that, even in the worst of economic times, collective action and solidarity can secure important victories for workers.

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