Stories from Canadian labour history

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Stories from Canadian labour history



I'll start.

The Ontario labour health and safety movement of the 1970's was successful in producing Bill 70 - "An Act Respecting the Occupational Health and Safety of Ontario Workers", which was written and passed into law on October 1, 1979. That gave workers three rights: the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to participate in health and safety committees, and the right to know about workplace hazards. But the right to know didn't extend to the right to be given information about chemicals used in the workplace.

CAW L.112 represented aerospace workers at De Havilland Boeing in north Toronto. Workers started coming to their union about their long-term illnesses. There were a lot of chemicals used in that workplace and workers often didn't know what they were dealing with, they did not receive proper training on the use of these chemicals or how to protect themselves. 

As I remember hearing this story from the Local President at the time, Brother George Botic, the union approached management and persuaded them to commission a study. The study found out that the plant contained over 3,000 chemicals including 9 regulated substances known to cause disease. Even after the report was prepared though, management still wouldn't provide employees with basic information or training. MOL inspectors wouldn't order the employer to provide information because even though they knew this was an unsafe work environment, the right to know about chemical exposures was not specifically included under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

So, the union released the report into the membership. There was a huge outcry. Finally an MOL Inspector wrote an order requiring the employer to properly inform their members on what they were using and how to use it safely.

When the union received this order they knew it would halt production, because the employer had no way to comply with it; they never had any intention of providing this information to their workers. The next day the plant did shut down, for three hours, until the Minister of Labour intervened and changed the Inspector's order to allow a period of time to implement the order. The Minister of Labour was telling those workers that they had to go back into work, into working conditions that they knew were unsafe and would cause disease.

The union put up a notice on the board when the workers came into the plant. They told their members that this was unsafe and that workers could exercise their right to refuse work -- even though the right to refuse didn't extend to chemical exposures. I think some workers did refuse and there were more orders written, but the information and workplace changes that needed to occur were still not taking place. So what followed was a mass work refusal, with thousands of Boeing De Havilland CAW L.112 members putting their jobs on the line by refusing to perform work that they believed would injure themselves or their co-workers.

Coming out of that action, finally discussions took place between the ministry, the employer, and Buzz Hargrove who at the time was Assistant to CAW President Bob White. The union insisted that at no time would any one of their members be expected to work with unknown substances or where they didn't know what kind of precautions to take. The plant had to install multi-million dollar ventilation systems to safeguard employees. Meanwhile the union and the employer together went through the entire list of chemicals, phase out some and for those that remained, the workers who used them received full training. It took months before production returned to normal, but at the end of it, those workers had exercised their right to know about hazards they were exposed to in the workplace.

That was the beginning of the WHMIS system that is now enshrined in Canadian law to protect all workers from being exposed to hazardous chemicals without their knowledge -- including those who are union members and those who are not.

RevolutionPlease RevolutionPlease's picture

Thanks triciamarie, sometimes I wonder if the inability to access babble archives was accidental.

I don't have any stories to share at the moment but this thread is a wonderful idea.  There's still a ways to go, I wasn't informed about WHMIS around 1990, cleaning PCB leaking flourescent ballasts with varsol as an 18 year old.  BTW, they were in schools.  At least they gave me rubber gloves.


Yikes. Yeah, in 1986 when I was 17 I got a job on the crew removing asbestos from our local college. They had the whole area tarped off, big "Asbestos do not enter" signs -- and no masks for my group of workers. We were also using about ten different chemicals, in combination, with no training or information. I didn't care, the job paid great. Thank god it ended.

And actually, from what I know now, it would be hard to make a medical connection between a relatively brief period of exposure like that and a long-latency disease like cancer. You can get an acute illness from chemicals, but cancer or chronic lung disease is usually more of an issue for workers who are exposed to this stuff over many years. After 1988 when WHMIS rolled out, those workers were more likely to get training. This is not to say that all long-term exposure workers get trained properly; even now, especially in smaller shops and non-industrial workplaces, this is often overlooked, or the information is incomplete and not updated. They may also be using hazardous materials unnecessarily or without proper infrastructure or protective gear (in order of preferred remedy). But at least if you do need information and the employer's not giving it to you, you can call the Ministry of Labour and they will probably make sure that you and all of your co-workers get it.

Reprisals from the employer can still happen though, especially in non-union workplaces, and we need to put pressure on governments to tighten up the legislation around this.


The United Aircraft (today Pratt & Whitney) strike of 1974-75 deservedly attained legendary proportions in the history of the labour movement in Québec.

The strike, initially involving almost 2000 members of Local 510 of the UAW, began over a variety of issues, but the fundamental conflict was over the refusal by management to deduct union dues at source (known as the "Rand formula") - an attempt to bust the union.

The temperature rose dramatically with the hiring of scabs after some months of strike. The remainder of the struggle was characterized by company espionage and provocation on one hand, and acts of vandalism, attacks on scabs and their property, and arson and even explosions. Many workers were arrested. The company launched a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the UAW, whose U.S. leadership was at best lukewarm in its support. Over time, many workers became disheartened and returned to work. Broad sections of the labour movement and intelligentsia arrayed themselves in support of the strikers. The strike had echoes of support across Canada and in the U.S. as well.

In May (I think) 1975, a settlement was reached with some minor gains. But United would only take back about a third of the 750 workers who had remained on the picket lines. That led to a plant occupation by 34 workers (known as the "34 Charlies"), who were arrested and beaten by police. A 30th anniversary celebration was held in November 2004 to commemorate them and the strike in general.

The real outcome of the strike, however, came with the election of the first PQ government in 1976. Among its first acts were the legal entrenchment of the Rand Formula for all Québec workplaces, and anti-scab legislation. In both cases, Québec was the first government in Canada to adopt such laws. Today, B.C. is the only other jurisdiction to have anti-scab legislation.


In another thread Unionist spoke of three central union leaders being jailed for refusing to give up their members' right to strike. Those leaders represented a public sector membership.

This was the 1972 Rebellion in Quebec, which involved hundreds of thousands of workers. It started in 1971 when La Presse newspaper was bought out and the new conservative owners wanted to fire socialist journalists. The owners locked out the typesetters in an attempt to provoke an illegal strike by journalists, who they knew would honour a typesetters picket line. The typesetters refused to picket. After five months of being locked out, on October 29, 1971, typesetters holding a peaceful mass rally were subjected to police brutality. The next day Mayor Jean Drapeau declared a no-protest zone for 50 blocks around the La Presse building.

Here is a description of what happened:

Over 15,000 workers showed up to march. Carrying placards with such slogans as "Capitalism equals unemployment, Socialism equals work." The march was corralled by police into a "sort of two-edged cul-de-sac formed by police barricades.” The Police charged, brutally clubbing anyone they could. Street-fighting flared between workers and police, even continuing at the hospital that both sides brought their injured to. Hundreds were injured and one woman, a young college student and left-wing activist named Michèle Gauthier, lay dead.

It's often said that few things are more radicalizing than the end of a police baton, and on Oct. 29, 1971, the end of the baton - clearly and deliberately wielded by the state - was felt by the entire working class of Quebec.

Critically, the strike at La Presse created a working model of a "Common Front" between usually competitive and divisive union centrals that represented workers at La Presse during the strike. The common front model combined with the radicalization in the La Presse strike foreshadowed a far greater possibility, that of a common front representing hundreds of thousands of public service workers against their employer - the state.

On April 11, 1972, after months of public service negotiations, a general strike was called. 210,000 out of 250,000 total public sector workers walked off the job. The government targeted hospital workers and issued 61 injunctions. Hospital workers defied the injunctions. Nine days into the strike, (from the link above) "13 low-paid hospital workers were jailed 6 months and fined $5000 (about a year's pay) for ignoring the injunctions. Their union was fined $70,600. A total 103 workers would be sentenced a total of 24 years and fined half a million dollars in the course of a few days."

On April 21 the government passed Bill 19, a law ordering the workers back to work and stripping them of fundamental union rights. The leaders of three central unions were jailed for a year for "cajoling" their members to defy injunctions. That was the last straw.

Within hours of the leaders being jailed, workers starting downing tools. The longshore workers were the first to go in Montreal, Quebec and Trois-Rivieres. An hour later, 5,000 teachers around the province put down their chalk and walked off the job. CUPE maintenance workers set up picket lines where they were joined by nurses and other hospital workers.

In Sept-Iles that night, police violently broke up a workers' protest in front of the local courthouse. The next morning Sept-Iles workers called a general strike, halting all production in the mining town, taking control of the town and seizing the local radio station. This was followed by massive walkouts in Sorel and St-Jerome. 80,000 building trades struck in solidarity. Mines were downed at Thetford Mines, Asbestos and Black Lake. Factories closed all across the province with as many as 300,000 workers participating in the strike. Workers had control of 23 radio stations.

In the end, the leaders were released from jail and the unions called a truce.

Four years later 1.2 million workers across Canada walked out in a general strike against wage controls by the federal government.


These are amazing stories.  First I've heard of any of them.  Thanks for sharing!  I won't be contributing much to this thread, but I'll definitely be reading!

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

The first General Strike in Canadian history ... was NOT the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. While the events in River City 90 years ago still resonate in the hearts and minds of working people who know their history, in fact it was the General Strike over the Police murder of Ginger Goodwin that was the  first General Strike in Canadian history.


For one day, workers across British Columbia laid down their tools to honour one of their own, murdered by the police, when Goodwin was hunted down and killed by Mounties. Goodwin had been a union organizer in the Trail area, and the job action that Goodwin led, during the disgusting atrocities in Europe (1914-1918), interfered with the making of weapons and ammunition in "the Great War". So they killed him.


Thought I'd bump this thread to see if anyone wants to share more stories - especially in this centenary year of the Winnipeg General Strike. Speaking of which, there are some cool photos here.


If you haven't seen this graphic novel then you  need to. One of the writers in this awesomely talented collective is a friend.

One hundred years later, the Winnipeg General Strike remains one of the most significant events in Canadian history. This comic book revisits the strike to introduce new generations to its many lessons, including the power of class struggle and solidarity and the brutal tactics that governments and bosses use to crush workers’ movements. The Winnipeg General Strike is a stark reminder that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, and the state is not afraid to bloody its hands to protect the interests of capital. In response, working people must rely on each other and work together to create a new, more just world in the shell of the old.


kropotkin1951 wrote:

If you haven't seen this graphic novel then you  need to. One of the writers in this awesomely talented collective is a friend.

I actually bought an autographed copy at the University of Winnipeg when I was visiting in May during the conference on the general strike! It's wonderful. As is this novel aimed at middle-school students, but eminently readable by adults as well: City on Strike.

epaulo13 epaulo13's picture

Local 594 and the Lost History of Oil Worker Unionism

With near unanimous support from the membership, Unifor Local 594 provided the Co-operative Refinery Complex (CRC) with job action notice on December 4, 2019. The employer immediately responded by locking out over 700 workers – from process operators, building trades, lab technicians, to administrative support workers. The battle is over further rollbacks of the pension plan.

For months the CRC had prepared for this moment by establishing a scab camp on property adjacent to the plant in Regina’s north end. A helipad was also set up to help the company bypass picket lines it knew would disrupt the entry of supplies, workers, and fuel trucks needed to carry product to market. And so began what will likely be remembered as an historic labour dispute between North America’s only co-operatively owned oil refinery and a union that, for decades, helped to shape the face of refinery unionism in Canada.

Despite the CRC’s casting of Local 594 as a Toronto-based union in an effort to undermine the union’s credibility in Saskatchewan, 594’s origins are unquestionably local and rooted in the rich history of the province’s co-operative and labour movements.

Building the refinery, forming the union

Drawing on years of collective organizing experience against corporate monopoly power, Saskatchewan farmers launched a co-operative to build an oil refinery in Regina in 1935. The co-operative aimed to produce and deliver affordable oil to farmers and other consumers. It was an ambitious act of radical, democratic self-reliance. It was also a blow against the big oil companies that were consolidating their power during the Great Depression.

After several years of successful operation, the refinery workers unionized with little opposition from the CRC. Two years later, Tommy Douglas and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation were elected to power, ushering in what many call North America’s “first socialist government.” What was it like in Saskatchewan at the time? According to one of the refinery’s union organizers, Neil Reimer, “the movement was so politicized and because the role of co-ops was so important, we had to decide what role the union movement would play. The role of co-ops, socialism, and democracy were all part of it.”

In 1948, the new union earned the moniker “Local 594” of the Oil Workers International Union (OWIU). However, the Regina local was isolated from other oil workers. The ability of the union to organize in Alberta after the 1947 Leduc oil discovery was undermined by the shattering defeat of the 1947-48 California oil workers’ strike. Aided by the new anti-union Taft-Hartley laws, thousands of California oil workers were blacklisted from the industry. The OWIU was nearly destroyed. Union resources to organize in Alberta no longer existed.

Local 594: Heart of the Union in Hard Times

During the 1940s and 1950s, Local 594 became a crucial base of operations for the entire OWIU in Canada. Early organizing efforts were close to home, including the unionization of refinery workers in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw.

By the time the OWIU recovered from the California defeat, the Red Scare was at its height with the Korean War. Across the continent, the unions were in retreat, paralyzed and weakened by the purging of militants, legal attacks like Taft-Hartley and Liberal back-to-work legislation, and mass raiding of “Communist”-led unions. Employers and governments had stopped most of the great advances of the 1930s and 1940s, and tamed some major unions......

epaulo13 epaulo13's picture


Union Independence and Tommy Douglas

Attacked as Reds by Manning and Duplessis, Saskatchewan’s oil workers weren’t just loyalists to the CCF government of Tommy Douglas.

In the early 1950s, Saskatchewan Power workers, like other Crown Corporation workers, bargained directly with Tommy Douglas’s cabinet. When they sought a strike mandate to press their demands in bargaining, they were denied by the CCF-dominated Canadian Congress of Labour (precursor to CLC).

Looking around for a feisty, independent union, SaskPower workers joined the OWIU which operated independently of the CCL. In another round of bargaining, Tommy Douglas and the CCF cabinet again refused to meet the demands of SaskPower workers. Now SaskPower workers voted in favour of strike action. Douglas responded by threatening strikebreaking legislation and revoking union certification.

Saskatchewan’s oil workers were having none of it. Unionized refinery workers across Saskatchewan voted in favour of a general sympathy strike against any union-busting legislation. Neil Reimer, now Canadian president of the OWIU, threatened to personally campaign to defeat prominent CCFer and Steelworkers Canadian president Charles Millard in an upcoming Ontario election. Douglas backed down, and a deal was hammered out.

The power of the Co-op refinery workers was instrumental in asserting workers’ rights against a “pro-labour” government.


So glad to see these old stories with many details I'd forgotten. The Common Front here was a revelation to me, not yet 20. I had been a young radical since at least 13, against war and racism, but this put the class struggle front and centre. The women's movement in Québec has had strong labour roots and it is important to see how this emerged in such a setting. The Common front called for $100 a week minimum wage, which would benefit women workers above all, and later this spread from equal pay to equivalent pay. But there was also a decline in worker radicalism that was very hard on a lot of us radicals.