A brief history of trade unions in Canada up to WW2

Guest Blogger: Amber

Legislation forcing British Columbia paramedics back to work was introduced November 2.   The bill will impose a retroactive one year contract on 3,500 ambulance paramedics, members of CUPE 873, who went on strike April 1, 2009.

It has not been a smooth road since the first emergence of unions in Canada. It may be worthwhile looking back to get some idea of how the labour relations have been progressing, at least, up to the Second World War years.

The emergence of collective bargaining in Canada: a short history

Trade guilds have existed in Europe for hundreds of years. Then came the industrial revolution.

The English Combinations Act of 1800 prohibited “unlawful meetings and combinations” for the purpose of regulating the rate of wages. As a colony of England Upper Canada adopted English legislation.  Legislation governing the affairs between employers and employees was called the Masters and Servants Act.

Post Confederation, following the formation of Canada and passage of the British North America Act of 1867, local labour councils sprang up in cities. Between 1873 and 1877 the Canadian Labour Union was formed and there were 35 unions.

Prior to 1840s, the concept of trade unions in North America grew slowly due to labour surpluses and a Depression. In the mid 1870s and 1890s saw another Depression along with the growth of manufacturing on an industrial scale. Working conditions were abysmal. A work week could consist of 60 hours. Canada saw the growth of the Trade and Labour Congress of Canada along with the Knights of Labour.

1907    Industrial Disputes Investigation Act for utilities, railroads and coal mines.
1912    43,000 union members were involved in strikes
1919    150,000 union members were involved in strikes. The Winnipeg General Strike is well-known. Local union and non-union workers from both private and public sectors paralyzed Winnipeg in a general strike. Originally sparked by a dispute between metal workers and their employers, the city’s working class joined in, fanned by discontent over inflation and unemployment.
1925   The English Privy Council which had the final say in Canada’s affairs ruled that industrial relations were primarily a provincial matter.  Approximately 10% of the Canadian workforce fell under federal legislation. 90% of the American workforce fell under US federal legislation.
1935   The USA Wagner Act gave the right to employees to belong to the union of choice and the right to collective bargaining.
1937   The Canadian Criminal Code prohibited discrimination and discharge because of union activity
1944-1948 The National Wartime Labour Relations Board certified unions, heard and settled disputes in industries under federal jurisdiction (such as telephone, telegraph, banks, shipping) or enterprises that were interprovincial or international in scope.
1944    The Canada Labour Relations Board was established under the Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigation Act (11-12 George V1, c.54n)


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