Host Mary Otto, interviews Mayworks Festival Director, Sébastien Labelle, about the history and activities of Mayworks in Halifax. Listen in and find out more about this festival of workers art. Mayworks happens annually, on and around May 1st.
Mary Otto is a proud member of Local 43, Canadian Blood Services and on the NSGEU Political Action Committee.
Hi and welcome to the NSGEU podcast Union Matters. My name is Mary [Otto] and I’m going to be your host today
Today I’m really happy to have with me Sébastien Labelle, who is the Festival Director of Mayworks. Hi Sébastien. How are you today?
SL Doing great.
MO I know some of our members will know who you are because you are pretty involved in the labour movement, but for those of our members who don’t know you, would you like to give a little bit of a history of who you are and your involvement in the labour movement?
SL Sure. I guess, right now, I’m mostly known as the person who organizes the Mayworks Festival in Halifax, which is an arts festival that celebrates International Workers’ Day (or May Day) annually through a series of cultural events. I was also, prior to this, on the executive of the Halifax + Dartmouth District Labour Council (HDDLC) and I’m also a former union organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2. At that time I was working on campaigns like the Baristas Rise Up campaign and the Justice for Janitors campaign.
MO That’s awesome. The Mayworks Festival actually came our of the labour movement. Can you give a little bit of that history? What is the Mayworks Festival?
SL Sure. The first Mayworks Festival that was organized was in Toronto. I think it was founded in 1986. Labour activists from Toronto travelled to Britain where they noticed that May Day celebrations in Britain and Europe are much more grandiose than they typically are in North America. So they came back to Toronto and decided to organize a cultural festival to mark the day. Thus was born the first Mayworks Festival. Over time other Mayworks Festivals starting sprouting up in different Canadian cities, including Halifax, where the first Mayworks Festival happened here in 2009. I should know this because it’s the 10th Anniversary! It was founded by former NSGEU staffer Margaret Anne McHugh, who was also at the time on the executive of the HDDLC. She had heard of the Mayworks Festival in Toronto and though this needs to happen in Halifax as well and so through the HDDLC they struck a committee and organized the first Mayworks Festival. It started out pretty modestly with a single event the first year, a concert. After several years of growth, I became involved in 2012 I believe because at the time I was involved with a street theatre puppet company called Puppets, Etc. We were doing political shows so we pitched the idea of doing a show about the local food movement and migrant labour. We presented that show in 2012 as part of Mayworks and the following year I became more involved in the labour movement and decided to join the committee of volunteers that organize the festival. In 2014 Margaret Anne stepped down as the lead organizer of the festival and I got elected on the HDDLC executive as VP holding the cultural portfolio and spearheading Mayworks. Since 2014 I’ve been the main organizer of the festival. At the time it was all volunteer labour organized through a committee of the labour council, but the festival was rapidly growing, the operational demands of the festival grew as well, so it became evident that the growth of the festival meant that the capacity of volunteer labour was no longer sufficient to organize the festival in a sustainable way and in a way that could keep up with the growth and demand in popularity of the festival. We incorporated a non-profit society with a board of directors that would govern the festival as a society from then on and I was hired as the festival director in a part-time paid position to organize the festival. Also, having a non-profit registered status meant that we could start applying for government grants to help fund the festival as well.
MO So where do you get your funding? Apart from these government grants.
SL From the very beginning our primary source of support for the festival has been the labour movement. Certainly the HDDLC was where the Halifax version of the festival was birthed and that came with financial support. Other union partners quickly came on board to help fund the operations of the festival in a way that we made sure that artists who presented in the festival would be fairly and properly compensated. Still today, though we receive some government support for the festival, by-and-large the biggest partner in our operations is the labour movement. That’s through a collection of different unions, each contributing towards the festival annually to make sure we can keep going and keep growing.
MO I know the NSGEU are proud partners of Mayworks. There’s a real importance and connection with the arts and the labour movement. There’s a lot of music that wouldn’t be there without workers’ struggles.
SL Absolutely. There’s a long tradition of artists advocating for the labour movement, for workers rights, and social justice issues. The work of artists is to communicate and to deliver messages through creative means. It’s always been an ideal partnership when the labour movement partners with artist and arts organizations to promote union values and values of justice and solidarity.
MO Absolutely and sometimes I think what’s a rally but street theatre. People out there chanting, singing songs, putting on performances. What are some of the performances that are happening this year?
SL It’s an exciting line-up. As I mentioned earlier this is our 10th Anniversary. We’ve got a bigger festival than ever before. We’re making a leap this year because we want to properly celebrate this landmark year. Typically in the last 3-4 years the Halifax festival has spanned roughly a two-week period. This year we’re spanning the entire month of May. We’ve got 17 separate events running through the month in at least 5 different venues across Halifax. It’s really exciting. It’s an incredibly diverse line up, both in terms of the disciplines that are represented, but also the communities and voices that are represented within the line-up. We’re starting off with an opening reception that follows immediately after the May Day Rally and March in Halifax. The start is at Grand Parade and ends up in Nprthend Halifax at Radstorm, a community cultural space on Gottingen, where we’ll have a reception featuring some music and a preview excerpts of what’s to come during the festival. We also have a bread and roses theme. We’re offering, that’s to DeeDee’s Ice Cream, free ice cream – Raspberry Rose flavoured ice cream and sorbet.
MO That sounds like a darn good way to start off a festival!
SL That’s right! That’s how we’re kicking things off. After that we’re presenting a show by the Polaris Choir, which is one of the Choirs for Change, a group of choirs that address social issues. This show is titled Songs of Resilience: Bringing Voice to Protest Music. They’re doing their first show at St Andrews United Church. They’re spanning through the 20th to the 21st century and arranging different protest songs and chants into choral music. They’ll be going through the Cape Breton mining wars and the peace movement of the 60’s and the contemporary Me Too movement, for example. A component of that as relates to NSGEU is we’re working out the details of incorporating a performance of that piece to be presented at the NSGEU convention.
MO Yes, that’s something I’m really excited about. I will be at convention and I know it’s a good opportunity for our members. There will be members from all across the province at convention, so it’s a good opportunity for people from outside Halifax to take part.
SL It will be the first time we partner with a union convention, so stay tuned for those details and if you’re going to convention make sure you check it out. Following that we’re also having a first partnership with the Animation Festival of Halifax, which is a festival of animated film. We’re collaborating to put together a panel discussion to address the working conditions of independent animators in the film industry. That will be interesting because the film industry is a sector that it’s heavily unionized, typically, except in the animation sector, where a lot of animators work as self employed artists and typically without collective agreements or union protection. This panel will be looking at that aspect of the film industry and looking more closely at what the struggles are for animators in terms of their employment and what kind of organizing is happening in that sector.
MO Independent artists working as contractors or sub-contractors don’t have a lot of protections and that’s definitely somewhere unions have to look, because making sure artists get paid is work!
SL Absolutely. One of our primary focuses of Mayworks is because we present the works of artists we need to make a point that the artists at our festival are compensated for the work they do, because it is work. They depend on that pay to make a living as artists. That’s where the contributions from the labour movement have always been really essential in the festival. On the one hand to make sure that the artists are properly compensated and that if they are represented by unions, it [the compensation] is within union contracts and standards. And if they’re not in a discipline that’s covered by a collective agreement that the compensation we offer is in line with standards set in other sectors. The flip side of that is we always make sure the festival is as accessible as possible, so making sure the majority of the events are free or pay what you can and that the events that are ticketed have very modest admission fees, so that price is never a barrier to admission to a festival event. Because of that we can’t rely on box office revenue to fund the festival, so that’s where the contributions from the labour movement are really important to make sure that we hit that balance that the festival is accessible to the general public, but at the same time artists are properly compensated for their work.
MO What else is…
SL So, other things coming up. Some folks may have heard of the Graphic History Collective, which is a collective of illustrators and graphic novelists from across the country who collaborate on publishing graphic novels that tell labour history in Canada. And this year they’re published two new books with Between the Lines Publishing: one is titled 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike, which of course, this year celebrates it’s 100th anniversary. The other book is called Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of the Strike in Canada. That book chronicles the history of strikes as a powerful tool for the labour movement that continues to propel progressive changes in our workplaces and society in general. We’ll have a book launch event here in Halifax at the Glitter Bean Cafe Workers Co-op, which itself is the product of a famous strike in Halifax!
MO That’s a great plug to have it there because they really fought hard for their labour rights
SL They really did. They fought to the brink and they turned it around and the SEIU did something really novel and it’s interesting to observe the labour movement in that they supported the workers in taking over the cafe to own and operate it themselves, which now operates as a worker owned and operated cooperative. And, because of the worker composition there it’s a queer-centric space, so it’s an important cultural community space for the LBGTQ community, which I think, is important for the city as well. We’re really excited to be partnering with Glitter Bean for that event. Those two books will be on sale at the event and two members of the Graphic History Collective will be on site to talk about these new books. Another event is happening at the Glitter Bean on May 18: It Was a Cumulative Effect and I Almost Didn’t Notice. It’s a durational performance arts piece by artist Colleen MacIsaac, who’s known as both an illustrator and a theatre artist. This is a foray into something that blends both disciplines for her. NOAA released projections of sea level rise and recommended that port cities prepare for a rise in sea levels of 250 cm by 2100. Since Halifax is a port city, we’re anticipating, because of climate change, a gradual but substantial rise in sea levels. So in this piece Colleen will be placed into a plexi-glass box in the cafe and will be writing on the panels starting at the bottom and over the course of 4 hours her writings will submerge her to emulate the sensation of anxiety and how you focus on the tediousness of the things you are doing right now to being caught unaware of what’s happening around you. Following that, again, commemorating the centennial of the Winnipeg General Strike. It was a huge event for Winnipeg, but in general Canadian labour history, because following that there were some major changes in labour laws and standards across Canada.
MO NUPGE is actually having their convention in Winnipeg this year because of the anniversary. It’s such an important part of Canadian history. It’s amazing how many people don’t know it even happened.
SL Right. It had repercussions across the country. There are commemorations and celebrations happening across the country to mark the occasion and that’s why we’re including some here in Halifax. I just want to segue quickly to the fact that, annually, the Mayworks Festival has been producing collectable social justice trading cards, which we use as flash cards to learn about labour history and social movements in Nova Scotia. This year we’re producing a card about the Amherst General Strike, which is also celebrating its centennial anniversary this year. I actually had never heard about it until I started doing research about the Winnipeg General Strike, but Amherst had a general strike shortly after as well for similar demands as the Winnipeg General Strike. Often that strike is reported as a solidarity strike, following the Winnipeg strike, that workers in Amherst were striking in solidarity with Winnipeg, but it was something that had been percolating in Amherst and rural Nova Scotia for some time, so it happened independently of the Winnipeg strike, just around the same time. It never got the same kind of fame as the Winnipeg one, but it’s an important and interesting piece of Nova Scotia labour history.
MO That’s very interesting. Where can we get those cards?
SL They will be on sale at all festival events. They’re modelled after old school sports cards, but instead of featuring an athlete they feature a prominent figure or event in social justice history. We sell them in packages of six, which includes a stick of gum! They are random selections of cards, so you need to buy some with your friends and then trade them to get the whole set.
MO If somebody can’t get into Halifax to buy some, is there anywhere else they can get them?
SL They can be ordered on-line through our web site though the contact link. Just tell us you’d like to order some cards and we would be happy to mail some packages to you.
MO What are the highlights for the rest of the festival?
SL One is Sistahs of the Struggle, a panel discussion on May 22 at the Bus Stop Theatre where veteran activists, black women from the African Nova Scotian community will be recounting their stories being involved themselves in social justice movement and also their contemporaries. This is to address that often when we speak of the feminist movement it’s often thought of as a movement of white women and black women are often excluded in those narratives. This panel will address that and shed light on those stories. Another important event May 23-25 at the Bus Stop an event organized by the Mi’kaqi 2030 Collective called Hope in Fire. This is a collaborative effort between female artists who are Mi’kmaq or African Nova Scotian or Black and basically it’s entering into dialogue on climate justice issues by centering the voices of indigenous and black women as part of the discussions aro9und those struggles and by various artistic means. The artists are from different disciplines: a dance, a film maker, an illustrator, a sculptor. They’re collaborating to speak through their artwork. Finally, I really want to bring up a play that will be presented near the end of the festival. A Speed Read of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial Transcript with Additional Notes. I sat in on a rehearsal the other day and I was blown away. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a landmark moment of the labour movement. This happened in New York in 1911 where the factory caught fire and over 140 workers perished in the fire or by jumping through the windows of the factory. They were mainly immigrant women working under terrible working conditions and locked into the factory when it caught fire, which resulted in the deaths of many. A trial ensued around whether or not the employer was criminally responsible. The employer was found not guilty. But, the public response to the fire and the outcome of the trial was such that it propelled political pressure to make changes in occupational health and safety measures and fire prevention. We’re partnering with the Office of the Worker Counsellor and also the Halifax Fire Prevention Department and the Halifax Union of Firefighters to put this show together. The actors are reading the transcript of the trial, but in a really engaging and dramatic way. It’s like a courtroom drama. And it was an astounding trial which really resonates today, particularly because it’s largely women who are put in the witness stand and the kind of disregard that is show women’s voices really sinks in when you watch this. It’s so beautifully told, simple and effective. The design was conceived partly by Alex MacLean, the director, and Carmen Lee and Rolland Lee, who are new immigrants from Hong Kong and are making a name as theatre artists and are collaborating on this show. Alex is very well known in Halifax for his work in a theatre company called Zuppa Theatre, which has an international reputation.
MO Tickets are available for this and there’s a festival pass?
SL There’s a festival pass. The pass is available online. You can visit our website to purchase a pass or tickets to individual events. http://mayworkshalifax.ca/
MO Thank you so much for coming and talking to us. Would you recommend putting on something like this in rural Nova Scotia?
SL Absolutely. In fact, it’s happening. Sydney has several times organized a Mayworks festival. They haven’t this year but they’re making plans. The Annapolis Valley Labour Council is organizing a Mayworks festival in Wolfville.
MO And that’s another good reason to get involved with your district labour council! Well thank you so much for coming in. I’m looking forward to see many of these great events.
SL We’re looking forward to seeing many NSGEU delegates as well!
MO Thank you for listening and make sure you subscribe. If you have any ideas for future podcasts, make sure you let us know.