The History of Labour Unions
What world historical developments led to the formation of trade unions?
The major impetus for trade unions in the western world was the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, which created the working class. Society changed from being mainly rural to industrial with many people living in towns and cities. More people lived and worked in poor conditions, fuelling the development of trade unions.
Some unions had formed in Canada prior to the time of the Industrial Revolution, most notably in industries requiring a skilled craft, for example, shoemaking or printing. They had also formed in industries where there were large groups of workers, for example, the shipping industry. Generally, these early unions provided assistance in times of unemployment, illness, or death.
When more workers began to work in factories and larger centres, however, unions began to become active for the purpose of representing workers’ rights across a much wider spectrum.
What influenced the development of trade unions in Canada?
Developments in Great Britain and the United States greatly influenced Canadian trade unions. Immigrant workers from Great Britain were instrumental in establishing early unions in Canada and much of the early legal history and legislation was taken from Great Britain. In an attempt to harmonize the conditions of work across North America, local Canadian unions began affiliating with American organizations and formed into international unions. Later, unions from the United States spread into Canada and the framework for much of the current labour legislation in Canada derives from post-World War II United States legislation. The construction of the railway was another important influence in the development of trade unions. The railway linked disparate communities and created market pressures on working class families.
Were there any issues associated with the operation of international unions in Canada?
Historically, yes, but a more recent solution has been to break from international unions to form national ones.
The major issue with the operation of international unions in Canada was that the union was usually controlled in the United States. All major decisions were taken at the American headquarters, which removed power from the union members in Canada.
In more recent years, some unions have broken away from international unions to form Canadian unions. For example, the Canadian Auto Workers left the United Auto Workers in 1985, after 50 years of affiliation, because of disagreement over Canadian control of wage bargaining, strike authorization, and staff appointments.
What distinguishes Canadian labour laws from those of Great Britain and the United States?
Distinguishing features of Canadian labour laws compared to those of Great Britain and the United States include:
- the unique feature of the delay of the work stoppage, and
- the decentralized control of labour relations; and
- constitutional protection of collective bargaining in Canada.
The provinces govern most labour and employment matters. The federal government plays a role in labour regulation through the Canada Labour Code, but only for industries that are federally regulated such as telecommunications. On a smaller scale, most collective agreements are concluded between one union and one employer, rather than across an industry.
The Nine Hours Movement
What was the Nine Hours Movement?
In Canada in the late 1800s, the Nine Hours Movement campaigned for a working day of nine hours instead of the more usual eleven or twelve hours. The movement seems to have begun in 1869 when the Typographical Union of Toronto first began to request a reduction of weekly hours from 60 to 58. Printers, who were members of the Typographical Society, joined the action. George Brown, editor of the Globe newspaper, opposed them and warned the printers’ wives that the strike was bad because the men would become a nuisance at home!
The Union ordered a “printers strike” on March 25, 1872. This strike was jointed by unions from other trades. Following a large demonstration in Toronto on April 15, 1872, all twenty-four members of the Toronto Printer’ Vigilance (strike) committee were arrested. The printers were charged with criminal conspiracy.
Why were the Toronto printers charged with criminal conspiracy for going on strike in 1872?
The conspiracy charge arose simply because the strikers had combined together with the purpose of lowering working hours. The act of combining, that is: forming a trade union for this purpose, was alleged to be illegal. In effect, the trade union was seen as a conspiracy because it had illegal purposes.
Why was a “combination of people” to increase wages or lower hours illegal in Canada before 1872?
Before 1872, a “combination of people” to increase wages or lower hours was seen as obstructive to trade and commerce. In legal terms, this was called acting in restraint of trade and was illegal.
In Britain, it had been illegal since 1721 to combine for the purpose of raising wages. Combination Laws were passed in 1800, which banned combinations of people or any meetings about combination relating to hours of work, wages, or employment conditions. The laws were partly repealed in 1824 so that unions could form, but they could not use violence, threats, intimidation, molestation, or obstruction to make others join a union or to make employers change the way they did business. When the Toronto printers were charged with conspiracy in 1872, courts determined that the British law of 1871 did not apply in Canada, so that unions were still unlawful. Later laws in 1871 and 1875 freed union members from prosecution for criminal conspiracy. Actions by a combination were allowed if they furthered a trade dispute as long as the act was not illegal if done by an individual.
What happened to the strikers after they were charged with conspiracy?
The printers appeared in court on April 18, 1872. Their defence lawyer pleaded that the Union had existed for 25 years and had been accepted by the community. The prosecutor said that combinations of labour were illegal at common law. The magistrate ruled for the prosecution that the men were guilty of belonging to an illegal body; a combination.
That same day, however, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald introduced a bill in Parliament, modeled on the British law, which freed unions from charges of conspiracy for combining to increase wages or lower hours. As a result of this bill, the charges were dropped against the accused workers. This bill became the Trade Union Act, 1872. It stated that the purposes of a registered trade union are not unlawful just because they are in restraint of trade. This principle is now confirmed in the Canadian Criminal Code, which provides that union members cannot be prosecuted for criminal conspiracy unless their actions were already illegal under the law.
Were unions able to represent their members once they had been freed from prosecution for conspiracy under the criminal law in 1872?
Partially. Although unions and their members could no longer be prosecuted for criminal conspiracy and were free to join unions, there were no corresponding rights of recognition by employers. Unlike Great Britain, where there was an extensive history of voluntary collective bargaining, Canadian unions had no such history and employers were generally not willing to recognize unions in their workplaces on a voluntary basis.
If employers had no obligation to recognize a union, did this mean that collective bargaining did not happen at all?
No. The willingness of an employer to bargain with a union depended upon either the goodwill of the employer, or the pressure that a union could bring to bear by industrial action. For example, a strike by auto workers in Oshawa in 1937 ended with a settlement agreement on certain key issues, as did strikes in the same year by workers in the textile industry in Quebec and Ontario.
Were there other changes to the law as a result of the Nine Hours Movement?
Yes, there were changes with regard to picketing. The government passed a law in 1872 to outlaw violence, intimidation, and coercion when carried out to force someone to do something he or she had a right to do, or not to do something he or she had a legal right to do. This action was defined as intimidation, but essentially defined the action of picketing. The law was later amended in 1876 to allow for peaceful picketing by stating that being at a workplace just to obtain or communicate information did not fall within the definition of intimidation.
The peaceful picketing amendment was left out when the Criminal Code was passed in 1892. It was re-enacted in 1934 and remains in place today. Picketing is therefore not a criminal activity as long as it is carried out in accordance with the peaceful picketing amendment.
Were the strikes in support of the Nine Hours Movement seen to be successful?
Yes, for the most part. The unions in several different industries claimed success with the institution of nine-hour days. After a demonstration in Hamilton in May 1872, a trade unionist, Alec H. Wingfield, wrote the following that was published in the Colonial Advocate:
The Nine Hour Pioneers
Honour the men of Hamilton,
The Nine Hour pioneers,
Their memory will be kept green
Throughout the coming years.
And every honest son of toil
That lives in freedom’s light
Shall bless that glorious day in May
When might gave way to right.
Your cause was just, your motives pure
Again, and again and again,
You strove to smooth the path of toil
And help your fellow men.
And Canada will bless your name
Through all the coming years
And place upon the scroll of fame
The Nine Hour Pioneers.
New Laws in the 20th Century
How did the Canadian government react to widespread industrial action by unions at the beginning of the 20th century?
The federal government reacted by passing laws to halt industrial action. The Conciliation Act was passed in 1900 providing for voluntary conciliation or arbitration. The Act was devised by Mackenzie King, who was the Deputy Minister of Labour at the time. He saw the cessation and settlement of industrial disputes as extremely important, even if the underlying issues causing the disputes were never solved.
The Conciliation Act did not work well because it was a voluntary process and there was no tradition of voluntary collective bargaining in Canada. The Act did create a precedent, however, for what was to become the hallmark of Canadian collective bargaining; a regulatory system of collective bargaining imposed by the government.
The delay of the work stoppage has been called a prominent feature of Canadian labour law. When did this feature become law in Canada?
The delay of the work stoppage was introduced into Canadian law in 1907 in the federal Industrial Disputes Investigation Act. The key feature of the Act was that in certain industries any dispute had to be reported to a board of conciliation and mediation. Any strike or lockout taking place before the board completed its report was unlawful. The intention was to give both sides a cooling off period and try to avoid the industrial action.
Was the Industrial Disputes Investigation Actof 1907 successful in preventing strike action?
No. The union movement was not very happy with the way that processes under the Act worked. There were many complaints about delay and employer bias. In the years leading up to the First World War, other events put pressure on unions. Efficiency methods were introduced by the government to assist the war effort, which led to fears in craft union members that their skills would be diluted. This fear was increased by the fact that women were entering the workforce in large numbers and taking jobs previously held by skilled workers.
In 1916, there were 168 strikes in Canada involving 26,971 workers. By 1920, there were 459 strikes involving 76,624 workers.
Were there were other problems with this Act that troubled the union movement?
Yes, there were other concerns. When the federal government passed the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act in 1907, many protested the ability of the federal government to pass laws that affected all workers in all industries across Canada. They felt that under the British North America Act 1867, the power to legislate about the civil rights of employers and employees was given to the provinces alone.
Several cases challenged the authority of the federal government, but were not resolved. Then in 1923, a legal challenge was raised to the appointment of a board under the federal Act concerning street railway workers in Toronto. The workers went on strike to protest wages and working conditions. In 1925, the Privy Council ruled in the case of Toronto Electric Commission v Snider that the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act was unconstitutional. It said that the provinces had the right to make laws regarding the civil rights of employers and employees, unless it was in an area specifically in the domain of the federal government. The only time that this power could revert back to the federal government would be in a time of national crisis.
What happened to the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act after the decision in the Snider case?
After the Snider decision, the federal government amended the Act to state that it only applied to matters that were not within the jurisdiction of the provinces, but that it could apply in a national emergency and where a province chose to use it provincially.
All provinces except Prince Edward Island did subsequently pass laws similar to the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act so that the same principles applied provincially.
When the provinces passed similar acts to the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act, did they change the terms in any way?
No. The failings of the federal Act as far as the unions were concerned were not changed, just carried over to provincial legislation. There was still no protection of union organization or direction on how collective agreements would work. Employers could still use methods to try to stop union organization. Even if a union did organize, there was no obligation for an employer to recognize or bargain with the union.
The Winnipeg General Strike
What events led to the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919?
The Winnipeg General Strike was the culmination of labour unrest that had been building across Canada since the introduction of the Industrial Disputes and Investigation Act. Causes included:
- changing labour conditions and practices as a result of the War;
- sympathy with the Russian revolution that occurred in 1905;
- unions still having no rights of recognition by employers;
- an influx of immigrants to Canada from Europe;
- many immigrants coming from countries where they had fought or been fighting capitalists and landlords and bringing their ideas and enthusiasms with them to Canada; and
- soldiers returning from the war causing a shortage of jobs.
Further, the cost of living had gone up but employers were still making large profits. Socialist ideas were discussed widely at labour meetings.
The immediate events preceding the Winnipeg strike were demands from workers’ councils in Winnipeg for fewer working hours, higher wages, and union recognition.
What happened during the Winnipeg General Strike?
On May 15, 1919 the Winnipeg General Strike began when the telephone workers left their shift at 7 a.m. without anyone coming in to replace them. The strike grew to between 25,000 and 30,000 workers within 24 hours. Sympathy strikes spread across the country and included those in industries that had not been particularly militant until this time, for example, postal workers, fire fighters, cooks, and waiters.
In Winnipeg, demonstrations became more and more violent. After a large demonstration on June 21, two strikers were killed and others were injured. Military control was put in force in the city. The union leaders called off the strike when they got a promise from Manitoba Premier Norris to appoint a Royal Commission to study general labour conditions and investigate the causes of the strike.
What was the outcome of the Winnipeg General Strike?
Ultimately, the strike was not successful. The unions won nothing and many workers lost their jobs as a result. There were no major reforms introduced. Labour unrest and dissatisfaction continued. Governments and employers continued to use tactics to discourage union membership and discredit unions.
In Quebec, the Roman Catholic Church set up its own union fearing the effect of people joining other groups. It was called the Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Trade Unions.
The 1930s: The Depression and influences from the Unites States
During times of depression, there is often high unemployment. This leads to lower rates of union membership. This was the situation in Canada in the 1930s Depression.
In a few areas, events led to union membership and protest. In Quebec, the Roman Catholic union movement became very active as more secular leaders became involved. The Communist Party formed the Workers Unity League, which was particularly active in the West and Northern Ontario amongst miners. The League was eventually disbanded by the Communist party in 1935. Most Canadians were just trying to survive in a very difficult time with little or no social help.
Did unions in the United States have the right to recognition in the 1930s?
Unions did not have rights to recognition in the United States, although the Clayton Act of 1914 had recognized the right of workers to join unions. In 1926, the Railway Labor Act allowed workers to join unions free of interference from employers, and imposed collective bargaining by putting employers under a duty to negotiate with the union. The government could intervene to suspend strikes and disputes during a collective agreement had to be settled by agreement or by arbitration. The Act only applied to the railway industry, but represented a departure from previous law and set the stage for the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.
During the Depression, unions in the United States became very militant. The American Federation of Labour, which had traditionally represented mostly craft unions, accepted memberships from industrial unions. The Committee for Industrial Organizing (CIO) was formed to pursue new union memberships, especially in the large new industries of auto, meatpacking, and steel production.
What caused the change in how unions were treated by the law in terms of rights of recognition?
The major impetus for change came from laws the United States passed that were, to some extent, adopted by the Canadian federal government in wartime emergency legislation. Prior to this, an Act had been passed in Quebec that was later adopted by five other provinces. The Collective Labour Agreement Extension Act of 1934 allowed the Quebec provincial government to extend the terms of a collective agreement concerning wages and hours to an entire industry while the agreement was in force.
Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick also adopted the Act.
What was the United States National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act?
The Wagner Act (1935) applied to industry at large in the United States. The Act gave workers the rights of freedom of association and to choose a union to represent them. It defined unfair labour practices by an employer and made them unlawful. The Act also stated that an employer had to bargain with a union that represented a majority of the employees. In short, collective bargaining became mandatory when a union had a majority membership in a workplace.
Did the Wagner Act have any influence in Canada?
Yes. As a result of international unions operating in Canada, information about the law in the United States was followed closely. The Committee for Industrial Organizing was very active in Canada for unions based in the United States.
In 1937, the Trades and Labour Congress prepared a draft statute for provinces to adopt, taking a great many ideas from the Wagner Act. All provinces, except Ontario and Prince Edward Island, then passed laws based on the draft statute, which confirmed that collective bargaining was legal. This legislation made it illegal for an employer to interfere with the rights of an employee or to refuse to bargain with a union that represented the majority of the workforce.
Later, Ontario passed a law that went further in establishing a labour court to deal with issues of union selection.
What laws were passed in Alberta in the 1930s, when provinces were following the model of the Wagner Act?
In 1937, the Freedom of Trade Union Association Act was passed in Alberta, legalizing trade unions and giving them rights of collective bargaining. The Act also prohibited employers from stopping employees from exercising their rights under the Act.
In 1938, the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act was passed, which set a 14-day delay period before unions could strike and provided for voluntary submission to arbitration.
For more information, see these other Canadian Legal FAQs.