It has been a long journey for workers’ rights and the distance has not been covered without its ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks.
Yet, the Canadian labour movement continues to move forward with the arc of history leaning towards giving workers a collective voice to secure better wages, working conditions and benefits. How unions work in Canada is connected to how unions help all workers.
The Canadian labour movement has been fighting for workers’ rights since the 1800s, notching significant victories, but also suffering some setbacks. Progress includes a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that recognized a constitutional right to strike, reflecting more than a century of union activity on behalf of workers. However, hard-won legal protections have at times ebbed and flowed with economic, social, and political changes.
Despite such valleys and peaks, the legal right of unions to raise a collective voice for workers continues to be strengthened. Unions not only work for members, but also for their families and the economic and social stability of their communities as well.
Going all the way back to 1872, to the Nine Hour Movement, workers campaigned to have a working day limited to nine hours, instead of the then commonplace 12 or more hours. The history-making labour action ultimately led the federal government, under Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, to pass the Trade Unions Act, effectively legalizing unions.
Other significant moments in Canadian labour history include the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which saw nearly 30,000 workers walk off the job in solidarity with the Metal Workers’ Union. The collective action was met with fierce resistance from all three levels of government and business interests determined to break the protest. Among those sent in to quell the strike were federal troops and police. The strike proved that workers in Canada, through their unions, were not to be intimidated, setting the tone for future progress.
The birth of unemployment insurance can also be traced to union activity and a collective voice. During the latter years of the Great Depression, a group of unemployed men working in government work camps for meagre wages took their protest to the national capital in what was to become known as the On to Ottawa Trek. Although the trek was stopped by authorities, the protest grabbed the nation’s attention, and unemployment insurance was launched in 1940.
In 1956, the Canadian Labour Congress was founded, followed by legislation mandating the right to form a union, the right to work in a safe workplace, maternity and parental benefits, and many other fundamental workers’ rights.
The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) is proud to be part of this storied tradition and labour history. For more information about the union, contact us here.