This Week in Canadian Labour History
Unions Become Legal in Canada (but picketing is outlawed)
On April 18, 1872, the federal government of John A. Macdonald introduced the Trade Unions Act, Canada’s first labour law, which gave workers the legal right to associate in trade unions. It was a direct response to the arrest and criminal prosecution of 24 leaders of the Toronto printers strike by Macdonald’s political opponents – aimed at garnering votes but also in recognition of the growing power of the country’s trade union movement.
Whether it is workers’ rights, working conditions, human rights or social justice, laws get changed if people stand together in solidarity. Today, unions legally fight for worker’s rights and for good jobs.
In April of 1872, unionized printers striking for the 9-hour day are arrested in Toronto and jailed. Their demand was a decrease in their work days to nine-hours at a time when some workers were expected to work for as long as 12 hours. The printers paraded with union supporters to Queen’s Park where a crowd of 10,000 strong rallied on their side. The following day employers, led by Liberal George Brown of the “Globe”, had 24 strike leaders arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy. They could do this because it was not legal for workers to use their collective action as union members to strike their employers.
Capitalizing on the political folly of Brown’s action, and growing outrage, Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald introduced and passed the Trade Unions Act, effectively making union membership legal. He further undermined Brown by removing union members from “criminal conspiracy” for taking strike action.
A shameless political manœuvre, it won Macdonald the key support heading into a federal election. In Ottawa, union members marched to the Prime Minister’s home in celebration of the move and paraded him through the streets by torch light. It is worth noting that as it gave workers the right to join a union, Macdonald’s government simultaneously passed another act that made picketing illegal.
In the years following this “first”, unions came to realize that governments could take away rights as easily as they could be bestowed. Legal strikes, even the freedom to hold union meetings were declared criminal acts as governments saw fit.
Today, the right to belong to a union as well as the right to strike are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as fundamental rights. Canada’s unions won these rights after years of struggle and legal arguments in the face of back-to-work legislation and collective agreements being rewritten by legal statute.
Canadian Museum of History / Musée canadien de l’histoire
Learn more about the historic struggle of workers in Canada and why they came together to form unions to fight for a better future. The struggle for the 9 hour work day was just the beginning.