Hamilton is often described as Canada's industrial heartland. Widely known for its massive steel works, the city has also been a major producer of textiles, shoes, appliances, food products, and electrical goods. The following photo essay will give you a sense of what it was like to work in these different sectors and how the nature of work has changed over the last 100 years.


Prior to the 1850s, most workshops in Canada employed mainly skilled artisans and craft workers. Barrels were made to order by a cooper, wagon wheels were the specialty of the wheel-wright, building materials were made by stone masons and metal goods were made by the blacksmith. Many of these artisans worked individually or in small shops owned by a skilled worker who continued to work side by side with his, or in rare cases, her employees. The skilled workers often supervised themselves deciding what was made, how it was made, and the materials used. Much of the work was done with hand tools and technology handed down for centuries. The artisans of Hamilton and Dundas supplied the growing local population and the emigrants from Europe on their way to new farms in Southern Ontario. Skilled workers were the backbone of the local economy and were highly respected in the communities.


The first important manufacturers in the region located in Dundas, not Hamilton, because of that area's access to water power. But by the 1850s two things changed. First, new methods of production relied on steam power which reduced the need to locate next to streams. Second, new transportation systems were being developed and the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1853 made Hamilton a more attractive location for future growth. Fueled by growing demand, the new shops in Hamilton tended to be larger and often made extensive use of machinery. By 1864, forty-six factories employing two-thousand three hundred workers were operating in the city. As shops grew in size new tensions emerged between workers and shop owners who were much less likely to be viewed as "one of the boys". Craft unions emerged which organized workers based on their trade rather than the company where they worked.


The growth in firm size and the increased use of machinery were mixed blessings for skilled workers. As firms increased their scale of production they could divide the production process into smaller components. Rather than employing workers capable of making the entire product, they could now employ less skilled workers who were experts in only one aspect of the production process. As well, much of the skill and knowledge needed to produce goods could be designed into the machines themselves. The shift from employing craft workers to unskilled workers has come to be known as deskilling. The growth in firm size also gave rise to the need for more formal structures for co-ordinating the production process and monitoring workers. These needs were filled by a new class of supervisors and managers. Time-honoured trades such as the cooper who made barrels or the cobbler who made shoes became obsolete by the turn of the century. In other trades such as steel making and tire manufacture, production continued to rely on skilled workers for a while longer, but even here the production process was becoming more mechanized.


Hamilton has become synonymous with steel, and in no sector was the impact of organizational and technical change more dramatic. In 1910, the Steel Company of Canada, (now known as STELCO), was created through a merger of local steel mills and the users of steel in Ontario and Quebec. New investments were made, but the steel mills still relied on the knowledge and brawn of highly skilled workers who made the key decisions which affected the quality of steel. The personal style of management of the craft period was giving way to the impersonal style of absentee owners and the managers they employed locally. Some of the skilled workers retained their links to the craft unions formed in the nineteenth century, but their bargaining leverage was being eroded by the increasing use of unskilled, and largely unorganized, labour. The demand for steel from the railroad industry, for armaments during World War II, and later from the automotive industry led to massive investment in new plants in the city. Both STELCO and DOFASCO grew rapidly between the wars. Immigrants from Europe, with little or no experience in steel making flocked to the city in search of employment.


The availability of labour and steel attracted other companies to the city. International Harvester, National Steel Car, and Westinghouse had arrived in Hamilton by 1914. Firestone began making tires in the city in 1922.


The shift from craft production to factory production accelerated during World War I. Hamilton became an important source of military equipment and armaments. National Steel Car began making shell casings, and International Harvester supplied gun barrels. Facing a severe shortage of labour as male workers were drawn into military service, employers turned to new technology which even further reduced the need for skilled labour. They also turned to women, thousands of whom were employed in the factories of the city. This was a crucial turning point in the advent of mass production in the city. DOFASCO, International Harvester, STELCO and others hired women as welders, crane operators, and machine operators. In forcing local employers to be less reliant on skilled workers, the War created the basis for mass production which relied even more on workers with a narrow range of skills.


Working conditions in these new factories were sub-standard at best, if not blatantly dangerous. In the steel mills, blast furnace and coke oven employees had to endure excruciating heat and back-breaking labour. The steel tapping process was dangerous and a minor mistake could lead to a disaster. To tap a heat, workers rammed a steel bar into the bottom of the furnace to break a clay stopper which would allow molten, bone-melting steel to spew out into sandy channels (similar to irrigation ditches) cut in the floor. The liquid steel would be guided through these channels by workers with poles, creating rivers of fire leading to the moulds. Meanwhile, other workers would be frantically trying to repair the clay stopper in the bottom of the furnace by jamming clay into it by hand. An unsettling thought considering that photographs of the period rarely show these steelworkers wearing gloves or any other type of protective material. Other industries also put workers at risk. Large steel items such as railroad cars and agricultural implements were riveted together, since technology for welding pieces that large had not yet been invented. Hot rivets were tossed from the forge to the assembly line where an unskilled worker (sometimes a women or child) would catch the red-hot rivet with metal tongs and pass it to the assembler. In other sectors machinists were exposed to numerous dangerous substances including carcinogenic lubricants. Ventilation was often quite primitive and the use of personal safety equipment such as safety eye wear had not yet become an issue.


With the end of the war, employers turned their experience in making large volumes of munitions to the manufacture of other goods. Dominion Glass, and Proctor and Gamble were examples of factories capable of the mass production of large volumes of goods. This was also a period when the more vulnerable less skilled worker began resisting the poor working conditions, the six day weeks, and ten to twelve hour days. More and more Hamilton workers turned to collective organizations and trade unions to improve their quality of working life. New industrial unions began to emerge which organized all workers employed by a single company. But unionization for the less skilled worker would really only gain a foothold in the city in the late 1930s. The steel workers began an unsuccessful organizing drive at DOFASCO in 1936. In the same year steel workers at STELCO were granted charter 1005 by the International Steel Workers of America. Local 1005 would not be recognized as the representative of the workers until 1944. Even then it took a major strike at STELCO in 1946 before the right to bargain collectively was conceded by management.


Richard Edwards, Contested Terrain : The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century, (New York, 1979).

Craig Heron and Robert Storey, On The Job : Confronting the Labour Process in Canada, (Kingston and Montreal, 1986).

Craig Heron, Working In Steel : The Early Years In Canada, 1883-1935, (Toronto, 1988).

Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience : The Rise and Reconstitution of Canadian Labour, 1800-1980. (Canada, 1983).