Which side are you on? A Labour Day history of the N.B. labour movement

·4 min read
A Labour Day parade in Saint John in 1894. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick - image credit)
A Labour Day parade in Saint John in 1894. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick - image credit)

Labour Day has come to be known as the unofficial last weekend of summer, even if the season doesn't technically end for another three weeks.

Many might see the holiday tomorrow only as a chance to barbecue or get out and enjoy nature.

But Labour Day has a long history in the province's labour movement.

The meaning and history of the day may be lost on some people, according to Steve Drost, the president of CUPE New Brunswick.

"I think those who are not connected to the labour movement might not recognize why that day is important," said Drost.

"Many years ago, that's when families would come together [to] have picnics and celebrate the importance and the contributions that labour make to society."

Pre-labour

The life of workers before the labour movement is described by David Frank, professor emeritus in history at the University of New Brunswick, as one of instability and unequal treatment.

"There's a long history of taking advantage of workers when they had no collective voice," said Frank.

Frank said employers and employees were in a vastly unequal relationship that often meant workers were taken advantage of.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

"Longshoremen, for instance, didn't know from one day to the next if they would have work," he said."They were expected to show up at the docks and see if anybody would pick them."

Working conditions were also not ideal, with accidents not uncommon in the workplace.

Pre-union workplaces were also known for having child labour, something that wasn't outlawed in the New Brunswick until 1905.

Start of the labour movement

It's difficult to specify when the labour movement officially started in the province, but the movement was underway before the founding of Canada.

In 1849 a group of workers in Saint John founded the Saint John Labourers Benevolent Association, the precursor to the International Longshoremen's Association in the city, which is still in operation today.

Frank said while the goals of unions have changed over the years, the commitment to workers has remained.

"They were at that time mainly just concerned about shortening hours."

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

The labour movement was given a further boost in 1872, when Sir John A. Macdonald's Conservative government passed the Trade Union Act, which explicitly legalized membership in a union.

Frank also points to the founding of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour as a keystone event.

"That's when you get a kind of co-ordinated or unified labour movement … instead of people just belonging to unions in their own trade or industry, or just belonging to them in their own community."

1937

While there has been a history of labour actions in the province through the decades, 1937 stands out as particularly important because of two strikes: one in Minto and the other in the Miramichi area.

The Minto strike came about because the town's coal miners wanted to join the same union as miners in Nova Scotia, the United Mine Workers of America.

"They were unable to get union recognition, the operators would not grant it," said Frank.

"They were looking for improved conditions, they were looking for better wages, they were looking for better hours, but especially they were looking for respect."

The strike involved longshoremen and workers at mills along the Mirmamichi River who had started their own union, the New Brunswick Farmer-Labour union.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

"This was an unusual union because it was not one of the mainstream unions, it was an entirely local organization," said Frank.

The dual strikes forced the provincial government to introduce new labour legislation in 1938.

Beyond strikes

Unions have a role to play beyond just facilitating strikes, Frank said.

He pointed to New Brunswick's workers' compensation system as a benefit that wouldn't have been possible without organized labour but was achieved without strikes.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Other acts brought in because of pressure from unions, according to Frank, include the Fair Wages Act, Weekly Rest Period Act, Vacation Pay Act, Fair Employment Practices Act, Fair Accommodation Practices Act and the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act.

"These are just some examples from the 1950s at a time when the union movement was strong enough that provincial governments eagerly sat down to discuss matters with them and to see what they could do," said Frank.

Labour today

Organized labour, like all other facets of society, has changed tremendously over the past century.

In the early days union jobs were seen as jobs requiring strenuous physical labour done in the private sector, such as  mining and working on the docks.

Later public sector unions started representing nurses, teachers and government clerical staff, changing the face of unions.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Drost believes the face of labour will continue to change as more workers seek out collective representation.

"You've got workers striking with Amazon forming unions, you've got workers striking with Starbucks forming unions," said Drost.

"Jeff Bezos spent over $10 million trying to prevent that from happening. … But it won't matter how much money they spend on union busters. You can only back people into a corner for so long."