In June 1936 country elevator and head office employees of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool founded the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Employees Association (SWPEA). The main objectives of the new organization were to improve working conditions, negotiate for better wages, obtain relief from exposure to grain dust, and establish a pension plan for employees.
The membership of SWPEA grew and became more diverse. In 1974 the name of the union was changed to Grain Services Union (CLC). On May 1, 1995, the union’s name changed to Grain Services Union (ILWU•Canada) following a vote by union members to approve affiliation with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union – Canada. On Jan. 1, 2010, the union’s name changed again to Grain and General Services Union (ILWU • Canada).
Over the years, the GSU has played a key role in fighting for better health and safety laws. In 1974, then GSU general secretary Bill Gilbey helped write Saskatchewan’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. This ground-breaking legislation gave workers in Saskatchewan three fundamental rights:
- the right to refuse dangerous work,
- the right to know about hazards in the workplace, and
- the right to participate in monitoring and improving workplace safety.
Saskatchewan’s law was and continues to be the model other governments and labour movements try to duplicate.
The GSU also campaigned against health problems caused by exposure to grain dust. After years of lobbying by the union, in 1971 the Saskatchewan government recognized that grain dust was a health hazard and resulting illnesses would be covered by workers’ compensation. Elevator companies were forced to install dust elimination systems to protect workers, following a long and hard-fought battle by GSU.
GSU representatives have had input in drafting other pieces of labour legislation. In 1994 GSU general secretary Hugh Wagner represented the labour movement in negotiating improvements to the Saskatchewan Trade Union Act.
The 40-hour work-week and paid overtime may be standards in other inudstries, but the union fought for decades to implement them for elevators workers – unionized as well as non-unionized.
As a result of union lobbying against completely unregulated hours of work, the federal government established a Commission of Inquiry in 1975. In 1979, the federal minister of labour created Special Regulations covering elevator managers and assistant managers as a temporary measure on the road to the 40-hour week.
In 1997, after 18 years of no further progress, the GSU launched a second, major lobbying campaign involving members, their families, and the elected officers of the Union. The federal government reacted favourably to the pressure, establishing a Commission of Inquiry which heard presentations from the union and grain companies in November 1997. The GSU regards the Inquiry process as a milestone along the road to achieving modern hours-of-work standards.