NOTE: This material is reprinted from a document prepared by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)

In early Canada the focus was on the fishery and the fur trade, farming and lumbering which depended on back-breaking and often dangerous work performed by settlers and their families. Relatively speaking, manual labour was scarce and commanded a premium. In neither the French nor the British regimes did it command social respectability or economic security. In an immigrant society, the supply of skilled workers was haphazard and undependable, raising the wage they might claim, but equally heightening the incentive for their displacement by technological innovation.

This displacement took place in earnest throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century as Canadian businesses became increasingly mechanical.

Early unions, on the wharves of Halifax, Saint John and Quebec during the War of 1812, existed to profit from labour scarcity. Others, such as the Montreal shoemakers or the Toronto printers of the 1830's, reflected the concern of skilled workers to protect their craft and status from being undermined. A persistent common factor was the creation of a benevolent fraternity against the disasters of unemployment, illness and a pauper’s funeral.Yet, as many early labour historians indicate, the benefits of organization were reserved for the lucky and few.

Before 1859, all the unions seem to have been purely local, except for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers(ASE), a British union that established its first Canadian branch in Montreal in 1853, a second in Hamilton in 1857, and two more (Toronto and Brantford) in 1858. But from 1859 on, Canadian unionism became steadily more and more “international”; that is, more and more of its members belonged to unions with their headquarters and the bulk of their membership in another country.

The ASE was followed during the 1860's by several organizations with headquarters in the United States - such as Moulders (1859), the Locomotive Engineers (1864), the Typographical Union (1865), the Knights of St. Crispin [shoemakers] (1868) and the Cigar Makers (1869); the Coopers also may have arrived before 1871, the Bricklayers and Masons (1872), the Locomotive Firemen (1876), the Knights of Labor (1879), the Railway conductors (1881), the American Brotherhood of Carpenters (1882), the Railroad Trainmen (1885) and the Painters and Decorators (1887). British and American immigrants brought some of these unions with them; others were invited by Canadian local unions that wanted to be part of something bigger and stronger and whose members wanted to be able to move freely to jobs in the United States when times were hard in Canada. Nevertheless, during the 1860's, 1870's and 1880's, Canadian workers continued to form purely local or provincial unions.

For many years these various unions, even in the same city or town, had very little to do with each other. But in December 1863, several Hamilton unions formed a central Trades Union or Trades Assembly, a body made up of delegates from the constituent unions, which lasted till at least 1875. In 1871, five craft unions formed the Toronto Trades Assembly (1871-78), the Ottawa Trades Council (1872-76), moreover, the Toronto Assembly called a national convention. By that time, there must have been upwards of a hundred unions in the country but the convention had delegates from only 31 locals of 14 unions, all in Ontario (although the Typographical Unions in Montreal and Quebec sent letters of approval). This convention set up the first national central organization, the Canadian Labour Union, which met again in 1874, 1875, 1876 and 1877. The depression of the 1870's, however, was fatal to both the local and national central bodies, although many of the local unions, especially the branches of the internationals, survived.

At no time were all Canadian trade unionists concerned with “bread-and-butter” or “business” unionism to the exclusion of an active interest in progressive social policies which would benefit the community as a whole, or of support for a political party which would give priority to such policies. Small as they were in the early days, Canadian unions were in the forefront of the battle for social benefits such as old age pensions and unemployment insurance.

But the most spectacular feature of the 1880's was the appearance and the growth of the Knights of Labor. Actually, the Knights (which started in the United States but spread to Canada, Britain, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand) began in Hamilton in the fall of 1881. Within a decade they had organized well over 300 Local Assemblies in more than 100 cities, towns and villages in every province except Prince Edward Island and what is now Saskatchewan. Many of these were short-lived, few surviving the turn of the century, but by 1887 there must have been close to 200.

Between 1901 and 1913 workers were involved in 14 large strikes across Canada in which violence in some form occurred. In 11 of those strikes, the militia or regular military forces were used. The law placed a higher priority on property rights and right of an employer to carry on operations without interference than it did on the rights of workers to organize for collective bargaining and to protect their jobs.

In addition to strikebreakers, employers were allowed to hire special armed guards, supplementing regular police, to protect their property. Often local and provincial authorities read the Riot Act or proclaimed Martial Law, banned public meetings and brought in militia or regular units of the army.

In 1929 came the Stock market Crash and the Depression. The Depression went on for most of ten years and the ranks of the unemployed grew to record levels. Governments had little sympathy for the unemployed or strikers who were combatting rampant wage cuts and intolerable working conditions. The unemployed growing increasingly frustrated by government inaction “rode the rails” from B.C. hoping to get to Ottawa to protest the policies of the Bennett Conservative Government. The government called out the RCMP to brutally suppress the On to Ottawa Trek. Unemployed workers were shot or and sent back to relief camps. However, the seeds of protest were sown.

Nothing had transformed the lives of working people more than unions. A series of wartime clashes, culminating in a wildcat strike of steelworkers early in 1943, together with a dramatic growth of support for the democratic socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation(CCF), won Canadian unionists what American unions had achieved under the Wagner Act of 1935. Privy Council Order 1003, known as P.C. 1003, proclaimed in February 1944, finally created the machinery necessary to enforce a worker’s right to choose a union, to impose collective bargaining and a grievance procedure and to curb unfair practices by unions and management.

The postwar union pattern was further established by a series of strikes in 1946 and 1947. With booming markets, even powerfully anti-union corporations concluded that compromise was preferable when markets were suddenly so good. In turn, union wage scales (and their reflection in non-union areas) helped expand the economy. By the 1950's, almost a third of Canadian workers were unionized, covering almost all the resource and manufacturing industries. Non-union firms had to match wages and conditions in unionized competitors in order to keep their workers.

Historically, political action has always been one of the most important subjects facing the Canadian labour movement. The reform of provincial labour laws was a top priority and some early unions viewed political action as a means to rectify these problems. Some unions, however, did not hold this view and many of the deep splits within the central labour bodies over the years can be attributed in part to differing union philosophies and political action.

In 1956, the Canadian Labour Congress, at its first convention, adopted a compromise policy on political action between its CCL and TLC factions, leaving its provincial federation, its local councils and, of course, its autonomous affiliated unions free to follow whatever line they saw fit. It also authorized its Political Education Committee to initiate discussions with other free trade unions, the principal farm organizations, the co-operative movement, the CCF and “other parties pledged to support the legislative programme” of the Congress, in order “to explore and develop co-ordination of action in the legislative and political field”.

By the mid 1970's, both the political climate and the economy had changed dramatically. Unions were increasingly militant in their demands and in protecting rights already won at the bargaining table. There were a number of significant strikes and protests during this period beginning with the Fleck and Inco strikes in Ontario. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) were threatened with back to work legislation before they went on strike and their leader Jean-Claude Parrot was jailed for refusing to order his members back to work.

Government attacks continued, as provincial and federal governments were determined to limit the scope of unions’ power at the bargaining table. The Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau introduced wage and price controls as a way of fighting rising inflation rates and this angered workers. This was a historic step by the federal government because it imposed limits on unions’ abilities to negotiate wages. This intrusion by the government was a fundamental interference in the rights of workers and undercut free collective bargaining. As well, price controls were not as effective as wage controls and this further angered workers.

In the 1980's, there were several significant actions taken by different unions. Federal government clerks represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) were mostly women and very poorly paid. The government would not recognize the systemic inequalities in pay and conditions for women and the clerks went on strike in 1980 . This strike was one of many that focused on pay and benefit inequities faced by women workers. This became a major issue for unions and the women’s movement in the coming years.

In several other disputes, the United Autoworkers (UAW) members occupied the Houdaille (Oshawa) and Bendix (Windsor) plants as management had decided to close them. Although the Houdaille plant still closed, the workers were able to increase their severance and pensions payouts. These disputes prompted the provincial government in Ontario and other provinces to legislate better severance pay protection for workers facing plant closures.

By 1981 the Canadian economy was in a recession and suffered from very high interest and inflation rates. On November 21, 1981, the CLC led the largest labour rally in Canadian history, to protest the government’s monetary policy. Unions took the position that they would not pay for the bad economic policies of the federal government and refused to accept concessions. There was a deliberate attack and scapegoating of unions by governments and the business community. This attack was carried out in several ways.

Right wing provincial governments across the country brought in legislation that restricted or denied workers the right to strike or bargain fairly. In 1982, the federal government continued its interference in collective bargaining and brought in legislation that restricted wage increases to 6 and 5percent per year respectively. Most provincial governments implemented similar forms of legislation and this pattern was followed by employers as well. In response, there was a high degree of militancy amongst members and many strikes took place.

By 1985, the changing legal framework was having a serious impact on unions’ abilities to organize and bargain collectively. In Edmonton, the strike by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at the Gainer’s meat processing plant was a long and bitter strike and saw the use of strikebreakers, injunctions and police to try and break the union, tactics that ultimately proved unsuccessful. This was largely due to the mobilization of the Alberta labour movement which organized a successful province wide campaign to reform the labour law. As well, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the CLC organized a national boycott of Gainer’s meat products which helped force the company to back down.

This was also the beginning of a period where Canadian unions won more autonomy from international unions. Canadian sections of international unions had a very different social and political history from their U.S. counterparts. In recent bargaining, Canadian trade unions had, by and large, resisted concessions and taken a different approach at the bargaining table than the one taken by their U.S. union brothers and sisters.

As a result, the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) was formed in a split from their international United Autoworkers Union. The Canadian Paperworkers Union (CPU) had made an earlier break in 1974. The Energy and Chemical Workers Union (ECWU) and International Woodworkers Union (IWA) both made similar moves. For unions that remained international, their Canadian sections gained more political autonomy and the right to make more “made in Canada” decisions for their members. The CLC also constitutionally adopted codes of citizenship and ethical practices to ensure that unions affiliated to the CLC conducted their affairs democratically.

In these regressive times for unions, these decisions led the way for courts, governments and employers to restrict the power of unions to act on behalf of their members. Another decision by the Supreme Court, called the Lavigne decision, upheld the rights of unions to democratically decide how to spend their dues monies, specifically in this case, for political purposes. All of these decisions signaled to unions that they could not necessarily count on the legal system to uphold their rights and that the mobilizing of their members and continued political work was more necessary than ever.

By 1987, the Mulroney Conservative government started negotiations with the United States for the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Many social groups across the country were alarmed at the proposed terms of the agreement which restricted the rights of Canadian provincial and federal governments to make decisions based on national interests. The agreement would make it easier for corporations to make their profits, but at the expense of the Canada’s social, economic, cultural and environmental standards and our Canadian way of life. Many groups came together in coalition to fight this agreement and it became a major issue in the 1988 election.

Canadian Union Milestones . . .


The Toronto Typographical Union strike and the Trade Unions Act, 1872

The Toronto Typographical Union takes up the cause of the "Nine-Hour Movement" and goes out on strike March 25, 1872, when its demands for a shorter work week are ignored. A few weeks later, on April 14, a parade is organized in Toronto to show support for the striking workers. Ten thousand people participate. George Brown, politician and editor of the Toronto Globe, hits back by launching legal action against the striking workers. At the time, union activity is still a criminal act under Canadian law. Brown has police arrest and jail 24 members of the strike committee for conspiracy. The arrests are much protested, and the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, promises to repeal the "barbarous" anti-union laws. The Trade Unions Act is passed by Parliament on June 14, 1872, legalizing unions. In the years following, parades are organized in honour of the Toronto demonstration. The celebration is officially recognized on July 23, 1894 when the federal government, under Prime Minister John Thompson, makes Labour Day a national holiday.

Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital, 1889

The federal government establishes the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital. In its report, the commission notes that many workers were being hurt on the job. It condemns oppressive working conditions in many industries. The commission makes a string of recommendations to improve working conditions - but the federal government does not act on them, saying to do so would infringe on provincial authority.

Federal Department of Labour established, 1900

The Conciliation Act of 1900 establishes voluntary conciliation of a labour dispute and results in the creation of the Labour Department. The office is meant to assist in the prevention and settlement of trade disputes. Previously, labour matters were handled by the Postmaster General. William Lyon MacKenzie King is appointed the department's first deputy minister and later becomes the first minister of Labour after his election to parliament in 1909.

Workmen's Compensation Act, Ontario, 1914

Ontario becomes the first province in Canada to introduce a state social insurance plan with the Workmen's Compensation Act. Prior to this legislation, the only recourse for employees injured on the job is to sue their employers for damages, but as lawsuits increase, employers turn to the government seeking an insurance plan for industrial accidents. The government issues a Royal Commission to be led by Sir William Meredith. In his final report, released in 1913, Meredith suggests a trade-off where workers give up their right to sue in exchange for compensation. He advocates for no-fault insurance. The Act is modeled after his recommendations.

The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919

In the years following the First World War, high unemployment rates and inflation contribute to growing unrest amongst members of the labour movement. In May 1919, after talks break down between workers in the building and metal trades and their employers, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council call for a general strike. More than 30,000 workers from different occupations, both public and private sector, across the city walk off their jobs, crippling the city. The strike ends June 25, but not before "Bloody Saturday" when the RCMP charge a group of strikers, resulting in 30 casualties and one death.

Wartime labour relations regulations, Order-in-Council P.C. 1003, 1944

Labour relations fall under provincial jurisdiction, but during the Second World War the federal government, exercising its emergency wartime powers, establishes a national system of labour-relations law. From the privy council order comes the introduction of a labour relations board, but P.C. 1003 also establishes provisions on the certification of unions, the legal obligation for both parties to enter into good-faith collective bargaining, and prohibitions on unfair labour practices. The order is abolished at the close of the war, but similar provincial legislation is enacted across the country in 1948.

Quebec Asbestos Strike of 1949

The strike which began on February 14, 1949 in Asbestos, Quebec, is one of those events that resonate beyond the immediate and define history. It was, as Pierre Trudeau later wrote, "a violent announcement that a new era had begun."

At the time of the strike, Premier Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale party had a choke hold on the province of Quebec. Called "Le Chef," he saw himself as a patriarch and the citizens as his children. Those who supported him received his blessings in the form of patronage; those who opposed him were ignored. Whenever he went too far, he had a gift for redeeming himself with a great speech or gesture. Above all he had mastered the fine Canadian art of rallying provincial support by reviling Ottawa.

One thing that Duplessis could not stand was change, and the events that were about to unfold in the obscure mining town of Asbestos would be the first serious threat to his hegemony.

In December 1948 negotiations began on a labour contract for 1949. The miners had six basic demands, including a wage of $1 per hour, union security, a pension scheme and some company action to check the spread of lung choking silicosis caused by exposure to asbestos. The negotiations hit a deadlock by early February and by law both sides were required to go to arbitration. This was a happy prospect for the company, for the government invariably chose pro-business arbitrators.

The dispute attracted a large group of activists from Montreal, who came to support the workers. Among them was union militant Jean Marchand, whose fiery speech to the workers on February 13, 1949 incited their cries of "On with the strike!" In the early days of the strike there was almost a holiday atmosphere as people strolled about. Fiddlers and accordion players provided music.

It did not take long for the premier to respond. On February 23 he declared the strike illegal and dispatched a battalion of provincial police. For two and a half months the strikers remained calm, but since Quebec supplied 85% of the world's asbestos, the American owned Johns Manville Company grew restive and began to hire replacement workers. The police began active patrols and threatened the miners. The workers set up roadblocks to keep out the "scabs." On March 14 there was an explosion on the railway track leading into the plant and a few days later a group of strikers abducted and beat a company official.

At the mill the police hastily gathered themselves to break the picket lines. They attacked the strikers with tear gas and fired warning shots into the air. The strikers dragged police from their cars and beat them unconscious. On the morning of May 6 a heavily armed police force entered the town, arrested several men and battered them. "It made me sick to watch it," said a photographer for Time magazine (the strike was now news the world over). Now the brutality of the provincial police became the central issue - "Hitler's elite troops," journalist Gérard Pelletier called them.

Duplessis railed against the union leaders and called them "saboteurs" and "subversives." But even the conservative Church found itself in sympathy with the strikers and it raised most of the support for the destitute families. When the Archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau, openly championed the strike, Duplessis had him exiled to Vancouver. In June Archbishop Roy stepped in to mediate the strike and an agreement was finally reached on July 1.

The strike continued to play an important role in the minds of Quebec intellectuals in the years leading up to the Quiet Revolution. It led many to question the kind of nationalism that buttressed the conservative and anti-labour Duplessis government. It also provided the first stage for several intellectuals, namely Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier, who would later play profound roles in the political developments not only of Quebec but of Canada.

For the workers, back to work in the dangerous air of the asbestos mines, the strike was no revolution. Their material gains were small. Many were not rehired and little was done to alleviate the working conditions that would take many lives over the next generation. In 1974, Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, the world's foremost authority on asbestos-related diseases, described the asbestos mining towns of Quebec as the most dangerous in the world. The town of Asbestos has a long memory. Even today, when a "scab" passes away, the only people at the funeral home are the priest and a few members of the Knights of Columbus to pray for his soul.[1]

Federal Public Service Staff Relations Act, 1967

In 1965, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers defies government policies and stages an illegal, country-wide strike. At issue is the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike, higher wages and better management. The strike lasts two weeks and is one of the largest "wildcat" strikes in Canadian history. As a result of the labour dispute, the government extends collective bargaining rights to the public service, although some workers, like the RCMP and the military, are excluded.

Common Front, Quebec, 1972

After years of unrest between the labour movement and the Quebec provincial government, three public service unions unite in 1972 in the Common Front to negotiate with the government for higher wages and better working conditions. On the province's refusal, over 200,000 union members from government, education and social services hit the picket lines. The general strike lasts 10 days. It ends with the imprisonment of the three union presidents and legislation ordering employees back to work.

Occupational Health Act, Saskatchewan, 1972

Saskatchewan passes the Occupational Health Act, considered the first legislation of its kind in North America. The act makes health and safety the joint responsibility of management and workers and sets the framework for future legislation, enshrining three important rights for workers:
  • The right to know about hazards and dangers in the workplace.
  • The right to participate in health and safety issues through a workplace committee.
  • The right to refuse unsafe work.

Day of Protest, 1976

A year after the federal government introduces wage and price control legislation, the Canadian Labour Congress sponsors a national Day of Protest to mark the anniversary. Over a million workers are estimated to have participated in demonstrations across the country.

Supreme Court of Canada's ruling on Bill 29, 2007

The Supreme Court of Canada rules that the British Columbia government violated Charter rights when it introduced legislation that would unfairly affect its unionized health-care and social services employees. The provincial legislation would have taken away a number of protections provided for by previous collective agreements. The court's decision reverses 20 years of Charter jurisprudence on workplace association rights.[2]

Where did our rights come from?


The Canadian Auto Workers recently released a great resource for union members that looks at their rights and how they became enshrined into practice. This resource can be accessed here.
  1. ^ Canadian Encyclopedia, 2012
  2. ^ CBC, September 2009