Canadian Labour Movement Essay

The spring air, typically redolent with a sense of hope and renewal, hung over Queen's Park in May 2014 like a menacing storm cloud ready to break into a twister.

Two years of rancorous, scandal-ridden minority government had collapsed. Writ dropped, Ontarians faced a stark political reality: the prospect of a hard-right Progressive Conservative leader intent on declaring outright war on the province's labour movement.

The right to collective bargaining was going on political trial.

If successful, the political contagion of a provincial government willing to pull out all the stops to break the power of Ontario's labour movement would have doubtlessly spread to other Canadian provinces.

For the labour movement, it had the feel of an existential crisis.

We all know how that story ended: the Progressive Conservatives were roundly defeated at the polls and the leader not only resigned but faced a virtual caucus revolt to push him out as fast as politically possible.

Another year in the life of Canada's labour movement. It's a movement that from day one had to fight to secure workers' rights. It's a movement that is constantly under trial, politically and at the bargaining table. It's a movement whose staying power depends on the strongly held belief that doing things together is better than going it alone.

No one ever handed unions an easy victory and no one likely ever will. Perhaps that is part of their staying power.

* * *

Steps from Queen's Park, there is a simple plaque commemorating a watershed moment for Canada's labour movement. In the spring of 1872, workers represented by the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike for the right to a nine-hour work day—three hours less than what was normal at the time. By mid-April, they were joined by 10,000 working-class supporters at Queen's Park. Solidarity in motion.

Some members of the strike committee did jail time. Some lost their jobs. But, eventually, there was a payoff. The Trade Union Act of 1872 legalized union activity in Canada. And after that strike of 1872, the fight for a shorter work week became a core focus of union negotiations. We've all benefited from that bargaining chip, whether we're unionized or not.

It has become cliché to thank unions for the eight-hour work week, but it did not come without sacrifice and struggle.

Those collective efforts have had staying power.

* * *

The labour movement found its stride marching to the heartbeat of the industrial revolution. The movement often sought to secure basic human rights for worker safety. But it also aimed to protect the fundamentals of the craft or the trade that a worker was plying, particularly following the deskilling efforts under Taylorism, which attempted to rationalize the breaking down of craft work into individual, repetitive tasks (as opposed to allowing a worker to, for instance, make a chair from start to finish).

By 1889, back when Canada had royal commissions on emerging socio-economic issues, the plight of the exploited worker became a national concern. The federal government created a Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital—something that would be almost unthinkable in today's political zeitgeist. Given the rise of precarious work, it is possible a future government would revisit the issue.

Back in 1889, the commission reported that many workers were being injured on the job. They labored under oppressive working conditions. The solution? Government intervention to correct the excesses of capitalism.

But even a royal commission endorsement of workers' rights was small potatoes. It would take the courage of workers to act en masse, on behalf of all workers' rights. And that was only a few decades away.

Canada after the First World War wasn't exactly a haven for good jobs. There was high income inequality, high unemployment, high inflation and massive worker unrest. There were more than 400 strikes in Canada in 1919-20.

The flashpoint for resistance came in May 1919, when the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called for a general strike after negotiations broke down between building and metal trades workers and their employers. Within hours, more than 30,000 workers walked off the job. They closed the factories. They stopped the trains. The city ground to a standstill.

Many paid a price. Some strike leaders were convicted of trying to overthrow the government. A charge by RCMP officers resulted in many casualties and one death.
But the true staying power of the labour movement emerged from a decision among western Canadian unions to become "one big union" and try to reverse exploitative working conditions. Their point was not lost.

The royal commission that resulted from this disruption warned, "if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence...then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital."

It took decades but eventually workers' rights took root in Canada.

* * *

In 1937, Canada was coming to grips with what had become the Great Depression, with the mass poverty and increasing social unrest it brought. It was also the year collective bargaining was officially recognized in Canada following a strike by the United Auto Workers at the General Motors plant in Oshawa.

There were good reasons the automobile became a symbol of hope and prosperity in North America. This was the middle-class dream: own your home, buy a car, and enjoy a modicum of job security in return for hard work, expertise and company loyalty. It was good for the company, it was good for capitalism, it was good for families.

In today's political climate, where some politicians deride the idea of job security in an attempt to score cheap political points, and others make empty promises to help the middle class and working families, that history is readily forgotten—to our detriment. The promise of a vibrant middle class requires the same sensibility as a vibrant democracy: neither survives on mere autopilot. Complacency is a killer.

* * *

As I've written before on the CCPA's Behind the Numbers blog, unions can be a great equalizer in society. Before the 1950s, Canada didn't have a strong middle class. Income inequality was higher. The quality of life was not what it is today.

Unions and broadly shared prosperity go hand in hand. Economist Jordan Brennan's research (see "Labour unions in the 21st century?" in the September 2014 Monitor) shows that as union density grew modestly between 1910 and 1940, hourly earnings grew by 43%. But between 1940 and 1977, union density in Canada doubled and hourly earnings tripled. During this same period, as unionization was on its steady ascent, income inequality in Canada dropped.

Before the Second World War, the story in Canada was really one of the rich and the rest of us. But the rise of unionized workers in the 1950s, '60s and '70s really made a difference. That's when Canada got busy building its middle class, solidifying the notion that as the economy grew, prosperity should be shared.

Since 1977, income inequality has gotten worse, mirroring many of the trends in place before Canada's labour movement was fully entrenched. As union density declined after 1977 so did hourly earnings. It's a story that affects us all, whether we're among the lucky ones earning more than 90% of the rest of Canadians, or whether we're among Canada's most vulnerable.

It matters—unions matter—in several ways.

With the rise of the middle class came the ability of people to pool their tax contributions to pay for public services that benefit everyone. I was born a farm kid, with dim chances for a university education, for a life as a writer and researcher. But in 1965, the federal government promised to implement three public programs: universal public health care, public pensions to greatly reduce poverty among seniors, and affordable university tuition.

I was the first in my immediate family to go to university thanks to that policy decision. Canadian taxpayers had given themselves the ultimate gift: opportunity.

But yesterday's gains hold no ironclad promise for tomorrow's workers.

* * *

It has only been 68 years since Canadian political parties agreed to uphold one of the most important legal decisions affecting unionized workers. It is called the Rand Formula, a 1946 legal judgment granting workers the right to include a union dues clause in their collective bargaining agreements.

This right to expect all unionized workers to contribute, by way of dues, to the viability of a union is exactly what the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader was hoping to undermine in his bid for power. The Rand Formula articulates the ultimate expression of union solidarity. Everyone contributes, everyone benefits.

It is a principle of collective bargaining that is as relevant today as it was in the contested days of the industrial revolution.

* * *

The anti-union trope goes like this. During the industrial revolution, where exploitation of desperate blue-collar workers was rampant, unions served a purpose. They secured safer working conditions. But Canada has moved on. What, possibly, do educated white-collar workers have to gain from a union?

Fifty years ago, at the height of Canada's 'golden era' for the country's rising middle class, a new union formed in Ontario. It wasn't a union of mechanics and labourers. It was a union of teachers, researchers and librarians under the banner of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. It too, has shown staying power, bargaining for fair working terms for its members while trying to set a higher bar for public investment in an affordable, quality university system.

Unions are never about individual pay, though the premium is undeniable. They're also about setting the terms for better jobs, a condition critical to the longevity of the middle class.

Today, young academics find themselves completing their PhD studies only to land in an uncharitable work reality; one that is precarious, low-paying, the antithesis of the promise of a well-trained academic. No one is immune to workplace exploitation.

The challenges to collective action are constant and constantly changing. That's why unions are a great equalizer, a balancing act within capitalism, potentially even a game changer for something revolutionary. That is part of their tremendous staying power. It's why unions matter.

Trish Hennessy is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives–Ontario and a former employee with the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. This article originally appeared in the OCUFA magazine Academic Matters.

The labour movement (or labor movement, see spelling differences) consists of two main wings, the trade union movement (UK English) or labor union movement (US English), also called trade unionism or labor unionism[a] on the one hand, and the political labour movement on the other.

  • The trade union movement consists of the collective organisation of working people developed to represent and campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers and, by the implementation of labour and employment laws, from their governments. The standard unit of organisation is the trade union.
  • The political labour movement in many countries includes a political party that represents the interests of employees, often known as a "labour party" or "workers' party". Many individuals and political groups otherwise considered to represent ruling classes may be part of and active in the labour movement.

The labour movement developed in response to the depredations of industrial capitalism at about the same time as socialism. However, while the goal of the labour movement is to protect and strengthen the interests of labour within capitalism, the goal of socialism is to replace the capitalist system entirely.[2]


This section needs expansion with: Apprentice laws, agricultural labour laws, illegal combination, Peterloo, Chartism, friendly societies and cooperatives, New Unionism, political party formation, socialism, anarchism, communism, craft unionism. You can help by adding to it.(April 2011)

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

— U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, December 3, 1861[3]

In Europe, the labour movement began during the industrial revolution, when agricultural jobs declined and employment moved to more industrial areas. The idea met with great resistance. In the early 19th century, groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs of Dorset were punished and transported for forming unions, which was against the laws of the time.

Trade unionism was active during the early to mid 19th century and various labour parties and trade unions were formed throughout the industrialised parts of the world. The International Workingmen's Association, the first attempt at international coordination, was founded in London in 1864. The major issues included the right of the workers to organize themselves, and the right to an 8-hour working day. In 1871 workers in France rebelled and the Paris Commune was formed. From the mid-nineteenth century onward the labour movement became increasingly globalised.

Labour has been central to the modern globalization process. From issues of the embodied movement of workers to the emergence of a global division of labour, and organized responses to capitalist relations of production, the relevance of labour to globalization is not new, and it is far more significant in shaping the world than is usually recognized.[4]

The movement gained major impetus during the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the Catholic Social Teaching tradition which began in 1891 with the publication of Pope Leo XIII's foundational document, Rerum novarum, also known as "On the Condition of the Working Classes," in which he advocated a series of reforms including limits on the length of the work day, a living wage, the elimination of child labour, the rights of labour to organise, and the duty of the state to regulate labour conditions.

Throughout the world, action by labourists has resulted in reforms and workers' rights, such as the two-day weekend, minimum wage, paid holidays, and the achievement of the eight-hour day for many workers. There have been many important labour activists in modern history who have caused changes that were revolutionary at the time and are now regarded as basic. For example, Mary Harris Jones, better known as "Mother Jones", and the National Catholic Welfare Council were important in the campaign to end child labour in the United States during the early 20th century.

Labour parties[edit]

See also: List of Labour Parties

Modern labour parties originated from an increase in organising activities in Europe and European colonies during the 19th century, such as the Chartist movement in the United Kingdom during 1838–50.

In 1891, localised labour parties were formed, by trade union members in the British colonies of Australia. They later amalgamated to form the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In 1893, Members of Parliament in the Colony of Queensland briefly formed the world's first labour government.

The British Labour Party was created as the Labour Representation Committee, as a result of an 1899 resolution by the Trade Union Congress.

While archetypal labour parties are made of direct union representatives, in addition to members of geographical branches, some union federations or individual unions have chosen not to be represented within a labour party and/or have ended association with them.

Labour festivals[edit]

Main article: Labour festival

Labour festivals have long been a part of the labour movement. Often held outdoors in the summer, the music, talks, food, drink, and film have attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees each year.

Labour and racial equality[edit]

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it.(July 2011)

A degree of strategic bi-racial cooperation existed among black and white dockworkers on the waterfronts of New Orleans, Louisiana during the early 20th century. Although the groups maintained racially separate labour unions, they coordinated efforts to present a united front when making demands of their employers. These pledges included a commitment to the "50-50" or "half-and-half" system wherein a dock crew would consist of 50% black and 50% white workers and agreement on a single wage demand to reduce the risk of ship owners pitting one race against the other. Black and white dockworkers also cooperated during protracted labour strikes, including general levee strikes in 1892 and 1907 as well as smaller strikes involving skilled workers such as screwmen in the early 1900s.

Negroes in the United States read the history of labour and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us [...] They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations and union organization became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table [...] Our needs are identical to labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures [...] That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.

— Martin Luther King, Jr, "If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins", December 11, 1961[5]

Development of labour movements within nation states[edit]

Historically labour markets have often been constrained by national borders that have restricted movement of workers. Labour laws are also primarily determined by individual nations or states within those nations. While there have been some efforts to adopt a set of international labour standards through the International Labour Organisation (ILO), international sanctions for failing to meet such standards are very limited. In many countries labour movements have developed independently and represent those national boundaries.

Development of an international labour movement[edit]

With ever-increasing levels of international trade and increasing influence of multinational corporations, there has been debate and action among labourists to attempt international co-operation. This has resulted in renewed efforts to organize and collectively bargain internationally. A number of international union organisations have been established in an attempt to facilitate international collective bargaining, to share information and resources and to advance the interests of workers generally.

List of national labour movements[edit]

See also[edit]



Further reading[edit]

  • Robert N. Stern, Daniel B. Cornfield, The U.S. labor movement:References and Resources, G.K. Hall & Co 1996
  • John Hinshaw and Paul LeBlanc (ed.), U.S. labor in the twentieth century : studies in working-class struggles and insurgency, Amherst, NY : Humanity Books, 2000
  • James, Paul; O’Brien, Robert (2007). Globalization and Economy, Vol. 4: Globalizing Labour. London: Sage Publications. 
  • Philip Yale Nicholson, Labor's story in the United States, Philadelphia, Pa. : Temple Univ. Press 2004 (Series ‘Labor in Crisis’), ISBN 978-1-59213-239-3
  • Beverly Silver: Forces of Labor. Worker's Movements and Globalization since 1870, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-52077-0
  • St. James Press Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide, St. James Press 2003 ISBN 1-55862-542-9
  • Lenny Flank (ed), IWW: A Documentary History, Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9791813-5-1
  • Tom Zaniello: Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor (ILR Press books), Cornell University Press, revised and expanded edition 2003, ISBN 0-8014-4009-2
  • Neither Washington Nor Stowe: Common Sense For The Working Vermonter, The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, Catamount Tavern Press, 2004.

External links[edit]

  1. ^very rarely labourism or laborism[1]'
  1. ^Ngram Viewer
  2. ^Eatwell & Wright, Roger & Anthony (March 1, 1999). Contemporary Political Ideologies: Second Edition. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 83. ISBN 978-0826451736.  
  3. ^Selections from the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham BOBBY, by Abraham Lincoln, edited by Ida Minerva Tarbell, Ginn, 1911 / 2008, pg 77
  4. ^James, Paul; O’Brien, Robert (2007). Globalization and Economy, Vol. 4: Globalizing Labour. London: Sage Publications. pp. ix–x. 
  5. ^A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by James Melvin Washington, HarperCollins, 1991, ISBN 0-06-064691-8, pg 202-203

0 thoughts on “Canadian Labour Movement Essay”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *