Beach Memories: A look at the union movement in Toronto

In this edition of Beach Memories, local historian Gene Domagala takes a look at Toronto's union history.


This is an article about the early union history in the City of Toronto and the names of some of the different unions and associations.

I was asked many years ago to write on the union movement so finally I am. This is dedicated to that person who was a great union organizer and Member of Parliament – Neil Young, a great Canadian and a Beacher.

The union and trade movement has a very long history, so I am just putting together a brief outline of it in the City of Toronto.

We here in the Beach had one of the largest and oldest unions in the country. They were the railroad employees of the Grand Trunk Railway, later the Canadian National Railway (CNR).

There were close to 450 men working in the Main and Gerrard area and they had many railroad organizations, we now call them unions. Their objective was to help every railroad worker – firemen, engineers, brakemen, freight handlers etc… in every way possible.

This was the reason the different organizations and unions were formed; to make sure that the workers had the right of benefits, safe working conditions, correct wages and be able to live as a person should be able to in Canada.

This railroad movement is still in existence and will be for good!

There were many independent unions in the city and they didn’t have much clout, so in 1871 they decided to amalgamate and found the Toronto Trades Assembly.

This didn’t work out so well because of bickering and pressure from the companies and politicians, but it lasted for nearly 10 years.

The workers in the city wanted nine-hour days, better working conditions and more rights so they put together a new organization called the Toronto Trades and Labour Council. This was to be the new union powerhouse in the city for the next couple of decades.

The head of the council was President Jim Wilson and there were other officers in charge of education, finance etc..

They were a government of their own, and for thousands of union men and women this was their hope against the “big bosses”, the government, big business and those who were against the unions and the council.

It is impossible to put the history of the early union movement in Toronto into this one article, but we know that because of them the workers did receive better working conditions. But to do this, they had to hold strikes.

I will now mention some of those strikes.

One of the largest strikes was in 1887, when 700 workers went on strike against the Toronto Street Railway Co. (TSRC) which was owned by Sir Frank Smith. His motto was that none of his employees would belong to any union. If they did, they had no job.

This was a violent strike. The TSRC brought in outside labour (scabs) and special constables to go against the workers and there was violence on both sides.
In the end, the workers lost the strike but this was the beginning of more unions being formed in the city.

There was also a strike by the Typographical Union in 1872 in which 200 employees were involved against the leading newspapers of the day led by The Globe (now known as The Globe and Mai). The strikers held mass meetings and protests to try and shut the newspapers down.

At one time, 28 leaders of the strike were arrested. They retained lawyers for their union and in the end they won a 54-hour work week and a few other benefits after striking for 15 weeks.

In 1901, the Railroad Teamsters Union involved 212 workers in a 10-day strike.

My space is limited, however, so I am not able to write about all the unions in the city and their names.

You may agree or disagree with unions, but these pioneers of the union movement put their hearts, souls, energy, intellect, and financial resources to the cause of bettering working conditions for future generations.

There were more than 100 unions and movements in the early days of Toronto and here are the names of some of them:

Broom Makers International Union No. 55; Cigar Makers International Union No. 27; Carpenters & Joiners United Brotherhood No. 27; Waiters Alliance of Toronto Local 108; Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen No. 322; Structural Iron Workers International; Painters and Decorators Brotherhood No. 3; Blacksmith’s International Brotherhood No. 17; Printing Press Union; Mailers Toronto Union No. 5; Civic Employees Unions No. 1 and No. 2; Bread Drivers Union; Horseshoers’ International Union NO. 49; Furriers Union; Typographical Union No. 91; Toronto Musical Protective Association; Plumbers, Steamers and Gas Fitters Union No. 16; Stonemasons Union; Teamsters Union; Builders’ Labourers’ International Union.

These are only a portion, but as I said, space is limited. This is not the complete history of Toronto unions, just some of my research.

Any comments, please let me know.

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