Which side are you on? A Labor Day History of the NB Labor Movement.


Labor Day has become the last unofficial weekend of summer, even though the season doesn’t technically end for three weeks.

Many might see tomorrow’s vacation only as an opportunity to barbecue or get out and enjoy nature.

But Labor Day has a long history in the province’s labor movement.

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

“I think those who are not connected to the labor movement might not understand why this day is important,” Drost said.

“Many years ago, this was when families came together [to] organize picnics and celebrate the importance and contributions that work brings to society. »

Pre-work

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

“There’s a long history of taking advantage of workers when they didn’t have a collective voice,” Frank said.

Frank said employers and employees were in a very unequal relationship which often meant workers were exploited.

Child laborers at the Hartt Boot and Shoe Factory in Fredericton. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

“The stevedores, for example, didn’t know overnight if they would have work,” he said.

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

Pre-union workplaces were also known to have child labor, which was not banned in New Brunswick until 1905.

Beginning of the labor movement

It is difficult to say when the labor movement officially began in the province, but the movement was underway before the founding of Canada.

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

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

“They were mainly concerned at the time with the shortening of hours.”

A Labor Day picnic at a camp in 1915. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

The labor movement received further impetus in 1872, when the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald passed the Trade Union Act, which explicitly legalized union membership.

Frank also mentions the founding of the New Brunswick Federation of Labor as a key event.

“That’s when you get some sort of coordinated or unified labor movement…instead of people just belonging to unions in their own trade or industry, or just belonging to them in their own community.”

1937

Although there has been a history of labor action in the province over the decades, 1937 stands out as particularly significant due to two strikes: one in Minto and the other in the Miramichi area.

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

“They couldn’t get union recognition, the operators didn’t give it,” Frank said.

“They were looking for better conditions, they were looking for better wages, they were looking for better hours, but above all they were looking for respect.”

The strike involved longshoremen and factory workers along the Mirmamichi River who had formed their own union, the New Brunswick Farmer-Labour Union.

Workers at the Saint John shipyard.  The town has hosted organized labor activity since before Confederation.
The Saint John Laborers Benevolent Association was the precursor to the International Longshoremen’s Association. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

“It was an unusual union because it wasn’t one of the main unions, it was a completely local organization,” Frank said.

The double strikes forced the provincial government to introduce new labor 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 would not have been possible without unions, but was achieved without strikes.

Organizers of the Petroleum, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union during a strike against Irving in 1963. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

Other laws introduced due to union pressure, according to Frank, include the Fair Wages Act, the Weekly Rest Period Act, the Vacation Pay Act, the Fair Workplace Practices Act. employment law, the Fair Accommodation Practices Act and the Fair Compensation for Employees Act.

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

work today

Organized labor, like every other facet of society, has changed dramatically over the past century.

At first, union jobs were seen as jobs requiring hard physical labor performed in the private sector, such as mining and dock work.

Later, public sector unions began to represent nurses, teachers and government office workers, changing the face of unions.

A 1974 strike by NBTel workers in Newcastle, now part of Miramichi. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

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

“You have striking workers with Amazon forming unions, you have striking workers with Starbucks forming unions,” Drost said.

“Jeff Bezos has spent over $10 million trying to stop this from happening. … But no matter how much money they spend on breaking unions. You can only put people in a corner for so long .”

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