Wednesday, January 10, 2007

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

Click here for Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

The history of the Canadian labour movement is a history of fragmentation. Anti-union employers, judicial interpretations, geographic realities, uneven regional development, union structures, ideological divisions, and the bi-national character of Canada all posed great obstacles for the development of an independent and cohesive union movement in Canada. In order to understand how the labour movement came to develop in Canada, one must first look at events which unfolded in the United States.

Although a number of small and scattered trade unions existed in pre-industrial Canada, they certainly did not constitute a labour movement. A movement could only emerge after workers had recognized their shared class interests and decided, as a class, to pursue common political and economic causes beyond the narrow confines of their workplaces. Thus, in Canada the emergence of a labour movement coincided with the arrival of the Knights of Labor in 1875. Founded in Philadelphia in 1869, the Knights of Labor, like other trade unions, worked to improve the wages and working conditions of their members, but the Knights also promoted politics and education as tools to transform society in the interests of the working class. The Knights were very successful at recruiting new members in Ontario and Quebec including both skilled and non-skilled workers and women as well. Bryan Palmer and Greg Kealey estimate that the Knights organized roughly 21,800 workers in Canada.[1] However, the impressive growth of the Knights of Labour was only matched by its equally precipitous decline. An economic downturn in the late 1880s combined with an internal political crisis over the direction of the organization led to its eventual demise in both Canada and the United States.[2] The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, which the Knights helped to organize in 1886, would end up replacing the Knights as the dominant trade union central in Canada.

When it was first created, the TLC’s purpose was to unite both independent national unions and international unions affiliated to the American Federation of Labor and Knights of Labour. The main function of the Congress was to bring together these various unions on a yearly basis to discuss issues of common concern and, in turn, lobby governments to enact legislation to improve the lives of working people. The TLC was fiercely non-partisan and adopted a policy of neutrality in election campaigns. The TLC’s decision to eschew electoral politics was offset by the fact that the scarcity of skilled trades people gave both the AFL and TLC impressive economic strength during this period. Both organizations could effectively use their economic clout to achieve a measure of economic justice in the workplace without pressing for greater social and political transformations.

In a protectionist move designed to ensure that American employers could not exploit cheap Canadian labour, the AFL’s Samuel Gompers hired a Hamilton carpenter named John Flett to lead an AFL organizing drive in Canada at the turn of the century. Flett managed to organize no less than one hundred locals by the end of 1902 and was vaulted to the Presidency of the TLC the same year.[3] Under Flett’s leadership, the TLC came to more closely resemble the AFL. At the Berlin Convention where Flett was elected President, for example, the Congress, took its cue from the AFL, and moved to prohibit dual unionism within its ranks. Dual unionism refers to the practice of allowing a national trade union to exist alongside an international union in the same craft or industry. The TLC’s decision to dispense with its dual unions led to the expulsion of 20% of the Congress’ membership, including all of the assemblies of the Knights of Labour. According to Craig Heron, “Formally, the TLC was the national voice of the Canadian labour movement in approaching the government, but in practice the AFL most often treated it as little more than another state federation of labour.”[4]

The TLC’s new direction effectively fragmented Canadian trade unions and hindered the development of an independent and progressive labour movement in Canada. At the time of the Berlin Convention, fully 95% of unionized Canadian workers belonged to international unions. Although the TLC did remain the largest trade union central in Canada throughout its history, the international focus and moderate political approach of the Congress did not go unchallenged by Canadian workers, many of whom preferred alternate courses of action.

[1] Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan Palmer, “The Bonds of Unity: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900,” in Workers and Canadian History, Gregory S. Kealey ed., (Montreal: Mc-Gill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 257.
[2] Kealey and Palmer (1995), 279.
[3] Desmond Morton with Terry Copp, Working People, (Ottawa: Deneau & Greenberg, 1980), 77.
[4] Heron (1996), 175.