nfortunately, it took the ravages of
war to bring an end to the depression of 1913-1915. Many unemployed
workers enlisted in the army and others found work in the war-fuelled
economy. By 1916, many companies were reporting labour shortages. This
turnaround from the high unemployment of the depression greatly
improved workers' bargaining power. In these circumstances, working
Canadians received wages higher than at any time before in their
history. Living standards also appeared to be improving. At the
same time, employers complained full employment meant that workers
were now quick to leave one company for another if they were
dissatisfied with their working conditions.
As the war continued into 1916, employers introduced changes to
the workplace that increasingly angered many workers. The mass
production of munitions was accompanied by an ever-increasing adoption
of assembly-line production. "Speed ups" on the line and other
"efficiency" measures outraged workers, who perceived these changes as
a loss of control over their work. Craft and skilled workers, for
example, feared the dilution of their traditional crafts. This fear
intensified as less skilled workers, especially women, were assigned
machine operators' jobs. On the other hand, for at least some women,
the war meant jobs and wages from which they had traditionally been
Events away from work, however, irritated workers as much as those
on the job site. The cost-of-living rose steeply after 1916, wiping
out most of any wage increases as quickly as they occurred. At the
same time, many workers believed that corporate profits were
increasing dramatically, and they called for the conscription of
profits — not just the conscription of men to the army. Conscription
itself proved to be a controversial issue for many working Canadians.
The majority of workers supported the war, or were at least resigned
to it continuing, but compulsory service did not share the same
popularity among many workers. In Quebec, opposition to conscription
proved especially intense.
Direct government intervention into the realm of labour relations
was an even greater irritant to the labour movement. In 1916, the
Industrial Disputes Act was extended to include all munitions plants.
This legislation, first introduced in 1907, provided for
government-initiated arbitration between employers and workers. Labour's
experience with the legislation, however, proved unfavourable. Workers
were convinced that governments consistently and unfairly sided with
employers in disputes. This image was reinforced by another government
decision that censored reporting on labour conflicts. Labour
increasingly felt besieged by governments and employers as the war
advanced into its final years.
In the United States and Britain, where similar problems arose,
governments made at least some effort to accommodate labour concerns.
However, in Canada, the federal government proved reluctant to build
co-operation with even the more conservative craft unions leaders.
Consequently, tension between the government and labour intensified
throughout the war. In the last months of the war in 1918 these
relations reached a new low when government legislation banned several
progressive organizations and their newspapers.