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Images of the Winnipeg General Strike and the formation of the One Big Union (OBU) in western Canada have traditionally dominated our view of the post-war working-class upsurge in Canada.
Authors have also argued that not only was the western Canadian radical labour movement exceptional, it aroused what would eventually be known as the pinnacle point of working class consciousness in Canadian labour history. This vast amount of working class awareness would diffuse predominantly in the aftermath of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. In contrast, central and eastern Canada have often been depicted as being out of step with such developments. This argument is not unsound when examining meetings at the Trades and Labor Congress (TLC). Ontario delegates in particular, with the force of numbers behind them, repeatedly and solidly defeated westerners’ attempts to guide the labour movement towards socialism and industrial unionism, declaring socialism as especially “impractical”. As a result, western radicals made the decision to go their own way, and the TLC was abandoned to the conservatives. Even in books that include an analysis of central and eastern Canada’s involvement in the movement, both Ontario and the Maritimes are criticized for a lack of radical activity occurring due to the movement’s heterogeneous nature. Simply put, the participants were too divided to arouse significant change, thus the eastern and central components of the movement, while they did happen, are classified as less significant than the events occurring in western Canada. Here arises the argument that Canadian labour history is in fact better described through regionalism, most harshly posed as a dichotomy of eastern conservatism and western radicalism.
However, authors who subscribe to the opinion of Canada’s labour history as merely regional politics should be, and have been, criticized for failing to recognize the appearance of socialist and radical movements across Canada. This includes historians A. Ross McCormack and David Bercuson, who refrained from giving any analysis on the extent of radicalism and socialism present outside of western Canada. In actuality, there were several and even some major appearances of these movements both in Ontario and in the Maritimes in about the same time period that McCormack and Bercuson address. These outbreaks indicate that not only were these movements nationally adopted, the ideologies, objectives, and platforms adopted by socialist and radical labour organizations reflect some degree of similarity. The suggestion that Canada’s labour history is actually one better divided into regions is thus negated in this paper. Despite their aforementioned heterogeneous nature and lesser success in comparison to western Canada, the significance of these movements in central and eastern Canada should not be ignored to avoid providing too narrow of an account. Instead, the paper will re-evaluate the traditional regionally-focused approach to Canada’s labour history to argue that radicalism and socialism were certainly more than a hiccup in the organization of the working class in Ontario and the Maritimes.
For both Ontario and the Maritimes, the First World War was a major stimulant in the adoption of radicalism and socialism. By late 1915 the pre-war economic depression had given way to an economic boom as millions of dollars were poured into the economy for munitions and war supply production, sixty percent of which was located in Ontario. In the Maritimes, the coming of the war brought economic prosperity and full employment earlier than most other regions, particularly in expanding the coal, gypsum and construction trades. Wartime prosperity resulted in social harmony and cohesiveness initially, and even above the impact of full employment, a sense of working together was specifically directed by the force of patriotism. However the peaceful cooperation between the state and the working class quickly faltered. An overheated economy and domestic commodity shortages fuelled inflation, while rents escalated towards the end of the war. The creation of the IMB also placed a vast amount of power and money into the hands of a small group of businessmen led by Toronto meatpacker (and accused profiteer) Joseph Flavelle and the IMB ignored the trade union movement. To combat their capitalist opponents and oppressive circumstances, the embracement of radicalism by the working class rapidly accelerated.
In Ontario, the initial working-class response came from metal trade workers, particularly machinists and moulders, who had been at the forefront of union battles during the industrial transformation of central Canada in the preceding two decades. Employers were readily aware of the possible benefits of deskilled labour, and had begun introducing ‘specialists’, including women, into their shops. This effectively promoted competition and kept the tradesmen’s wages lower. Pressed by an increased pace of work and uncontrolled inflation, and emboldened by the high demand for metalworkers’ labour, the industry exploded. In June 1916, about two thousand Hamilton munitions workers struck, proving that workers in Ontario could respond to the challenges of the war economy in a militant manner comparable to action previously undertaken by the rest of the continent. The conflict also revealed the depth of working-class support for trade unionism, as hundreds of organized and unorganized workers joined the strike called by the metal trades unions. Moreover, organizational and jurisdictional differences dissolved as members of the machinists’ union and Amalgamated Society of Engineers joined ranks. It was obvious in the face of employers’ appeals to patriotism that while these workers took the war emergency seriously, they were not about to sacrifice their own class interests. Many even struck on behalf of the soldiers overseas, stating that they were striking in order to avoid any instance of men returning home and being forced to submit to “a starvation wage”.