Industrial unions, and workers in Canada

Industrial Unions and workers in Canada

My name is Wasyl Eleniak, and I have a story to tell you, about industrial unions, and workers in Canada for almost one hundred years since Confederation. Our lives were forever transformed by factories, which grew and spread because the railway linked distant communities and opened markets.

Industrial unions, and workers in Canada

At first, craft unions flourished. They resisted employers’ efforts to destroy apprenticeships and control the labour process. New types of skilled workers, like machinists and locomotive engineers, eagerly formed unions. But they put up walls around each trade to keep out competitors, and the great majority of workers were still excluded from the modest gains achieved by skilled workingmen. This set the stage for “the great upheaval”:

In the 1880s, politicized workers became interested in an aggressive “new unionism” to improve conditions for all workers. Socialists in British coal mining towns created all-in unions for the first time. Life in tight-knit industrial towns or neighbourhoods encouraged a sense of solidarity and community-wide unionism.

The Knights of Labour were one of the first unions to organize the unskilled and include women and black workers. They promoted the idea of the “honest workingman”. Established in the US, the Knights quickly spread through Ontario, Quebec and BC, forming almost 450 local assemblies. Their success was so concerned about the government, it was one reason for appointing the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital, in 1886.

The new unions faced many obstacles. First, craft unions expelled their own members if they also joined an industrial union. Secondly, employers could quickly fire employees suspected of organizing a union. And of course, governments and courts frequently intervened in labor conflicts on behalf of employers to protect this so-called “industrial peace”. Even the Industrial Disputes and Investigation Act of 1907 did little to redress the power imbalance between unions and employers.

Nevertheless, early industrial unions were able to extract some concessions. Unionized coal miners, for example, forced employers and the state to make their occupation less murderous. Many workers also joined or supported socialist or labour parties, which were increasingly successful in electing their own candidates. Still, others doubted meaningful reform could be achieved through the ballot box and turned instead to ideas of revolution. The Industrial Workers of the World aimed to unify all workers into one union to overthrow the capitalist system. The Wobblies, as they were called, rapidly gained support in western Canada. Fearful of the IWW’s commitment to free speech and direct action, employers and the government recruited labour spies and vigilantes, and would arrest or murder Wobblies. When the “Great War” erupted, many workers made a bloody sacrifice on Europe’s battlefields. Joining the military meant, among other things, earning a steady wage. Failing to entice enough recruits, the government conscripted more. Conscription angered many workers. They resented wartime profiteering and their bosses’ unwillingness to recognize unions. Prices rose faster than wages.

More than 400 strikes erupted in 1919, prompting a worried government to establish another inquiry, the Royal Commission on Industrial Relations. The Winnipeg General Strike and sympathy strikes like it symbolized this “great labour revolt”. Delegates at the Western Labour Conference in Calgary formed the One Big Union and sent fraternal greetings to comrades in the newly formed Soviet Union.

The 1920s did not roar for working-class families. Many were unemployed, and at least half were poor, constantly struggling for food, shelter and clothing. It was a period of retreat for organized labour. Most employers took advantage of the downturn to fire troublemakers, roll back wages and install company unions. A minority of large companies implemented welfare schemes and joint labour-management councils, to co-opt workers and secure workplace harmony.

By 1929, untrammelled capitalism led to a spectacular market crash. A decade of depression ensued. About 1 million Canadians were unemployed, or one in four workers. Many left home to scavenge, and single men were sent to work camps. Unemployed workers organized the On-to-Ottawa Trek, a cross-country march starting in Vancouver, that the RCMP violently disbanded in Regina. Poverty and despair increased the appeal of radical politics, and workers embraced new political parties.

The communists organized the unemployed and families on relief. The CCF would eventually form the first socialist government in North America when Tommy Douglas became Premier of Saskatchewan. The sit-down strikes of US autoworkers and early successes of the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations inspired industrial workers in Canada. When General Motors sped up production in Oshawa and refused to recognize union representatives, more than 4000 workers walked out. The strike was won in 15 days, marking a coming of age of industrial unionism in Canada.

The 1935 Wagner Act – part of the New Deal in the United States – compelled private sector employers for the first time to bargain with union representatives. Some Canadian provinces followed suit, including Alberta in 1938. But it was not until 1944 when the federal government declared Privy Council Order Number 1003, that a new regime of compulsory collective bargaining began to affect all of Canada.

The government was trying to maintain wartime production because full employment had encouraged Canadian workers to strike in unprecedented numbers.

The system of modern industrial relations was cemented by strikes after the war, like Ford Windsor, which led to what is called the Rand Formula. The labour movement accepted a significant trade-off. Giving up on workplace militancy and attempts to control production, to instead pursue gradual increases in purchasing power. It was the post-war compromise, and in the “golden years” that followed, social programs of the welfare state-provided security.

Negotiated wage increases and benefits improved the standard of living for many Canadians- especially for members of industrial unions. But unions were expected to behave responsibly and were legally required to police their own members.

During the Cold War, the struggle against the Soviet Union became the pretext for unions to purge progressive thinkers, and for governments to enact restrictive anti-union legislation. For labour, the future looked uncertain.

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