At the centre of Hamilton life stand its workers. Thousands of working men and women steelworkers, rubberworkers, hospital workers, members of the trades, office workers, street railway workers, labourers and homemakers speak proudly of their important contributions to the economic, social, cultural and political fabric of their city. Their clubs and societies provide vital services to countless Hamiltonians. The teams they play for bring credit to themselves and their city. And throughout the decades, Hamilton and area workers have demonstrated their political commitments by running for office at all levels of government.


Hamilton workers have also built a strong and vibrant labour movement. Yet, nothing the labour movement has achieved has come easily or quickly. What has been accomplished has been achieved through determination and struggle. Struggle that often ended in victory. Struggle that sometimes ended in defeat. But defeat has never been final. On every occasion the torch of trade unionism has been taken up by a new generation of workers.


The history of the Hamilton labour movement begins around the middle of the 19th century the era when Canada's industrial revolution began to take off. Large factories sprang up across the city. Skilled craftsmen were drawn out of their small workshops and into these new factories. But they did not go willingly. They objected to working with new machinery that broke down their skills and cheapened their craft. They opposed the rules and regulations their new employers sought to lay down. So, they formed themselves into craft unions to defend the skills, work practices and traditions that gave them control of the shopfloor.


By the early 1870s the views on both sides had hardened around the issue of shorter hours. Hamilton's skilled workers wanted their hours reduced from 10, 12 and 14 to 9 hours per day. Employers thought the hours of labour quite satisfactory. On May 15th 1872, over 1500 Hamilton workers, downed their tools, donned their coats and shoes, unfurled their banners and marched through the streets of the city to back their demands for the 9 hour day. It was a historic moment. Historic for it marked the beginning of a labour movement in Hamilton and Canada. Historic because it began in Hamilton. A youthful poet caught this important moment in the history of Hamilton's workers:

Honour the men of Hamilton
The nine hour pioneers
Their memory will be kept green
Throughout the coming years
And every honest son of toil
That lives in freedom's light Shall bless that glorious day in May
When might gave way to right.

Some Hamilton workers - like those in the shops of the Great Western Railway won the 9 hour day. Others could not overcome the strong opposition of their employers. But, the new solidarity of workers in different trades provided the foundation for a broader and more powerful labour movement in the 1880s and 1890s.


At the core of this vigorous labour movement was a new organization called the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. By 1887 over 2000 Hamilton men and women, skilled and unskilled, had rallied to the industrial unionism and the independent political activism of the Knights. With their slogan proclaiming "An Injury To One Is An Injury To All," Hamilton Knights argued strenuously for a co-operative economic system to replace the grinding competition of capitalism. Years later, John Peeples, the mayor of Hamilton in the early 1930s, remembered the high ideals of his time as a Knight:

"I thought its program would revolutionize the world. Not only because of its program of co-operative and state ownership of all public utilities, it was a crusade for purity in life generally."


The Knights went into rapid decline in the 1890s. The resurgent craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor in the United States, and the Trades and Labour Congress in Canada, took their place. In 1888, Hamilton craft unionists, led by men like John Flett, a local carpenter, and the first American Federation of Labor organizer in Canada, formed the Hamilton Trades and Labour Council. Immediately the council took up the issues of the day such as shorter hours, public ownership of all utilities, equal pay and voting rights for women, and the establishment of a national insurance fund for working people against accidents, unemployment and want in old age.


In the years just after the turn of the century, Hamilton craftsmen organized new unions and launched sometimes bitter strikes. The most stirring battle, however, pitted the street railway drivers and conductors against the privately-owned Hamilton Street Railway Company. In November 1906, these men left their cars in the barn and took up picket signs, frustrated over company refusals to raise their wages and shorten their hours.

The 1906 street railway strike was a strike against an emerging system of economic monopoly and political control which seemed to care little for the needs and interests of workers. The workers responded by helping to form a political party the Independent Labour Party. In the following election, Allan Studholme, a stovemounter, was returned to the Ontario Legislature from Hamilton East. Studholme, the only labour representative in any provincial legislature before World War I, was a true advocate of his constituency, seizing every opportunity to press the ruling Tory party to enact legislation declaring the 8 hour day, a minimum wage, workers' compensation legislation, and the vote for women. To honour their cloth-capped representative, Hamilton unionists named the Labour temple after him.


During the war years, the Independent Labour Party grew in strength. In 1919, when a farmer-labour coalition took power in Ontario, Independent Labour Party candidates George Halcrow and Walter Rollo, were elected from Hamilton. Rollo, a broom maker and newspaperman, assumed the post of Minister of Labour. In the same year, the Independent Labour Party elected two controllers, five aldermen and a school trustee. In the words of Hamilton blacksmith, Fred Flatman: "These events seem to mark the beginning of a new democracy." But Flatman's vision of a world of freedom and dignity for all workers went unrealized. By the mid 1920s the farmer-labour coalition had fallen from power and only the youthful stonecutter, Sam Lawrence, carried the Independent Party banner on City Council.


Some workers thought deeply about the events of the 1906 street railway strike, and the rise and fall of the Independent Labour Party. They recognized the need, as had the Knights of Labor, to organize all workers, skilled and unskilled, men and women, black or white. Indeed, women and racial minorities had been consciously excluded from craft unions in Hamilton and elsewhere since their inception in the 1850s. This had always been an organizationally short-sighted and morally unjust action. Now, the need to organize both groups of workers was inescapable. Working in sweatshops and factories since the mid 19th century, and as telephone operators, office clerks, typists, secretaries as well as nurses and teachers since the turn-of-the-century, women earned low wages, confronted oftentimes poor health and safety conditions, faced arbitrary discipline of their foremen and supervisors, and little prospect of promotion.


It was, thus increasingly clear that for the labour movement to be strong and united, it had to include women. Women like shoe worker and Knights of Labour member, Katie McVicar and Mary McNab, secretary and business agent of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. In 1921, Mary McNab spoke of the new mood of Hamilton and Canadian women:

"It is well known that women of today have ideals, new moral conceptions, new methods of action, the justice of which had given her the courage of her convictions."


Altogether, 1919 was a watershed in Hamilton and Canadian labour history. The climax to decades of struggle, it was a moment of national solidarity of Canadian workers that crystalized in the Winnipeg General Strike. Yet, it also marked the beginning of hard and difficult years for Hamilton workers. Mass production industries like Stelco and Westinghouse continued to grow and new industries like Firestone arrived in the city. However, not one of these industries was organized. When the stock market crashed in 1929, and the Great Depression arrived, thousands of Hamilton workers lost their jobs and were forced onto relief. Unemployment insurance would not be available until the early 1940s.


By the mid 1930s, Hamilton unionists were again ready to take the offensive. In 1935, over 300 sheet mill workers at Stelco struck for higher wages and recognition of their union. Stelco turned aside these demands, but out of this strike came the decision to broaden the union to include all steelworkers regardless of skill or nationality. At the same time, union members decided to affiliate with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the favoured child of the recently-formed Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO).


The formation of the CIO touched off a civil war within the ranks of organized labour across North America. Hamilton was no exception. Craft unionists battled industrial unionists each claiming to be the sole and legitimate representative of the Hamilton labour movement. In the end, no solution could be found, and, just as the Canadian labour movement split into two warring and hostile factions, so to did Hamilton suddenly end up with two labour councils. Patterson Cheatley, a member of the Hamilton Street Railway employees union, retained his position as head of the Trades Council, while Sam Lawrence took up the position of President of the Industrial Union Council.

In part because of these divisions, but more because of a weak economy and the strong determination of Hamilton employers to remain union-free, the labour movement was still very weak at the end of the 1930s. It took World War II to shift the balance. Local industries began producing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the local pool of unemployed workers quickly dried up. The need for workers was so great that once again women, first young, single women and then married women, were recruited into jobs traditionally reserved for men.


This scarcity of workers gave them new-found bargaining leverage with their employers and it did not take them long to flex their muscles. In 1942, workers at National Steel Car struck their employers for recognition of their local of the SWOC. In the face of company refusals to deal with the union, the federal government appointed a controller, E.J. Brunning, who promised to reinstate the fired local union president and conduct a plant vote on the question of support for the union among the workers. Workers struck a second time when Brunner reneged on his promises.

This time it was a massive confrontation between the strikers and soldiers billeted in the Army Trades School close to the plant. A large contingent of soldiers marched down to National Steel Car and attacked the small number of workers who were on the picket line and then moved on to the union's headquarters leaving it in a shambles. With the Minister of Defence refusing all comments and Hamilton Mayor, William Morrison, criticizing those strikers who he claimed were intimidating workers trying to return to work, union leaders advised the strikers to return to work.


By 1943 Hamilton workers began to look ahead to the post-war era. Their fight for industrial democracy came together with their demand for social security. Unions pressed for favourable collective bargaining legislation which they received in 1943 as the Collective Bargaining Act and later P.C. 1003 in 1944. This gave Canadian workers the right to organize in a union of their choice and if the union represented a majority of workers, the employer had to bargain with them.

By the end of WW II, many Hamilton industries were unionized. However, business leaders had grudgingly accepted government regulation over the wartime economy, and now called for a return to the "free market." This sets the stage for the post war confrontations to come.


Craig Heron, et. al., "All That Our Hands Have Done: A Pictoral History of Hamilton Workers," (Labour Studies Programme, McMaster University, Hamilton, 1981).

Craig Heron, Working In Steel: The Early Years In Canada, 1883-1895, (Toronto, 1988).

Bryan Palmer, A Culture In Conflict: Skilled Workers And Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860-1914, (Montreal, 1979).

Wayne Roberts, Organizing Westinghouse: Alf Ready's Story, (Labour Studies Programme, McMaster University, Hamilton, 1983).

Wayne Roberts, Baptism of a Union: Stelco Strike of 1946, (Labour Studies Programme, McMaster University, Hamilton, 1981).

Wayne Roberts, ed., The Hamilton Working Class 1820-1977: A Bibliography, (Hamilton, 1978).

Robert Storey, "Unionization vs Corporate Welfare: The Dofasco Way," (Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 12, Autumn 1983).