Labour Day was celebrated for the first time in Canada on September 3, 1894, but the birthday of the labour movement was September 23, 1873. It was then that forty-five delegates from unions in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa formed the Canadian Labour Union. The first known trades-union in Canada was formed by printers in Quebec City in 1827.
While it tried to regulate wages, it was more of a mutual aid society to care for the sick, and to offer social and recreational opportunities for its members. Labour unions had a hard time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because they were held down legally; they were judged to be “in restraint of trade.”
However, labour began to make progress in Britain after the 1820’s, and in 1871 the British Parliament adopted a “Magna Carta of Trades Unionism” which had an immediate effect in Canada and the States.
In July 1872, the Trades Assembly in Toronto began a campaign for shorter hours and printers went on strike for seventeen weeks, demanding a nine-hour day. Twenty-four of them were thrown into jail, but public indignation led to their release.
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald introduced an act repealing such harsh measures. It was passed quickly by Parliament, and shortly afterwards the Canadian Labour Union was formed, representing fourteen unions in Toronto, and five in both Hamilton and Ottawa. Its members were assessed five cents every three months!
The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada was formed in 1886, but it cannot be said that the labour union movement grew quickly. In 1914, out of a labour force of 850,000, only 166,000 were union members. Industrialists organized more quickly. Between 1909 and 1911 nearly 200 manufacturing companies were united in 41 combinations. Their capital rose from $125 million to $335 million. Interlocking directorates put great power into the hands of a few people, although Parliament passed a Combines Investigation Act in 1910 to regulate monopolies and price-fixing.
As early as 1907, there was also legislation to deal with industrial disputes. The Lemieux Act prohibited strikes and lockouts until disputes had been examined by a mediation board.
“It is in obedience to foreign agitation carried on by paid agents who have nothing to lose as the result of their mischievous counsels that the printers of this city have succumbed.” – Toronto Globe, 1872.
“We may destroy our happiness by inoculating our industrial system with the maladies of a distant country [England] and an alien state of society.” – Toronto Globe, 1872
“Never in the history of Canada have labour unions shown so much activity; never have they been so well organized, and never has that organization made such determined, and in many cases unreasonable, efforts to secure for labour the domination of Canadian factories, and to wrest from the employer his inherent rights, to control the policy of his business and manage it as he thinks best.” – Canadian Manufacturer’s Association, 1903.
“Labour can do nothing without capital, capital nothing without labour, and neither labour or capital can do anything without the guiding genius of management: and management, however wise its genius may be, can do nothing without the privileges which the community affords.” – W.L. Mackenzie King, 1919