Old Market Square was crowded June 8 with people standing in the rain for a free concert commemorating the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
Rise Up 100: Songs for the Next Century featured full sets by Sweet Alibi, Leonard Sumner, Two Crows for Comfort, John K. Samson, Ani DiFranco and Bruce Cockburn at the Cube open-air stage.
Manitoba’s unions hosted the concert, which was sponsored by the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU), with programming by the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
The working musician
Michelle Anderson plays banjo, guitar and backup vocals for Sweet Alibi.
She said performing at Rise Up prompted her to learn more about the Winnipeg General Strike.
“They didn’t teach [the 1919 strike] in schools […] which seems bizarre now that I’m looking at how big it was,” said Anderson.
According to Anderson, being a musician comes with its own unique labour issues.
“A lot of people don’t see [being a musician] as a job […] they don’t really see all the work that’s behind it,” said Anderson.
People often underestimate the cost of hiring musicians and fail to take into account to consider the practice time, investment in equipment, time spent in rehearsals and travel time that goes into a gig, said Anderson.
“Sometimes we’re not making even minimum wage for what we’re doing, and I don’t think people understand that,” she said.
Without gaining massive mainstream success, musicians are often financially precarious.
“We all have jobs on the side, there’s just no way that we could support ourselves with the income from the music industry,” said Anderson.
In order for musicians to keep their art accessible but also make a living, they rely on grants for a large part of their income.
Anderson said she and her fellow musicians have seen their funds dwindle since Brian Pallister became the premier of Manitoba.
“The Conservative government definitely cut funding for the arts, and I noticed that right as soon as [Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister] came in,” she said.
Anderson said a grant that Sweet Alibi relied on “just completely disappeared, it just went as soon as [Pallister] came to power, it was like, OK, there’s no longer money there.”
Funding arts benefits everyone, including the artists trying to make a living, Anderson said.
“Music is kind of healthcare […] it helps with people’s mental health.”
Prioritize Manitobans, not budget cuts
MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said Rise Up 100was envisioned as an opportunity to gather people together in solidarity with workers of the past and present.
“This is just another way for [MGEU] to be able to give back to our community,” said Gawronsky.
Gawronsky said government funds would be better spent putting back into the community, rather than hiring out-of-province private consultants who help decide where budget cuts can be made.
“The 1919 strike serves as a reminder that we do have a voice as labour and we can fight back against government decisions, employers’ decisions that really affect hard-working Manitobans,” said Gawronsky.
Gawronsky also wants elected officials to remember their role in ensuring public services are provided and to respect and value their workers.
“We’re not asking for extra, we’re not asking for more,” said Gawronsky.
“We’re just asking to be treated equally and to be treated fairly and that’s for all workers, whether they’re unionized or not, that needs to stand for all workers.”
In the light of governments cutting funding for medical care, education, the arts and other public services and government jobs, Gawronsky said it is important to fight to maintain the gains made by workers of the past.
“Manitobans need to be reminded, need to remember that we do need to stand together and we need to stand for what we deserve, what our rights are and what we need to have as services in Manitoba,” said Gawronksy.
Gawronsky’s message to the Pallister government is to “stop cutting programs, stop cutting services, stop cutting jobs.”
“Take the money that they’re using for these private consultants, out-of province private consultants, and put it into the arts in Manitoba,” said Gawronsky.
“We’ve got talent here.”
For more information on the MGEU, visit mgeu.ca. For more Winnipeg General Strike-related events, visit mfl.ca/1919.