Friday, January 12, 2007

A Short History of the Labour Movement in Canada and Quebec: Part Three

In 1925, the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) ruled in Toronto Electric Power Commission v. Snider et al. that Mackenzie King’s Industrial Disputes Investigation Act (IDIA) was unconstitutional because it violated Canada’s federal-provincial division of powers. The Snider case dealt with the Toronto Electric Power Commission’s refusal to recognize a federally-appointed conciliation board to mediate a labour dispute between the Commission and its workers. The conciliation board, which drew its authority from the IDIA, was illegitimate, according to the Commission, because the federal government did not have the constitutional authority to pass laws affecting municipal employers or civil rights.[1] In its decision, the JCPC wrote, “It is clear that this enactment was one which was competent to the Legislature of a Province under s. 92. In this present case the substance of it was possibly competent, not merely under the head of property and civil rights in the Province, but also under that of municipal institutions in the Provinces.”[2]

After the IDIA was declared unconstitutional, the federal government quickly reworked the bill to reflect that it only applied to areas of federal jurisdiction.[3] Provinces were free to pursue their own distinct regulatory labour regimes. This event served to fragment an already divided labour movement by creating a multitude of jurisdictions relating to labour relations in Canada. This institutional arrangement has, in turn, made it very difficult for the Canadian labour movement to act in a unified or coordinated fashion politically. A dozen years later another JCPC ruling underlined just how difficult it would be to aspire to co-ordinated national labour policies.

In 1937, the JCPC ruled that the federal government did not have the constitutional authority to implement laws regarding basic employment standards that it had agreed to in international treaties. The Labour Conventions case required that implementation of international treaties respect the constitutional division of powers – thus preventing the federal government from fulfilling its obligations under international law.[4] Such judgments only reinforced the preference among many English-Canadian labour leaders for a strong central government – one that could force delinquent provinces into supporting progressive policy initiatives.

However, jurisdictional fragmentation was only one of many obstacles dividing a nascent Canadian labour movement. In 1927, the All-Canadian Congress of Labour (ACCL) was launched as a rival labour federation to the TLC. The fiercely nationalist ACCL was made up of the former OBU and other smaller national unions, but was primarily controlled by the United Brotherhood of Railroad Employees, which had recently been ousted from the TLC because of its status as a dual union. The ACCL rejected the strict jurisdictional rules of the TLC and opted instead for a strategy of industry-wide, rather than craft-based, organizing. The ACCL posed a particular problem for the TLC in that ACCL’s focus on industry-wide organizing was more clearly suited to the changing nature of work in Canada. Unlike the OBU, the IWW or the Communists, the ACCL adopted a social democratic political orientation. Aaron Mosher, the ACCL’s first and only President, developed very close ties to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which held its founding convention in Regina Saskatchewan in 1933.

The CCF was founded by a coalition of farmers, workers, and socialist intellectuals in the midst of the Great Depression. Its eight-point platform called for nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy and the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state. Primarily agrarian in character, the CCF’s socialist public policy prescriptions were well received by many trade union activists, particularly in the ACCL. However, the CCF did not prove to be a significant electoral force in Canada’s industrial heartland. In the 1935 federal election, the party captured seven seats and just under 10% of the popular vote. The CCF was shut out east of Manitoba and won just 0.6% of the popular vote in Quebec. Andrée Lévesque Olsenn explained the CCF’s dismal performance in Quebec as follows:

"As a newcomer in 1933, the CCF had to establish itself in a society little acquainted with the traditions of British socialism. Fortunately, at the very beginning some of Montreal’s English joined, notably some academics from McGill University...But the CCF failed to win support from French labor clubs and struggled to keep newly formed CCF French clubs under its authority. Not only did French Canadians find the party uncongenial, when they joined, but the party suffered another disappointment when the international unions withheld their political commitment. Like the CPC, the CCF recognized the importance of winning French-Canadian members but many provincial leaders were often quite ignorant of French Canada. Nor did it help that most of them had little knowledge of French. Related to and partly a consequence of this difficulty in communication was the CCF’s reluctance to involve itself in the “day-to-day-struggle” of industrial life..."[5]

[1] Alton Craig and Norman Solomon, The System of Industrial Relations in Canada, 5th ed., (Toronto: Prentice Hall, 1996), 206.
[2] 1925 A.C., pp. 404-405.
[3] Craig and Solomon (1996), 207.
[4] Garth Stevenson, Unfulfilled Union: Canadian Federalism and National Unity, 4th ed., (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 268-269.
[5] Andrée Lévesque Olssen, The Canadian Left in Quebec During the Great Depression: The Communist Party of Canada and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Quebec, 1929-39, (PhD dissertation, 1972), 235.