Canadian Labor Union History

How unions began and why workers in Canada joined

My name is Henry Smith, and I want to tell you the story of how unions began, and why workers in Canada joined. We need to travel back to medieval Europe, where most people were peasants cultivating land controlled by feudal lords. In England, as early as the 1500s, the lords began to fence off communal areas. This process of enclosures made some farmers into dependent workers, who relied almost exclusively on wages.

Canadian Labor Union History
Canadian Labor Union History

The government always made assured that employers had the upper hand. Constraints restricted workers from leaving to explore better wages or positions. Employers and Servants Acts required workers to contract for long periods and made workers’ resistance criminal offences.

Employers could fire workers for many reasons, but workers accused of violating their contract were often arrested and brought before hostile judges. Fearing revolt, the government eventually enacted a series of Poor Laws. The first such law, in 1536, was called An Act for the Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars.

Most of the time, the unemployed were forced back to their home parish and put to work in the workhouse. Families were broken up. Children were apprenticed off to farmers and other employers. Gradually, the economic system changed, and capitalism first emerged in Britain and the Netherlands. Long-distance business and new technologies dramatically increased production. This process of industrialization required huge quantities of workers to toil in the first “manufactories”.

The factory owners began breaking down jobs into different parts that could be done by untrained workers. Some even hired women snd children, because they always favoured employing the cheapest labour possible. Employers utilised workers in ways that would be considered offensive today, leading to frequent injury and early death.

The new class of capitalists gained vast profits and put this money back into more machinery, and their own luxurious consumption. Only property owners could vote, and basic rights to speak out or organize did not exist. As artisan workshops gave way to factory operations, skilled workers tried to deal collectively with employers. Many, such as masons, and boot-makers, belonged to guilds. Guilds could determine the qualifications for apprenticeship and for becoming a journeyman, as well as what they would charge and how much they would produce.

By 1800, British law regarded unions as “combinations in restraint of trade” and the penalties for trying to form a union were severe. The Tolpuddle martyrs serve as an example. These six farm labourers in Dorset, England formed a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in 1832, to pressure employers to stop decreasing their wages. They were arrested, tried, found guilty of swearing a secret oath, and deported to Australia.

The governments of Western Europe conquered far-off lands to supply raw materials for industry and cheap food for their rapidly growing populations. When the French and their rivals, the English, began to colonize what would become Canada, the settlers found an inhospitable but bountiful land that was already well populated by Native peoples. Canada’s regions developed distinctly because commodities like fish, fur, lumber, wheat and minerals were exported. The cod fishery and the fur trade were the first two important European industries in Canada. Both were controlled by small numbers of rich merchants who relied on European and indigenous workers to harvest and process the fish and fur. Work in early Canada was dangerous and difficult. Some of the workers were indentured servants from Europe and both African and Indigenous slaves.

By the 1800s, many Canadians supported themselves as independent farmers, fishers, or craft workers. Entire families contributed to produce and sell goods. Wage earning was most often seasonal- – few waged work opportunities lasted year round. Yet, a growing number of wage workers were required to extract resources and construct the canals and railways needed to transport goods. Toronto and Hamilton grew into cities, joining Montreal, Canada’s first city.

Gradually, women and children were no longer employed for wages as frequently as men. Company towns relied on the production of a single resource, like coal, and provided some stability for the skilled workers. When violence erupted, usually because of the grinding conditions endured by unskilled labourers, the companies would close the company-owned store or call in the militia. When confronted with a sudden strike by “rough” labourers, some employers could replace the rebellious employees with other hungry immigrants.

Many navvies, or canal builders, faced this in the 1830s in Ontario and Quebec, as did miners in Cape Breton, and railway construction workers in western Canada in the early 20th century. From the 1840s onward, skilled craftsmen like iron moulders, carpenters, joiners and cigarmakers founded dozens of trade union brotherhoods- -so many in fact, that by the 1850s, Canadian newspapers accused them of leading an “insurrection of labour”. Craft workers took advantage of periodic upswings to join unions and made substantial gains for their families when their skills were most in demand.

In the 1870s, over 200 strikes were recorded: triple the level of work stoppages in the previous decade. When economic times were terrible, even unions of skilled workers found employers unwilling to bargain. Craft unions in Canada began to come together as a labour movement when they established local assemblies and joined British and American unions in their trade. Canada’s first unified working-class movement came about when craft workers formed leagues to reduce the working day to nine hours- -first in Hamilton, then rapidly elsewhere.

In their bid to secure a nine-hour day, Toronto printers went on strike in 1872. Their employers had 18 printers arrested. Seizing an opportunity to gain workers’ favour, the government passed the Trade Unions Act. Unions were legal for the first time. But many restrictions also limited their power. Employers were under no obligation to recognize or bargain with a union, and picketing remained a criminal offence. Large parades around this time were becoming regular labour festivals.

Craft unionists proudly showed off the important place they’d established for themselves in their communities. They believed the skills that earned decent wages and social respectability made them an “aristocracy of labor”. Their celebrations were the forerunners of Labor Day.

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