Labour unions have existed in Canada since the early 1800s. There is a record of skilled tradesmen in the Maritimes having a union organization during the War of 1812.
Canadian unionism had early ties with Britain. Tradesmen who came from Britain brought traditions of the British trade union movement, and many British unions had branches in Canada. Canadian unionism ties with the United States eventually replaced those with Britain.
A key development in the growth of unionism came in 1872 when printers in Toronto went on strike for a nine-hour-day. Union activity was illegal at the time, and many prominent labour leaders were arrested. Mass protests ensued, resulting in the dropping of charges and the legalization of union activity.
The first national labour organization was formed in 1873 at a national convention in Toronto. The organization later became the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada in 1883, a forerunner of the present Canadian Labour Congress.
The early 1900s saw massive escalations in labour activity as workers demanded universal eight-hour days, union recognition and better wages. Between 1919 and 1920 there were over 1500 strikes involving an estimated 375,000 workers. The largest of these was the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which involved over 25,000 Winnipeg workers. The government used strike breakers, police and army to violently end the strike.
The early 1900s also saw the development of labour politics. In 1921 the Communist Party of Canada was founded, and in 1932 the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was created. Both parties supported worker rights and were critical of capitalism. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation eventually became the New Democratic Party.
Collective bargaining was first recognized in 1937, following a strike by the United Auto Workers at the General Motors’ plant in Oshawa, Ontario.
Justice Ivan Rand issued a landmark legal decision following a strike in Windsor, Ontario, involving 17,000 Ford workers. He granted the union the compulsory check-off of union dues. Rand ruled that all workers in a bargaining unit benefit from a union-negotiated contract. Therefore, he reasoned they must pay union dues, although they do not have to join the union.
The post-World War II era also saw an increased pattern of unionization in the public service. Teachers, nurses, social workers, professors, and cultural workers (those employed in museums, orchestras, and art galleries) all sought private-sector collective bargaining rights.
In the 1970s the federal government came under intense pressures to curtail labour cost and inflation. In 1975, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Trudeau introduced mandatory price and wage controls. Under the new law, wages increases were monitored and those ruled to be unacceptably high were rolled back by the government.
Pressures on unions continued into the 1980s and 90s. Private sector unions faced plant closures in many manufacturing industries and demands to reduce wages and increase productivity. Public sector unions came under attack by federal and provincial governments as they attempted to reduce spending, reduce taxes and balance budgets. Legislation was introduced in many jurisdictions reversing union collective bargaining rights, and many jobs were lost to contractors.