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Winnipeg’s First Labour Unions

by David Spector

Manitoba Pageant, Summer 1976, Volume 21, Number 4

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The years 1881-1884, a period important in Winnipeg's development were witness to the emergence of labour unions in the city. It was the formation of railway and craft unions at this early stage that provided the base for labour's later successes and failures in the prairie metropolis.

The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad's marshalling yards in 1883 provided employment for nearly 2000 men. Complaining of a variety of injustices including low pay and poor working conditions, C.P.R. employees were among the first Winnipeg workmen to organize. Probably the first railroad union in Winnipeg organized for the purpose of advancing its members' wages was the Boiler Makers' Union in 1883. Consisting of machinists, fitters, and foundrymen the union was led by a Mr. Dawson. Later during the same year a Brakemen's Union was formed. A Conductors' Union was functioning in 1883. Headed by Thomas Thompson the union had managed to procure its own private hall for the conduct of meetings. The final and perhaps the strongest of the early Winnipeg railway unions was the Winnipeg branch of an American association, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Organized in all likelihood in 1883 the BLE in Winnipeg was headed by Acting President James Slavin.

Railway unions had been organized to act in their members' interests and this they did. The Boiler Makers' Union struck because of injustices caused by the introduction of wage payment with use of the time-card system. After bringing in twelve strike-breakers from Chicago the railroad company reversed its stance and reach an amicable agreement with its employees. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers did not fare as well as the Boiler Makers. Striking to protest against a $6 per month wage reduction during the 1883 depression, railroad engineers halted all rail traffic between Thunder Bay and Calgary. After one week the strike was lost, the Winnipeg local president, James Slaving even agreeing to the wage decrease.

With the intention of improving their members' wages and working conditions skilled craftsmen formed unions in Winnipeg during 1881-1884. Probably the first important craft union to organize was the Winnipeg Typographical Union No. 191 in 1881. Winnipeg's plasterers followed suit. In September, 1882 sixty of Winnipeg's 150 plasterers became members of the union electing E. Moore as their president. Carpenters and joiners organized prior to the mid 1880's. Evidence suggests that the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners was active before 1884. Information on the founding dates of other craft unions is sparse. From accounts of strikes we can deduct that telegraphers were organized in 1883, bricklayers and stonecutters in 1884.

With one notable exception, that of the bricklayers, strikes by craft unions in Winnipeg ended in complete failure. Striking the Winnipeg Daily Times in October, 1882 members of the Winnipeg Typographical Union were immediately replaced with non-union personnel. A similar fate befell Winnipeg's telegraphers who joined in a Canada and US. wide strike against Western Union and its subsidiaries for a substantial wage increase in 1883. Winnipeg stonecutters who refused to work until they received a $1 per day wage increase from $3 to $4 in May, 1884 were forced to seek employment elsewhere. Only the Bricklayers' Union met with success in their 1884 strike. By putting their tools down for a 50 per day wage increase from $3.50 to $4 late in the working season unionists "put the contractors in a tight place." Within eleven days management had acceded to their demands.

In spite of their many setbacks as a result of unsuccessful work stoppages, by 1884 unions had become established in Winnipeg and were in the city to stay. Expanding from the base established during the early 1880's Winnipeg workmen would organize unskilled as well as skilled labour into Knights' of Labour assemblies in 1886. By 1887 Winnipeg would have its first Trades and Labour Council. Organization would continue relatively unabated into the twentieth century.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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