History Of Canadian Labor: The Decline and Movement of Canadian Labor Between 1920 and 1940

The objective of this work is to analyze the decline and subsequent rebuilding of the Canadian Labor movement between 1920 and 1940. Included in this analysis and discussion will be information relating to the Cape Breton coal miners, the origins of the Cooperative Commonwealth in Oshawa, Ontario, and the extent to which the CCF served the interests of the working people and the labor movement during this period.

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David Schulze writes in the work entitled: “The Industrial Workers of the World and the Unemployed in Edmonton and Calgary in the Depression of 1913-1915 that the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were “…remarkable among North American labor unions for two things:

The radicalism of their ideology; and 2) the daring of their tactics.” (1990)

Schulze relates that the preamble to the IWW constitution that was adopted in 1905 at the IWW’s founding convention states that there is “nothing in common” between the working and employing class and specifically that there is no possibility of peace “so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the work gin people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.” (Schulz, 1990)

It is stated by Schulz (1990) as well that “until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system…” that the struggle between these two classes of people “must go on…” (Schulz, nd) the work entitled: “The Strike as a Political Protest” relates that in Canada, prior to 1920 strikes were used frequently for protest. For example, in 1910 and 1912 the garment workers in Montreal and Toronto went on strike “in solidarity with other garment workers and held large demonstrations against the legal harassment of strike supporters.” (Leir, 2003) Freight handlers went on strike in Fort William and Port Arthur several times over wages and over what they referred to as “high-handed actions of managers.” (Leir, 2003)

In 1918 miners in the Drumheller mines went on strike in protest of the “emplacement of a machine gun battery by police…” And in 1918 “hundreds of Vancouver workers, ranging from longshoremen, street railwaymen, metal trades and construction workers to service workers, walked out en masse…to protest the murder of union organizer Albert ‘Ginger’ Goodwin…” who had been shot for his refusal to be conscripted.” (Leir, 2003) Several days later, Cumberland workers walked off the job to attend the funeral of Goodwin. In 1919, a general strike occurred for the purpose of protesting the ‘autocracy’ of the municipal government and in the spring of 1919 the dispute between Winnipeg Metal trade workers and their employers resulted in a general strike involving over 30,000 workers.


In 1919, there was more lost time due to strike activity than ever in the history of Canadian labor. Strike activity experienced a decline after about 1920 although in 1922 the Glace Bay miners went on strike to protest the arrest and sentencing of twelve workers who participated in a food riot when the company store was closed and the company would not accept the federal inquiry into working conditions recommendations. In 1923, Cape Breton miners went on strike to protest the Sydney strike and the use of military and police. In the years between 1929 and 1939, many workers in Canada were unemployed due to the ‘Great Depression’ with union membership and strike activity falling away. By 1925, the force of labor had collapsed and had experienced two critical changes:

1) Disintegration of the socialist-labourist unity; and 2) the labourist craftsman sought candidates from the middle classes. (Schulz, 1990)

Laborism is defined as “the political expression of skilled men and women who worked with their hands and thus made ‘honest toil’ the touchstone of their value system; it was also the politics of people who cherished the personal freedoms which the great struggles for popular democracy in the British political system had brought. In its narrowest, probably most common form, this meant the freedom to be left alone.” (Schulz, 1990)

III. WORKERS’ REVOLT (1917-1925)

Craig Heron writes, in the work entitled: “The Workers’ Revolt in Canada 1917-1925” that the activities of the working-class from 1917 to 1925 “could legitimately be called a ‘workers’ revolt.” (Heron,

The struggle between the classes in Canada was heightened during the war and the government passed the ‘Anti-loafing Act’, which resulted in forced employment of many workers. Farmers were angry due to “erosion of their income and way of life…” (Heron,

Heron states that it was during the war’s third year that a shift occurred from “voluntarism to more authoritarian state interventions, the growing popular uneasiness about private enterprise, and the divisive political crisis over conscription, the take-off retail price inflation, the increasing demoralization and disaffection of a war-weary population…” And from this context the revolt of workers was shaped in Canada.

The war is stated by Heron to have “brought economic prosperity and full employment to the Maritimes. Coal, steel, gypsum, and the construction trades expanded rapidly.”

In 1920, it is stated by Heron that the tide began to turn against workers in Canada. Independent Labor Parties (ILPs) were “locally based and eventually loosely affiliated with one another within New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.” (Heron,

By 1920 the party is stated to have evolved ‘its own highly original interpretation of socialism” however, it is stated that the working-class movements most pronounced failure was “its inability to cement an alliance with primary producers.” (Heron,

In 1920, the Maritime Provinces were hit full force by the recession with price collapse of primary products “reinforced by an economic downturn that brought construction and manufacturing to a virtual halt and created high levels of unemployment.” (Heron,

St. Lawrence markets loss in the coalfields as well as competition along with a large merger resulted in the industry experiencing a crisis. Heron states: ‘Communities outside the coal towns were also devastated by this economic crunch. In 1922-23 the shipyard at East River in Pictou, which had employed five hundred men, was dismantled.


In April 1921 amalgamation within the Canadian National Railway cost over six hundred men their jobs in the Moncton shops. Sydney Mines lost its steel mill in a similar rationalization of the Nova Scotia steel industry.”

Resulting from the economic recession was the reduction of wages of workers and lengthening of their working hours. Striking had worked well during a time when labor was scarce however, worker strikes only hurried along the rate that factories and mines were being closed. Trade unionists declined greatly during this time. The result is that following 1920 striking among workers was much less common. An extremely difficult lesson was learned by workers in June 1921, when the street railway workers in Saint John went on strike over wages and one-man cars being introduced. By the time that the 230 employees had agreed to accept the decision of the conciliation board the New Brunswick Power Corporation retaliated by locking the employees out, replacing union men and refusing to negotiate further.


While the battle against the bourgeois hegemony had been all but lost everywhere else “the restoration of bourgeois hegemony in the coalfields proved, predictably, to be a much tougher assignment…” And when the coalminers were unable to be tamed in 1920 ‘the coal companies were forced to concede a contract – the Montreal Agreement that effectively preserved the pre-war gains of the coal workers. However, the stipulations in the contract included a loss in the workers right to strike for the duration of the agreement between the UMW and the coal companies and as well grievances would not be allowed if the workers went on strike.

The wages were believed by the negotiators to be enough to make up for loss of autonomy among workers however, while wages were left high there were no protections for “reductions in rates affecting a wide range of mining work” (Heron, which resulted in the company laying “…off ‘surplus’ miners at will.” (Heron,


The poverty that the workers in Canada had sunk down into along with the faked government relief efforts is stated by Heron to have left workers with one of two choices:

1) Accept the present conditions with all their humiliation and poverty, and repudiate the sacred obligations to which every sire owes his son; or 2) Reject and fight with all the power within these workers in ‘one bold attempt to hand down to our children something better than a slave’s portion.” (Heron,

The literature reviewed reveals that worker strikes were not only based upon issues of workers but were also related to a broader political context. The work of Turkstra (2008) entitled: “Constructing a Labour Gospel: Labour and Religion in Early 20th Century Ontario” relates that a close tie existed between labour and religion in Canada stating: “Before World War I, labour leaders in the Southern Ontario Labour movement built and alliance with progressive clergymen at the national and local elves, in the years directly following the war, these leaders were becoming more convinced that the churches, with their call for industrial democracy, were sincere in their sympathy for workers and their struggles.” (Turkstra, 2008)


The alliance between labour and the church began to notably weaken and in 1921 the printers’ strike in Toronto “was the final blow that ended the alliance between the churches and labour.” (Turkstra, 2008) Turkstra states that this conflict centered around the Methodist Book Room and the refusal of the superintendent S.W. Fallis to agree to the demand of workers for a 44-hour workweek. This strike is stated to have caused “irreparable damage to the alliance between labour and the churches…” (Turkstra, 2008) the labour leaders had been willing to engage with the churches prior to the war because.”..a complete rejection of the churches might have alienated potential supports. Also they would have recognized that church bodies and ministers were important models in the community and an alliance, therefore, would help put pressure on the government to pass legislation that was favorable to labour.” (Turkstra, 2008)


The work of Bryan D. Palmer (2003) entitled: “What’s Law Got to do With it? Historical Considerations on Class Struggle, Boundaries of Constraint, and Capitalist Authority?” states that the period of 1936-37 in Southern Ontario “saw plant occupations and militant outbursts…culminating in the organization of Ashawa auto workers, years of obsolete craft unionism, on the one hand, and/or depression and state inaction around the basic provisioning of relief, on the other, had reconditioned the meaning of both accommodation and resistance.” (Palmer, 2003) Labour law at this time was “moving toward an eventual narrowing of boundaries and reification of capitalist authority in contract law, collective bargaining being premised on management rights’ clauses and the union being, in part, responsible for policing its members.” (Palmer, 2003) in fact, events that had taken place during the late 1930’s in Canada had “assured a future stand in Canadian class relations [for industrial unionism even if it were] weak and wobbly.” (Palmer, 2003) in other words, while labour law was at this time, “narrowly conceived…was constricting the boundaries of class struggle through becoming entrenched, codified, professionalized and integrated into the state-orchestrated system tending toward the production of labour-capital rapprochement t, the actual legal spaces where class was now operative were in fact expanding.” (Palmer, 2003)


The labour class in Canada experienced many shifts in their political and social climate during the period 1920-1930 in that the labour class rode upon the high waves of victory through their alignment with workers unions that succeeded in bring out about gains to these individuals only to have those gains abruptly removed following World War II. However, the determination of workers unions to organize combined with the injustices experienced by Canadian labour following the war resulted in a final victorious achievement for Canadian laborers, which they were able to realize finally in the late 1930s.


Leir, Mark (2003) the Strike as Political Protest. Online available at http://www.sfu.ca/labour/HEU,%20The%20Strike%20as%20Political%20Protest5.pdf

Turkstra, Melissa, Constructing a Labour Gospel: Labour and Religion in Early 20th-Century Ontario. Labour/Le Travail.57 (2006): 53 pars. 12 Aug. 2008 http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/llt/57/turkstra.html

Palmer, Bryan D. (2003) What’s Law Got to do With it? Historical Considerations on Class Struggle, Boundaries of Constraint, and Capitalist Authority? Canadian Research Chair 2003. Online available at http://www.ohlj.ca/archive/articles/41_23_palmer.pdf