September 2, 2009
Celebrate Labour and its history this Labour Day

These days, Labour Day is more often viewed as the last summer long-weekend than what those who fought so long for it really
intended it to be - a heart felt celebration of labour, workers and their families, and to affirm the dignity and honour of working
people everywhere.  Today we take paid holidays, safe work places, medical care, unemployment insurance, fair work hours, union
wages and "the weekend" for granted.  

Perhaps this comes only from the labour movement's enduring success in improving the lives of so many working Canadians.

How many of these advances would have happened if it were not for the long-forgotten heroes who fought so hard to make
unions, and Labour Day, a reality in the first place?

Workers created unions to protect themselves in what were then viewed as new impersonal labour markets - like some
unfortunately remain today.  Although the first unions were small, local organizations, they attracted hostile reactions from
governments and most employers.  In fact, governments declared unions illegal.  

Union sympathizers confronted constant harassment, firings, blacklisting, and arrests.  Despite this opposition, poor wages and
dangerous working conditions led to an increasing number of strikes and protests.  

At the turn of the century, workers often toiled for 60 to 70 hours a week.  The work in the factories and on the assembly lines was
repetitious, and often physically demanding.  Many labourers were seriously, sometimes fatally, injured due to faulty equipment,
poor safety measures or human error.

The labour movement eventually succeeded in convincing the government that employers, who then had little concern for workers
health and safety, needed to improve the situation.  After years of hard lobbying, the government appointed factory inspectors,
who ensured that certain standards were maintained.  Although the introduction of inspectors did improve factory conditions and
reduce the number of incidents of worker abuse by employers, accidents continued to occur, as shown by these reports from
Ontario inspectors in 1899:
Right leg hurt by revolving shaft
Right thumb cut off by circular saw
Arm burned by molten iron -
he stumbled
Three fingers, left hand, cut off by
Fell down elevator shaft
Killed by bursting cylinder of
hair picker
Scalded -
seated on edge of vat and fainted
Eyes burned while pouring
babbit metal
Arm torn -
caught in set screw of a reamer
Forearm cut - lifted planer top, sleeve
caught in knives, drew in arm,
severely cut it
Caught in belt and wound
around shaft - Died five hours after
Rested gun on his knee in firing it up
smoke stack to remove soot - Recoil
broke his leg
Nose and forehead slightly cut by
shuttle flying from loom (woman)
Fell on a circular saw in motion -
Killed instantly - had only worked
three weeks in a mill
Two fingers on right hand jammed
between picking cam and loom beam
head (woman)

As unions began to organize, the working conditions of workers slowly improved.

The first signs of permanent unions date to the mid-nineteenth century.  In manufacturing towns, craft workers such as printers,
shoemakers, moulders, tailors, coopers, and bakers established local unions. Railroad workers also actively pursued trade
unionism.  In the hostile atmosphere of this era, the life of these associations proved fragile and their existence was never
guaranteed.  Eventually, unions strengthened their situation through the creation of local assemblies, and by looking farther afield
to establish links with the larger British and American unions.

One of Canada's first sole Canadian unions was the
Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees.  Founded in Moncton, New
Brunswick by Aaron R. Mosher on October 12, 1908, the union diversified its membership from railway workers of blue collar and
white collar clerical workers, to include highway transportation workers, hotel and hospitality, health workers and seafarers to
name a few.  Based on the diverse membership of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees, which was continuing to grow,
the union changed its name to one that was more fitting given its wide diversity,
Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and
General Workers Union (CBRT&GW)

The 5,400 union members of what is now known today as CAW National Council 4000 were once
proud members of the CBRT&GW.

In addition to starting the CBRT&GW, Mosher was also a founder of the All-Canadian Congress of
Labour in 1927 as well as the Canadian Congress of Labour in 1940.  He was a seasoned veteran of
union battles over nationalism, communism, and industrial unionism.  When the Canadian Labour
Congress was formed in 1956, Mosher was named honorary president.

Of the many accolades Mosher's career in the labour movement brought him, the biggest came in
1981 when the Government of Canada issued a stamp in honour of him.  Not only was the stamp
issued in the centennial year of Mosher's birth, but also on the 25th anniversary of the Canadian
Labour Congress and was officially released on Labour Day!  Mosher is the only union leader ever to
be depicted on a Canadian postage stamp.

The stamp includes the figures of two railway workers flanking Mosher's portrait.  It is as near as we
come to a stamp paying tribute to organized labour in Canada.

One of the best known stands taken by labour unions and activists came in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1919.  Starting on May 15th and
running until June 25,
The Winnipeg General Strike is Canada's best-known general strike.  Massive unemployment and inflation,
the success of the Russian Revolution (1917), a wave of strikes across Canada and rising revolutionary industrial unionism all
contributed to postwar labour unrest.  

In March of 1919, Western Labour leaders met in Calgary to discuss the creation of ONE BIG UNION.  In Winnipeg on May 15th,
when negotiations broke down between management and labour in the building and metal trades, the Winnipeg Trades and
Labour Council (WTLC) called a general strike.

The Winnipeg General Strike is just one of the many struggles that trade unions and labour activists have fought over many years,
struggles that today has brought workers all across Canada rights to secured union recognition, collective bargaining, improved
working conditions, wages and benefits, to name only a few.  Thanks to the years of efforts of many men and women!

In Solidarity - Happy Labour Day!

Source:  Canadian Labour History and Civilization - CAW Council 4000

Related:  Labour Day - The Holiday Canada gave the World

Click Here for more details on the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.  Click the audio link below for a snippet of the Winnipeg General
Strike and the Solidarity Forever song:

Solidarity Forever Song

When the Union's inspiration through the worker's blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the Union makes us strong.


Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
For the Union makes us strong

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left for us but to organize and fight?
For the Union makes us strong.


It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops; endless miles of railroad laid.
Now we stand outcasts and starving, 'mid the wonders we have made;
But the Union makes us strong.


All the world that's owned by idle drones, is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own,
While the Union makes us strong.


They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn.
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power; gain our freedom when we learn
That the Union makes us strong.


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old,
For the Union makes us strong.


We're the women of the union, and we know just how to fight,
We know about women's issues, and we know about women's rights.
We're prepared to fight for freedom, we're prepared to stand our ground,
Women make the union strong.

Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
Women make the union strong.