Strikes are as old as subordinate work itself, and they occurred before workers were first organized in trade unions. For instance, the Irish canal builders of the 1840s were backed in their violent actions for better living and working conditions by their clannish secret societies. Their protest was crushed no less violently, as were most major strikes until the 1930s.
More often than not, strikes erupted when workers attempted to form labour organizations and achieve union recognition. Information on strikes in the 19th century is incomplete. Strike action is mentioned, for instance, in 1836 by Toronto printers in favour of the 10-hour day, in 1855 by Montréal railway workers and in the 1860s by shoemakers in different cities. Strikes were generally unsuccessful; however, workers did make some inroads when economic activity happened to be booming and labour was scarce.
The most famous strike of the 19th century was that of the Toronto printers in 1872. It was part of a wider campaign for the 9-hour day (see NINE-HOUR MOVEMENT). It lasted from 25 March to mid-May 1872 and involved more than 100 members of the International Typographical Union. The striking workers won the 54-hour work week and better wages, but the general campaign for the 9-hour day suffered a setback from the negative publicity surrounding the strike and from the arrests that were made following a mass demonstration in Queen's Park on 15 April. A political debate ensued, and its outcome was the adoption by the Parliament of Canada of the Trade Union Act, assented to on 14 June 1872. The Act declared the unions not to be considered as associations in restraint of trade. The right to strike was thus implicitly recognized, but picketing remained a criminal offence until the Criminal Code was amended in 1934 in order to allow for information picketing.
During the latter part of the 19th century, strikes occurred in the railway, construction, cigar-making and mining industries. Coal mining on Vancouver Island had experienced labour unrest since its beginnings around 1850. It reached its peak in 1903 with a 5-month strike involving 700 employees. Other 1903 coal strikes were staged at mines in southeastern British Columbia and in Alberta. A royal commission was established to look into the situation.
The early 1900s saw other major strikes, especially in railways. The most important was that of the CPR track maintenance workers from June to late August 1901, involving 5000 men from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1903, another major strike in BC opposed the non-running tradesmen to the CPR from February to June.
These strikes prompted the federal government to adopt its first compulsory investigation and conciliation measures regarding industrial disputes. The Railway Disputes Act of 1903 inspired a more general and permanent legislation 4 years later in 1907, the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act. This Act remained the dominant piece of labour legislation in Canada until the 1930s.
The publication of the Labour Gazette, beginning in 1901, gave the public better information on industrial disputes. Throughout the 20th century, 3 waves of work stoppages, of different duration, were identified. The first 2 occurred during the periods 1911-19 and 1943-48. In the 1950s a higher plateau was established. The third wave encompassed the period 1965-81, with a year of relative labour peace in 1977. It might be worth noting that time lost through work stoppages, even at their peak, hardly surpassed one-half of 1% of total estimated working time, accounting for much less time lost than that due to accidents or unemployment.
The first wave of strike activity shows 2 peaks. The 1.8 million days lost in 1911 were mainly lost in the same industries as before: coal mining in western Canada and the Maritimes, textile and shoemaking in Québec, construction and railway throughout Canada. By far the most notable strike of this period was the WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE of 1919. The June 21 confrontation with the Mounties and soldiers, following earlier arrests and confiscation of documents, resulted in 30 casualties, including one death. The reasons for the strike were never clear, except that it was influenced by the general socio-economic and political climate and some similar action in Vancouver and the US. The ONE BIG UNION, established at the Western Labour Conference in Calgary in the same year, benefited from the interest arising from the Winnipeg events; but after a few years of a spectacular rise, the OBU quickly disappeared. The part of organized labour that made up radical unionism lost faith in the OBU and turned its efforts resolutely to business unionism.
Such disappointment coupled with the GREAT DEPRESSION of the early 1930s might explain the low level of strike activity until the late 1930s. The textile industry in Québec had been so troublesome that Justice Turgeon was appointed to conduct a public inquiry into its difficulties. This inquiry revealed so many sore spots that, instead of solving any problems, it contributed to a province-wide strike in all of Québec's textile mills in 1937. It was the first major fight carried on by the Québec-based Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour (now CONFEDERATION OF NATIONAL TRADE UNIONS). Its second and best known strike is the ASBESTOS STRIKE of 1949.
Despite the government's severe restrictions on the right to strike in the war industries and the freezing of prices and wages, there were major strikes during and after WWII; restrictions were lifted only on 1 Dec 1946, to allow for readjustment of the industry to civil production. Strikes causing the greater loss of working days in the war period occurred in the aircraft industry in Montréal (1943) and in the auto industry in Ontario (1944 and 1945). In the latter case, the award by arbitrator Ivan C. RAND included a compulsory union dues checkoff which applied even to nonunion workers; this has been known ever since as the RAND FORMULA.
During the relatively tranquil period of 1950-65 there were still a half-dozen highly significant strikes, with a million days lost in most of them. The railways were beginning their long decline, and their employees were fighting for their jobs, threatened by a technological change in the form of diesel engines. BC logging and the Ontario automotive industry were still in the race. That period also saw the first strike by first-line managers for union recognition (the CBC producers' strike in 1959) and the first of many desperate strikes against the introduction of computers in the newspaper industry. The workers belonging to one of the oldest unions in the printing trades were not struggling to obtain better conditions any more, but simply to keep their jobs.
The third wave was a mixture of recurring old conflicts (involving primary metal workers, building trades, autoworkers) and new ones stemming from public-sector unionization. The postal strike of 1965 forced Parliament to include the possibility of strike action in the 1967 Public Service Staff Relations Act. The biggest-ever work stoppage occurred in 1972 in Québec, when a COMMON FRONT of unions struck the provincial government, the hospitals and the schools at the same time. The public-sector unions won big gains in money and various benefits, but this was the beginning of their loss of public support.
There were also cases of essentially political strikes. A "Day of Protest" was called by the CANADIAN LABOUR CONGRESS on 14 October 1976 to mark the anniversary of the royal assent of the Anti-Inflation law and regulations. A 1-day general strike in British Columbia on 1 June 1987 protested against the proposed changes to British Columbia labour laws in bills 19 and 20.
The slowing down of economic activity since the early 1980s almost wiped out any strike activity until the mid-1990s; workers were so afraid of losing their jobs they did not dare to walk out on their workplace. In the late 1990s, public-sector employees struck for both job security and economic reasons: efforts to wipe out budget deficits had hurt their paycheques.
Except for the postal workers who were on the picket line almost every other bargaining round, federal government employees hardly ever went on strike, mainly because they bargained in small separate units. Units were progressively regrouped and, in 1991, there was a general strike of 100 000 federal government employees. As was often the case in provincial strikes, special legislation ended that strike on 3l October 1991. In the closing years of the 1990s, there were strikes to block the downsizing of the public service at all levels of government in different Canadian provinces. Recently, to protest Conservative provincial government policies, more than 250 000 union members and supporters picketed both public and private businesses in Toronto. The attempt to shut down the city was called the "Days of Protest."
There are no accurate statistics on the provincial distribution of strikes, mainly because there have been several interprovincial strikes. But a general estimate reveals that BC has had the most strikes, accounting in certain years for up to 50% of all person-days lost in Canada. In the 1970s, Québec took the lead with its all-encompassing public-sector bargaining structures. The other provinces have led the platoon, proportionate to their labour force, in successive periods. Until recently statistics did not distinguish lockouts from strikes. Both were counted as work stoppages, partly because some stoppages are both a strike and a lockout at the same time. In fact, lockouts were very uncommon until the 1960s, and they are still much less common than strikes.
Employers have always been inclined to use strikebreakers as their most efficient weapon. In the 19th and early 20th centuries some employers arranged to have an immigrant work force come from overseas to fill the jobs of the strikers. This often led to violence. In the 1990s there has been a renewed interest in strikebreaking tactics; it might be related to the high level of unemployment and to the availability of a large immigrant labour force. Some contend that freedom to operate a plant is part of our basic freedoms and even necessary as part of the mechanism that will eventually bring the parties to agree. The Canada Labour Code and most provincial legislation explicitly state that strikers must keep their employee status, and thus implicitly give a priority of rights to the striking employees. A few provinces have imposed a legislated position on strikebreaking. Since the 1970s, BC has forbidden the use of professional strikebreakers. In Québec it is forbidden to subcontract the work that is object of the strike and to use any employee (except local management personnel) to continue production during a legal strike. Ontario and BC adopted similar provisions in 1992, but Ontario withdrew that part of its law in 1995.
Until certification became the common and legal route to unionization in 1944, most strikes were waged for union recognition. With the certification system established by law, recognition strikes have become theoretically unnecessary and certainly illegal. Since then, strikes have been organized and staged to obtain better working conditions. In the late 1970s, strikes were increasingly directed at levels of governments as employers or as legislators. Public-sector strikes hit the public harder than the employers. In the 1970s, and ever since, strikes have been used against governments and larger companies to try and maintain jobs, and to block downsizing and contracting-out practices.
The causes of greater strike activity during certain periods of time have never been definitely established . Still, it is clear that workers are less likely to strike when unemployment is high and more likely to strike when economic activity is on the rise or high. The long crest of the third wave (1965-1981) took place during a period of relative prosperity and rising inflation; the recession of the early 1980s brought a decline in the number of days lost.
The growth of public-sector unions is another factor. Each negotiation in this sector tends to involve more employees than in most private-sector cases, causing more time to be lost and greatly influencing the general picture of work stoppages. Conflicts in the 1970s were more violent and involved more illegal activities than before. The practice of wiping out disciplinary measures and calling off any court action taken during a strike as a condition for returning to work has condoned violence and illegal activities and made any type of conduct during a strike almost sanctionless. Wildcat strikes and political strikes have also become more important.
Author GÉRARD HÉBERT
Labour Canada, Strikes and Lockouts in Canada (published annually until 1985, afterwards in Collective Bargaining Review); Gene Swimmer and Mark Thompson, Public Sector Collective Bargaining in Canada (1995); Jean Hamelin et al, Répertoire des grèves dans la province de Québec au XIXe siècle (1970); S.M. Jamieson, Times of Trouble: Labour Unrest and Industrial Conflict in Canada, 1900-1966 (1971).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Labour History
This website documents the history of the labour movement and labour reform in Canada. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
The History of the Canadian Automobile Workers
Dedicated to the history of Canadian automobile workers. Features illustrated essays, copies of labour agreements and autoworkers’ reminiscences about life on the job. A joint project of the Canadian Automobile Workers and the Labour Studies Program at McMaster University.
When Coal Was King
The multimedia website “When Coal was King: Coal Mining in Western Canada” explores the history of Alberta’s coal mining industry. Check out the glossary and educational activities. From the Alberta Online Encyclopedia.
Labour Protest and Organization in Nineteenth-Century Canada, 1820-1890
This article provides detailed information about the history of the labour movement in Canada. From the journal "Labour."