IMIU 212 ca 1920

Workers, Unions, and Early Protests

Guelph’s First Unions

Since their inception, unions and their prototypes have had to face a variety of problems. Wages, hours, worker safety, working conditions, the cost of living and the rise of technology, paternalism and political involvement were issues common to working class people in Canada, Britain and the United States. What affected the members of the working class in Guelph can be seen to mirror what was happening throughout the province of Ontario and the whole of Canada. Even more than today, the rise and fall of the various unions were tied directly to the pattern of economic development that effected the decline and growth of the industries. After the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, the guild system began to crumble. Workers needed something to deal with a system that not only separated workers from their products but employees from their employers. Unions rose to meet that requirement. In Guelph, the first Unions were small locals, illegal at the time. These included the Tailors’ Union (1858) and the Knights of St. Crispin (1869) – shoemakers. Other unions followed in the 1860s with the arrival of the Knights of Labor (1869).

By the end of the century, several unions were active in Guelph. They were:

                                       Guelph International Moulders’ Union (IMU) in 1881    

                                       Bakers’ Union existed in 1882,

Barbers’ Union in 1885,

Stone mason’s and brick layers’ union    

Printers’ union

Carpenter’s union.

Guelph had the first Piano and Organ Union in the country. It originally formed in 1897 but did not last, reforming as the Bell Piano and Organ Maker’s Union #34 in 1902. This was the same year the brewery workers of Sleeman’s Brewery got together to create their union – the United Brewery Workers of America, Local 300.

Iron Moulders Union

The IMU was one of only a few of Guelph’s organizations that lasted into the 20th century. Many of Guelph’s other unions were suspended by 1900, although some reformed or re-emerged during the new century as a local of an international. The IMU was to prove instrumental in providing impetus for the 1898 Labour Council. It was, however, one of several local groups actively involved in voicing their concerns and sending support to other workers across the province. 

Early Strikes

A number of strikes took place in the formative years of unions in Guelph. Among the known instances were:

                                                                             Woodfinishers walked out at Bell’s regarding subcontracting in 1886

                                                                             Cabdrivers protested a new by-law in 1888, and won 

                                                                             Employees at Burrow Brothers Royal Carpet Works walked out for better working conditions in 1897.
                                                                                  This was a bitter strike waged as much in the labour media as on the picket lines

Guelph cigar makers sent aid to their “striking brethren” in Toronto and Brantford in 1878. They also expressed their own dissatisfaction with the local system.

Other small strikes took place, such as the demonstration by the carpenters in 1866 and the tailors, 1873; but the most recorded strikes in Guelph did not occur until the 1900s. This marked a time of unprecedented growth in unions and was accomplished without the help of the Knights of Labour, who were banished from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in 1902.

Guelph, like the rest of Canada, was to follow the precedent of the American Congress, with its emphasis on craft, not industrial unionism. The new unions, unlike the KOL, stressed the importance of crafts and only solicited skilled members. As a result of this policy, the unskilled factory workers were left out of this early union movement. In Guelph, the interests of the majority of factory workers went unaddressed until the arrival of the Committee of Industrial Organization (CIO) in the late 1930s, when a change of philosophy encouraged the recruitment of entire factories. This was to be the wave of the future.

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