Ontario History Significance of Labor Unions

OntarioHistory: Significance of Labor Unions

OntarioHistory: Significance of Labor Unions


Employeesin most jurisdictions consider labor unions as the most effectivetools that can help them address the underlying workplace challenges.Some of the challenges that force employees to form unions includelow compensation, unhealthy or unsafe working places, long workinghours, and discrimination among other issues. Although labor unionshave existed in the province of Ontario since 1834, the provincialfederation of labor was only introduced in 1944 (Pattie, 2009). Theformation of the Ontario Federation of Labor followed the realization that the craft unions was less effective fighting fortheir rights of their respective members in a legal environment thatfavored employers. Labor movements, both at the provincial and thenational levels have impacted the lives of employees by pushing forlegislations that facilitate the recognition of the labor unions byemployers and the platform on which employees can air theirgrievances without legal threats.

Priorto the 1872 strike, workers were arrested and prosecuted forconspiracy since labor movements were considered as illegal groups.In addition, pushing for salary rise and shorter working hours wasperceived by the government and employers as obstructions to commerceand trade (Pattie, 2009). However, labor movements have managed topush for low working hours and better compensation that is nearlycommensurate with the employees’ efforts since the formation of theTrade Unions Act in 1872. The extra working hours were replaced bycompensated over time, which indicates that the labor unions havemanaged to ensure that workers are compensated for every effort theymake to increase the profitability of their employers’ companies.Better wages and lesser working hours have improved the livingstandards of residents and their families living in Ontario, most ofwhom emigrated from the poor rural areas to look for employment inthe urban areas of Ontario.

Theindustrial revolution provided employment opportunities to manyresidents of Ontario and Canada at large, especially in the 1800s.However, the capitalist employers forced workers to work for longhours and pay them less than subsistent wages in order to increaseprofits (Pattie, 2009). An increase in wages could enhance theeconomic status of these workers and help them meet their dailyneeds. Initial strikes were organized by craft unions within Ontario,but they were less successful since these unions were too weak toconvince employers and government. Examples of strikes organized bycraft unions include the Bell Telephone Strike of 1907, Cobalt MinersStrike of 1919, Stratford Furniture Workers Strike of 1933, OshawaGeneral Motors Strike of 1937, and Kirkland Lake Gold Miner’sStrike of 1942 (University of Toronto, 2015). All these strikes wereorganized to fight for more or less rights that included the increasein wage, safer working conditions, equal treatment in places of work,and reduction in the weekly working hours. Most importantly, anincrease in the minimum wage improved the economic condition of theseworkers.

Laborunions operating in Ontario started gaining strength in 1944 when thecraft unions joined to form the Ontario Federation of Labor. Thisunion fought for the rights of all workers in the province of Ontario(Pattie, 2009). The formation of OFL increased the strength of laborunions in Ontario in two ways. First, the coming together of craftunions allowed them to use synergy in confronting employers and thegovernment agencies that opposed the unionization of employees inOntario. This synergy resulted in three successful strikes inOntario, including the Ford Strike of 1945, Stelco Strike of 1946,and Royal York Hotel Strike of 1961-1962 (University of Toronto,2015). These strikes were organized by employees working inautomotive, steelwork, and hotel industries with the support of OFL.Secondly, OFL managed to attract skilled labor force that was hard toreplace. This means that the employers could no longer threatenemployees with retrenchment in case they went on strike. This couldforce employers to listen to the concerns of employees since it wouldbe costly to recruit new employees than retaining the existing ones.

Thesuccess of first strikes soon after the formation of OFL motivatedemployees to organize more strikes between 1960s and first century ofthe twenty first century. Some of the notable strikes included theBlue Cross Strike of 1979, Ico Strike of 1982, OPSEU Strike of 1996,Ontario Teachers Strike of 1997, and Toronto Transit CommissionStrikes of between 2006 and 2008 (University of Toronto, 2015). Thesuccess of each strike motivated employees in different sectors toorganize another one. The large number of strikes has forced thegovernment to use excessive force, especially when strikes areaccompanied by riots. For example, the Reesor Siding Strike of 1963resulted in three deaths and tens of casualties (University ofToronto, 2015). However, the use of force has not reduced thestrength of labor unions and strikes are still being organized. Forexample, the teaching assistants at the University of Toronto haveorganized one the latest strikes in Ontario in the twenty firstdecade, which will be held in 2015 (University of Toronto, 2015).This confirms that labor unions in Toronto have been gainingstrengths in spite of the challenges they face when fighting for therights of workers.

Trendsdiscussed above indicate that the current labor force in Ontario isenjoying the sacrifice made by members of initial labor unions, whounderwent tribulations (such as being incarcerated and fined incourts) to ensure that the rights of workers are respected. Riots andstrikes were the major tools that employees used to push for betterpay and reasonable working conditions. The success of labor unions inOntario over the years is indicated by three major factors. First, aseries of strikes organized in the eighteenth century forced thegovernment and employers to see the sense in reducing the weeklyworking hours. For example, the Canadian government reduced theworking hours to 64 hours in 1870, to 59 hours in 1901, to 57 hoursin 1911, to 55 hours in 1921, and 55 hours in 1926 (Altman, 2000).Secondly, the efforts of labor unions to push for better pay resultedin the introduction of the minimum wage rate of $ 1.25 in 1965 by theFederal government and a rate of $ 1.30 in 1969 by the provincialgovernment of Ontario (Government of Canada, 2015). This shows thatunions contributed towards an improvement in the economic conditionsof worker in Ontario and at the national level since no employercould pay them below the minimum wage. The unions have also managedto push for the adjustment of the minimum wage in order take accountnational and global economic changes, including inflation. Third, thegovernment of Ontario started formulating laws that could ensure thesafety of workers in the 1970s. For example, the government enactedOccupation Health and Safety Act in 1978, which established safetystandard that catered for workers in all sectors (Ministry of Labor,2015). In overall, an increase in the minimum wage to $ 10 per hourand safety of the workplaces has improved the living standards ofworkers in Ontario and Canada at large. Therefore, workers are ableto take care of their families and address their own financial needs.


Familyas the core of the working class life

Mostof the working-class people are middle-class that values familytogetherness as the core goal of lifestyle. To this end, the workingclass demand for certain labor rights depending on their impact ontheir lives as well as their families. In addition, the demand forbetter pay and minimum wage was based on the idea of protectingworkers and their families from economic challenges associated withthe increase in the cost of living (McCord Museum, 2014). Forexample, the steel workers who took part in Stelco Strike of 1946claimed that their wages were below the subsistence level, which madeit difficult for them to take care of their families (Universityof Toronto, 2015).

Womenbeing viewed as mothers-who-work

Thepeople of Ontario and the entire Canada appreciate the fact thatwomen assume more family roles than men. To this end, the Ontariocommunity (including labor unions and employers) establishes policiesthat allow women to carry out their professional and family roles.For example, the labor unions pushed for reduction of weekly workinghours to 60 hours for women and 72 ½ hours in 1885 because theCanadians assumed that women assume more roles in families (McCordMuseum, 2014). This would give women more hours to take care of theirfamilies. Although equality laws seek to ensure that men and womenare treated equally, it is hard for the society to refuse the role ofwomen as mothers.

Strikeas the most important weapon

Theidea of forming labor unions was driven by the need to neutralize theexcessive power held by employers. Although peaceful bargainingagreements are practical, trends show that labor unions face fierceresistance that force them to call for strikes (Pattie, 2009).Starting from the first strike of 1872 in Ontario, the labor unionswere opposed by the government and employers. However, but theirpersistence forced the government to make laws that legalized unions,which confirms that strikes were the only solution to the workplacechallenges. Strikes have also been proven to be effective in thetwentieth century. For example, the 1965 strikes in Ontario resultedin more rights to strike, better management, and higher wages aftercollective bargaining failed (Pattie, 2009). Therefore, the strike isan important weapon that increases unions’ bargaining power.

Stateshave rarely acted to promote unions and workers

Althoughthe state has made several laws and policies to protect employees,most of these initiatives were forced by unions through strikes andriots that have claimed the lives of many. For example, the WinnipegGeneral Strike organized in 1919 resulted in the death of one personand 30 casualties (Pattie, 2009). This confirms that the state hasrarely taken adequate measures to promote and protect employees andtheir unions. Moreover, the government used excessive force in somecases (such as the Reesor Siding Strike of 1963) to deal with theorganizers of strikes instead of addressing the underlying factorsthat causes them to go on strike (University ofToronto, 2015).

Inconclusion, labor unions have made significant milestones in Ontariosince the mid 19th century. Although these unions faced fierceresistance from the government and employers, their persistencebrought the success that is confirmed by the legalization of unionmembership, the establishment of minimum wage policies, and safetystandards. Apart from the work-related issues, the Ontario communityconsiders other factors (such as the role of women as mothers andfamily as the core of the working-class) when developing work-relatedpolicies.


Altman,M. (2000). New estimates of hours of work and real income in Canadafrom the 1880s to 1930: Long-run trends and workers’ preferences.Reviewof Income and Wealth,45 (3), 353-372.

Governmentof Canada (2015). Labor programs: Hourly minimum wages in Canada foradult workers. Governmentof Canada.Retrieved April 19, 2015, fromhttp://srv116.services.gc.ca/rpt2.aspx?lang=eng

Pattie,P. (2009). Highlights in Canadian labor history. CBC-Canada.Retrieved April 19, 2015, fromhttp://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/highlights-in-canadian-labour-history-1.850282

McCordMuseum (2014). Excerptsfrom history textbooks: Living conditions.Montreal: McCord Museum.

Ministryof Labor (2015). Ontariowork laws: History of employment standards in Ontario.Ontario: Ministry of Labor.

Universityof Toronto (2015). Canadian strikes: Ontario. Universityof Toronto.Retrieved April 19, 2015, fromhttp://guides.library.utoronto.ca/content.php?pid=295266&ampsid=2441470