Canada has a national holiday in September because of a movement that started in Hamilton.
A 12 hour work day was typical in the 19th Century. A group of workers in Hamilton decided it was too much. They started the Nine Hour Movement, petitioning employers to reduce work days to 9 hours. Of course, with zero benefits and laws protecting workers rights, the employers laughed off any attempt to “reduce productivity.”
In spite of resistance, “Nine Hour Leagues” formed across Canada. It inspired printers in Toronto. The Toronto Typographical Union (TTU) went on strike after years of petitioning employers to shorten the work week to 58 hours. On April 15th, 1872, the TTU members rallied 10,000 people at Queen’s Park. The publishers, led by George Brown, responded by having the leaders of the demonstration arrested.
This didn’t stop other cities from demonstrating. The Canadian Labour Union formed in Hamilton on May 3rd,1872 (then known as the Canadian Labour Protective and Mutual Improvement Association). On the 15th, 1,500 workers paraded through Hamilton.
Technically, unions were illegal then. The strikes ended and many of the workers lost their jobs. But the demonstrations caught the Prime Minister’s attention. Sir John A. MacDonald vowed to stand for worker’s rights and repeal the outdated legislation holding unions back.
In June of 1872, the Trade Unions Act passed. It was a band-aid solution, but the law no longer considered union activity “criminal conspiracy.”
Hamilton’s Labour Turmoil
Hamilton’s next major strike came in 1906. On November 24th, 10,000 men went on strike for 19 days. The strike was started by the Streetcar workers, vying for better wages and union recognition. They were joined by thousands of other workers from all trades in Hamilton.
It ended violently. They mayor read the riot act and the cavalry was called in. There was mayhem on the streets of Hamilton. Of the thousands that stood their ground, 200 were injured and only 32 were arrested.
Civil unrest was quelled and the workers were left in the dust.
The next major labour upheaval came in 1946. Stelco picketed for 81 days. The Local 1,005 United Steelworkers of America wanted 19-1/2 cents per hour. Stelco offered 5 cents per hour. The union served a strike notice for 7am on July 15th.
The union was small. 1,000 workers stayed in the factory and kept working. This tore a rift through Hamilton. Families of the men in the factory were terrorized. Anyone who tried to run the picket line from either side was assaulted. This time the mayor, Samuel Lawrence, sided with the strikers.
Eventually, the union and Stelco settled on 13 cents per hour. Around the same time, employees of Westinghouse and Firestone were fighting for better wages. The success of the Stelco strike paved the way for their settlements.
Hamilton has a turbulent history with industry. The stand that workers took here not only affected the city’s future, but helped shape the nation’s relationship between workers, government, and corporations. Without bravery and fortitude in Hamilton, Canada could have less to celebrate on Labour Day.
Cover Image from Hamilton Public Library Picture Archives – It’s actually a picture of the 1946 Spectator strike.
Hamilton Firsts – Edited By Thomas Melville Bailey and Charles Ambrose Carter
Pardon My Lunch Bucket
Dictionary of Hamilton Biography