t is a sad irony that thousands
of people dying on the battlefields of Europe and Asia was the
catalyst needed to get Canadians back to work. By 1940 so many
men and women had enlisted to fight fascism and had taken jobs in
munition plants that near full employment had become a reality. Farm
workers searching for steady work headed to the cities, and many women
took paid labour in war-related industries. Remembering the crisis over
what was believed to have been extensive corporate profiteering during
World War I, the government quickly introduced a system of wage and price
controls. The government also extended the Industrial Disputes Act to
include all industries considered essential for the war effort
(a definition so broad that it included much of what Canadians produced).
The creation of the National Selective Service Agency to control workers'
freedom to move from one job to another was the final element in the
government's initial response to war-time conditions. One thing the
Canadian Government did not do that both the British and American
governments did was to invite labour to join in wartime decision making.
Therefore, unlike in these other countries, Canadian labour leaders
did not offer "no strike pledges" for the duration of the war.
Union membership exploded and, by 1943, workers not content to
wait until after the war to win better wages and working conditions
struck in greater numbers and more frequently than they had done in
1919. Most workers sought membership in the now well- established
international unions of the Committee for Industrial Organizing
(CIO). Unlike in the 1930s, these unions now had the financial and
organizational resources to assist industrial unionists in Canada.
By the end of the war, the Canadian Congress of Labour's (CCL)
membership had tripled to 314,000 and the Trades and Labor Congress'
(TLC) increased from 132,000 to 356,000. Despite such support and the
enthusiasm of Canadian organizers and rank-and-file members, union
organizing proceeded slowly. Employers continued to resist strenuously
the unionization of their shops.
The federal government proceeded cautiously, unwilling to intervene
on labour's side. However, several important events intervened to force
the government's hand. First, major and sometimes violent strikes by
gold miners in Kirkland Lake, Ontario and by steelworkers in Sydney
and Sault Ste. Marie again pointed to the deplorable state of labour
relations in Canada. Secondly, public opinion started to shift noticeably
in labour's favour. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) won
remarkable support by championing social security and planning and labour
rights. In 1943, the CCF nearly formed provincial governments in Ontario
and British Columbia. The party's popularity received another boost in
the same year when the CCL endorsed it. The next year the CCF produced
a stunning victory in Saskatchewan. In national opinion polls the party
threatened the historic dominance of the Liberals and Conservatives.