Labour History for Unions and Trade Unionists in the 21st Century Essay

Labour History for Unions and Trade Unionists in the 21st Century Essay

Labour history shows specific examples of how working within diverse coalitions which share progressive goals and how strong attachments to political agendas and ideology can greatly affect worker solidarity and shared political power. History also shows that economic conditions can affect labour solidarity and collective bargaining.


As Heron shows us, diversity is the key unionism power and history teaches us that to remain a powerful force, unions need to diversify their membership as did the Knights of Labor whose membership included all workers regardless of skill or background. Their membership included women, African Americans, francophone, and all workers who “earned their bread by the sweat of their brow”; except for bankers, lawyers, gamblers and saloon-keepers. (Heron, 2006, p. 21-22) This differed from earlier separated craft unions, which targeted skilled trades with working class associations of predominantly white English speaking men.

During the 1880s, the Knights became the largest Canadian labour organization with over two hundred assemblies within Canada, growing to over one million members worldwide in 1886. (Heron, 2006, p. 20) During this time, the large labour movement created challenges for government and capital and forced a number of critical responses. These responses included the Ontario legislature appointing a labour statistician and the creation of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital. (Heron, 2006, p. 24)

The Knights’ broader unionism form began to gain clarity and definition in the new labour model of industrial unionism by the turn of the century. (Heron, 2006, p. 35) Their new model was based on labour’s relationship to a single employer and not on trade specific skills or traditions. They brought all wage labour sharing an employer into a single union, thereby increasing worker solidarity by removing traditional barriers. This model for industrial unionism was viewed as artificial and clashes began between craft and industrial unions. These battles ceased in 1939 with the removal of all industrial unions from Canada’s national labour body, the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC). (Heron, 2006, p. 65)

The power of diversity was also shown in the famous six week Winnipeg General Strike, which produced 210 strikes across western Canada with 115, 000+ workers, was in sympathy of building and metal trade unions and their denied collective bargaining rights. Involved were both organized and unorganized labour and the strike and the movement moved into Nova Scotia and into Toronto. Unfortunately, the Toronto strike was defeated due to over cautious craft union bureaucrats. (Heron, 2006, p. 52-53) The clout of this strike came from their ability to draw in all labour, both organized and unorganized, to give a powerful voice to the demands of workers.


Heron shows the importance of politics for unions and trade unionists by discussing the reactions of federal, provincial and municipal government to strike actions. During the Winnipeg General Strike, all levels of government and a Citizen’s Committee collaborated to strike-break by having federal troops and specialty police violently halting peaceful demonstrations and the government used a new Criminal Code provision to arrest strike leaders and threaten deportation. Although, to strengthen the conservative elements in the labour movement, the government focused on minor reforms and appointed the Royal Commission on Industrial Relations to hold nationwide hearings in mid-1919. A national conference to debate the report was held with government’s chosen representatives from labour, capital and the public. (Heron, 2006, p. 52-54) This shows that the strike action precipitated at least some effect for the labour movement and unions.

The tensions within the Knights regarding partisan politics and the beginning of “independent labour candidates”, who had deals or ties with Liberal or Conservative parties and divided workers along partisan lines and decreasing solidarity. Knights used the union to pursue personal political ambitions and became overly cautious in strike action which led to attempts to stop or minimize worker disruption of the interests of capital leading to a loss of credibility. (Heron, 2006, p. 24-25)

Heron also mentions that during the 1950s, the unions merged and created the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). (Heron, 2006, p. 87) The CLC served as a founding partner of the New Democrat Party (NDP) and organized labour has often been split over NDP support. (Heron, 2006, p. 99) In 1990, a negative lesson was learnt about politics and labour, when wage controls were placed on the public sector, beginning in Ottawa and spreading to most provincial capitals. It shows that without a strong leader, political voice can swayed to a more Conservative viewpoint. This was also shown in 1993 when Ontario’s NDP government introduced its Social Contract, freezing wages and giving nothing back to workers. (Heron, 2006, p. 114)


The lessons that Heron teaches use regarding the importance of economics in the labour movement are that during an economic downturn, labour will become less optimistic and will focus on self preservation. This is particularly shown by the rapid decline of the Knights was precipitated by a downturn in the economy from 1886 to the trough in early 1890s, which reduced the union’s bargaining power and worker optimism. This economic downturn was a deciding factor like it had been for each increase in labour action since an economic downturn gave hostile employers a freer hand to crush strikes. (Heron, 2006, p. 24)

Unions will have a difficult time increasing membership and worker solidarity during an economic struggle. Employers can attempt to change union loyalty by implementing welfarism provisions, as they did during the Winnipeg General Strike, like pensions and insurance plans, safety programs, and launching industrial councils to debate workers’ issues and as an alternative to unions. These councils combined management and employee representatives but did not challenge managerial prerogatives. Employers hoped these measures would increase workers’ loyalty and commitment to the firm and would undermine worker solidarity. The depression in late 1920 was more important than welfarism measures and many union locals dissolved, thereby reducing union membership and confidence, after hopeless strikes against drastic wage cuts. Workers became more vulnerable to victimization for their union principles and fearfulness, fatalism and cynicism crept back into working-class consciousness. (Heron, 2006, p. 52-54)

So, the economic climate is both a positive and negative to the labour movement and needs to be addressed adequately so that unions can survive intact.


The Knights of Labor and the Winnipeg General Strike teach both unions and trade unions that diversity, political agendas and leaders, and economics influence the effectiveness and solidarity of the labour movement and they must heed these lessons.

Unions need to be an inclusive structure sharing progressive viewpoints, ideology and goals to gain solidarity. Without a unified and diverse membership base, the union will not have a strong voice for collective bargaining. The union membership is the foundation that is needed to build the power of labor.

Worker solidarity will weaken if there is an attachment to strict ideologies without inclusion of varying views. The need for union’s continued political power to affect change and further the interests of labour will continue into the twenty-first century and without it, labour’s voice will not be heard in the political arena. Labour’s political leaders should know that partisan ambitions will conflict between the responsibilities to their party and to unions and the labour movement would benefit from electing leaders who have clear allegiances to their unions.

Finally, economic conditions affect both collective bargaining and labour solidarity. A strong economic climate encourages workers to join unions and lobby their rights while an economic downturn sees workers become discouraged and apathetic. Unions should use the economic climate as a meter to mitigate their demands, by focusing on job stability and fair working conditions, to decrease labour’s discontentment and apathy.

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