History of Labour in Canada

February 24, 2015

Canada’s labour movement has a long history of improving workers’ everyday lives. We fought for and won many of the rights enjoyed by all workers today – minimum wages, overtime pay, workplace safety standards, maternity and parental leave, vacation pay, and protection from discrimination and harassment.

Today unions work hard every day to protect the rights we’ve won, and to win new rights for all workers. We are social unions, focused not just on the gains we can make in bargaining, but the gains we can make for society as a whole, like fighting to end child labour, or to win workers compensation, public pensions and social programs that help people keep working, like health care and child care.

Some highlights:

1872: The fight for a shorter work-week

Imagine working at least ten or more hours a day. Every day. That’s what many of Toronto’s print workers’ daily lives looked like in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union demanded a nine-hour workday from the city’s publishers.

Employers refused, and the printers walked off the job on March 25, 1872. Publishers hired replacement workers, but the strikers had earned widespread support from other Toronto workers.
The result: a crowd of 10,000 supporters showed up for a rally at Queen’s Park on April 15, 1872. In those days, union activity was criminal, and then Toronto Globe publisher George Brown had the strike committee arrested for criminal conspiracy the next day. The community protested in support of those arrested.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald – no friend of publisher and Reform politician George Brown – introduced the Trade Union Act on April 18, 1872, legalizing and protecting unions. The strike in Toronto evolved into the “Nine-Hour Movement”. Toronto printers led to annual celebrations of Labour Day, celebrated today in communities across Canada every year.

Workers movements had begun to develop as early as the 1850’s but it was this issue – the need for a shorter work week – that galvanized the movement and convinced more workers that joining unions would change their lives for the better.

1919: The Winnipeg general strike

The year 1919 saw soldiers returning home after World War I to find high unemployment rates and inflation. They couldn’t get their jobs back and social tension was high.  Workers in various trades wanted fair wages: much like workers today, they just wanted to earn enough to be able to support their families in the changing economy.

At 11:00 am on May 15, 1919, workers walked off the job and marched into the streets of Winnipeg, leading to one of the biggest labour actions Canada has ever seen. Strikers included both the private and public sectors, and ranged from garment workers to police officers. On June 21, 1919, the Royal North-West Mounted Police and hired union busters rode on horseback and fired into a crowd of thousands of workers, killing two and injuring countless others.

The infamous “Bloody Saturday” marked the end of the strike. This was the largest general strike in Canadian history and set the stage for future labour reforms.

The birth of Unemployment Insurance

During the economic depression of 1929-39, young, unemployed men had to work in government work camps for paltry wages in isolated locations.

In pursuit of a living wage, workers in Vancouver abandoned the camps, launching a strike. After striking for two months with no relief in sight, they took their case directly to Ottawa, travelling by rail and on foot. This journey became known as the ‘On to Ottawa trek’.

The trek was stopped by the RCMP on orders from Ottawa and after rioting and arrests of union leaders, the strike ended. Mackenzie King’s Liberals won the next election and legislated against the repressive conservative government, abolishing the camps.

This epic strike and trip captured the hearts and minds of Canadians and gave birth to unemployment insurance in 1940. Canada was the last major Western country to adopt an unemployment insurance system.

Today we refer to this system as Employment insurance (EI). Research has shown that EI was the single most important economic stabilizer in the past 3 recessions. (link to this.)

1945: Windsor’s Ford strike

In 1945, Ford’s Windsor complex employed 14,000 auto workers, making it Canada’s largest workplace. Times were tough. War-time production was slowing down, and many companies, including Ford, wanted to break some of the gains that had been made by unions for workers since the depression. Union dues were still voluntary – meaning United Auto Workers Local 200 had the near impossible task of collecting dues from 14,000 members each month. The union needed more security if it was going to survive and protect the gains it had made for its members.

Ford announced it was laying off 1,500 workers. Then negotiations broke down over union demands that would have made union membership mandatory, and seen dues automatically deducted from workers’ pay and handed to the union, something Ford had agreed to in another plant. Workers had also demanded a paid two-week annual vacation.

On September 12, 1945, the union struck. It was a new and inexperienced union, but the workers had cultivated community support, and Ford’s confrontational tactics fostered even more solidarity.

The union was able to fend off attempts to break the picket lines with the support of 8,000 members from UAW Local 195, employed at other Windsor auto companies, who stayed off work without strike pay for another month. To prevent a violent confrontation with police, the strikers parked their own cars in streets all around the plant, forming a blockade that lasted three days.

That’s when federal cabinet minister Paul Martin Sr., personally intervened to get bargaining going again, and a tentative settlement, based on the union’s pre-strike offer of binding arbitration on all union security matters, was defeated by the local’s now-militant members. The workers would only go back to work after Martin assured the union he would appoint a “sympathetic” arbitrator. That got the deal passed. On December 9, after 99 days on the picket line, workers voted to return to work.

The Rand decision – Everyone who benefits should contribute

Six weeks after the Ford workers were back on the job, arbitrator Ivan Rand, a Supreme Court judge, brought down his award, rejecting mandatory union membership, but approving automatic dues check-off.

is decision ruled that because everyone in a workplace benefits from the union, everyone should contribute to the union.

Justice Rand believed dues check-off would foster labour peace and a harmonious labour relations climate in Canada.

As a result of Rand and subsequent court decisions, dues check-off can be included in the collective agreement at the request of the union in most provinces and has become known as the Rand Formula.
That means unions can cover the cost of bargaining, enforcing collective agreements, and campaigns that advance the interests of their members.

Pooling resources this way means workers have the support they need when grievances to arbitration, or when they are forced on strike or locked out without strike pay.

1956: Founding of the Canadian Labour Congress 

By the 1950s, the time had come for a single, country-wide labour organization to help unions work together around common goals. Industrial growth, the rising influence of “big business” and expanding government involvement in the social and economic life of the country demanded a strong, unified voice for working Canadians. That led to the creation of the CLC in 1956.

1965: Public service workers win bargaining rights

Because of unions, public service workers in Canada have decent pay, benefits and pensions. But they had to fight to win those gains.

Back in 1965 the Canadian Union of Postal Workers wanted the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike, higher wages and better management. They defied government policies and staged an illegal, country-wide strike.

That strike would go down in history as one of the largest ‘wildcat’ strikes in Canada. It lasted two weeks and ended with the government extending collective bargaining rights to the entire public service, although some workers, such as the RCMP and the military, were excluded.

Today public service unions like the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees continue to fend off attempts by governments to roll back wages, pensions and benefits for federal government workers.

The right to safety at work 

In the 1960’s exploitation of workers – especially immigrants – was still widespread. Many barely earned enough to support their families, lived in fear of deportation, and were forced to work in very unsafe working conditions. Many, unable to speak English, were unaware of any rights they did have.

On March 17, 1960, five Italian immigrant workers, Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Battista Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo, Alessandro and Guido Mantella, climbed 35 feet underground to continue their work on a tunnel at Hogg’s Hollow, under the Don River near Old York Mills Road and Yonge Street in Toronto.

The tunnel was just six feet in diameter, and the men had to crawl underneath a 36 inch water main running through it to pass each other. They hadn’t been equipped with hard hats or flashlights.

When a fire broke out, they were trapped, unable to see their way out, blocked anyway by smoldering cables on one side and a cement tunnel support wall on the other. Panicked rescue workers shut down air to the tunnel, causing a cave-in, and as compression was lost, the men suffered the torture of nitrogen bubbling up in their bloodstreams. The floor hadn’t been properly sealed with cement, so when water was finally poured in to fight the fire, a torrential flood of mud buried the men alive. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation from inhaling smoke, sand and water.

The tragedy became the catalyst for reforms in occupational health and safety. Unions led the fight to get the Ontario government to take workplace health and safety seriously, leading to the passing of the Industrial Safety Act.

The act was the foundation of the Canada Labour (Safety) Code that passed later that decade. It clearly set out laws and regulations for the safety of workers in Canada.

Saskatchewan then took this further passing the Occupational Health Act, considered the first legislation of its kind in North America.

The act is still in existence today, making health and safety the joint responsibility of management and workers. Unions fought hard to give Canadians three important areas of power: the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to know about hazards in the workplace and the right to participate in health and safety discussions. And unions fight hard every day to keep forcing employers to fulfill their obligations to keep workers safe.

Maternity & parental benefits 

Did you know that paid maternity leave benefits have only been around since 1971 in Canada? Before that, a new mother had to quit work or return to work quickly if her family depended on her income.
And while the federal government, through the unemployment insurance program, introduced limited 15 weeks of paid maternity leave in 1971 at 66% of a mother’s previous salary, it was only a short time later when unions began negotiating longer paid maternity leave with higher levels of benefits for their members that topped up the portion of salary paid by unemployment insurance benefits. And unions also began negotiating guarantees that women could return to the jobs they held before their maternity leave, paternity leave, and leave for parents who adopted children.

At the beginning of the 1960s just over 30% of women aged 20 to 30 participated in the Canadian labour force. By the end of the 1970s it had doubled to just over 60%, and in 2012 over 70% of young women were participating in the labour force. And today, 70% of mothers with children under five years of age are working.

The labour movement pushed for changes to make maternity leave more accessible, not only in legislation, but also by bargaining better paid maternity leave for its members. And they didn’t stop at just maternity leave. As early as 1979, Quebec’s Common Front, representing government, education and health workers, negotiated 20 weeks of fully paid maternity, 10 weeks leave when parents adopted a child, and five days of paternity leave!  In 1981 after a 42-day strike, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers won postal workers across Canada 17 weeks of paid maternity leave. The concept of longer periods of paid maternity leave than was available through unemployment insurance benefits soon became mainstream and expanded across the country.

Unions didn’t stop at maternity leave. Adoption leave, paternity leave, and parental leave – available to either parent – were routinely negotiated with employers. Today, we advocate for better access to quality and affordable child care for all workers – so families can better balance their work and family lives. Access to childcare and early childhood education provide economic benefits to the country, and help boost productivity.

Maternity and parental leave has given new parents the economic stability and valuable time they need to care for their children and support their growing families. Maternity, parental, and other family leaves continue to evolve as the family unit changes with our society.