The Sunshine and the shade: labour activism in central Canada, 1850-1860
LccHD 8106 A55 1974 Microfiche
LcshLabor and laboring classes - Canada - History
Trade-unions - Canada - History
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AbstractNot much is known about the origins of the labour movement in the pre-Confederation Canadas. The fifties in particular are well worth a closer examination than they have received at the hands of Canadian labour historians. The mid-century decade saw labour pass through the sunshine of the greatest boom of the century, and the shadow of the severe depression which followed the Crash of 1857. The years between 1853 and 1855 were surprisingly turbulent in terms of strike action among both skilled and unskilled men in the Canadas. After a generation of passivity, Canadian labour embarked on a path which led to the birth of a genuine labour movement in the Canadas. Though the scale of the movement was small by comparison with that of Britain or the United States, it was no less vigorous and dynamic during the years which saw the birth of the "new unionism" in both America and Britain. The labour activism of the fifties was largely a response to inflationary pressures brought on by the great railway development boom. In addition, the Canadas were coming more and more under the influence of the forces unleashed by the industrial revolution, and technological innovation created pressures which helped to spur strike action and union organizing activity. The leaders of the "wages movement" and the "insurrection of labour" were working men in the traditional crafts and trades. The most active were those in what might be called the "middle trades," which took in the building trades, shoemakers, tailors, and others who were not among the labour aristocrats of their time. The labour force was dominated by the recent immigrants, and the men who founded the unions of the fifties were men with strong traditions of labour. Many of them were Irish, and the Irish deserve credit for being the co-founders of the unions of the fifties. In Canada the Irish had successfully penetrated a number of the middle rank trades, and many were active participants in the unions of their day. After 1854, unionism had a foothold in the major Canadian cities. Linkage with the parent movements was precipitated by the post-1857 depression. Pragmatic, wage-conscious, and basically non-ideological in character, the Canadian unions did not differ significantly from the British or American unions of their day, except in ways which were a function of the differing scale of the three societies. The 1854 climax of unrest among skilled men was a significant turning point in the relations between labour and capital in the Canadas. The breakthrough was most visible in the Toronto-Hamilton region, which was the focal point of labour activity. Labour in the two cities exhibited a dynamism which was unprecedented in Canada up to that time. The sixties, which brought the further growth of trade unions, and affiliation with American unions, saw the logical extension of a process which was begun in earnest a decade earlier.
Bibliography: p. 141-150.