acing strong opposition from employers and Government, Canadian workers looked to the craft union movement in the United States for organizing help. Craft unions in the United States had evolved through the 1890s into what became known as business unions. These unions responded to the rise of corporate America by centralizing their own operations and decision making, hiring more permanent officials to oversee the operations of the union, and organizers to work full time on the difficult task of organizing workers. They also pioneered the creation of centralized strike funds and benefits for their members. Many craft union locals hired full-time business agents to lead organizing drives and to negotiate and enforce union contracts.

Craft unions concentrated on winning binding contracts with employers and, whenever possible, securing industry-wide agreements. Organizations such as the United Mine Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists militantly defended their members in disputes with employers. Their determination won these unions increasing support in the United States.

Craft unions created the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This national federation of unions served as a parliament for labour. The AFL co-ordinated organizing activities among its member unions and sorted out disputes that arose among them. It also represented the craft unions' political interests by appearing regularly before governments debating labour issues.

However, there were important limitations to the AFL and the craft union movement. On the one hand, the emphasis on preserving craft jurisdictions helped unions to win concessions from employers; on the other hand, this practice excluded the majority of working people from joining these unions. Consequently, semi-skilled workers and labourers whose ranks were increasing rapidly with the rise of mass production went unorganized. Most women were to be found in these ranks and therefore played only a minor role in the craft union movement. Some craft unions had discriminatory policies. Clauses in some union charters excluded Afro-Americans and Asians from membership.


Canadian craft workers increasingly looked southward to the AFL unions for organizing support. The AFL's expertise in union organizing and collective bargaining appealed to Canadian workers. Access to the centralized resources of the American unions, such as strike funds, also attracted the attention of Canada's struggling craft workers. Finally, Canadian workers accepted the international ideal of these unions. After all, they were all craft workers who faced the same attitudes, if not in fact the same employers, whether they lived north or south of the border.

On the strength of this relationship with AFL unions, combined their own determination: Canadian workers joined unions in numbers not witnessed since the era of the Knights of Labor. The railway running trades workers — engineers, conductors, trainmen, machinists, moulders, boilermakers, carpenters, bricklayers, and upholsters, were among the many trades joining the international unions. Union membership soared to 160,000 by 1912. Increasing strike activity reflected the intense bargaining of the period. In 1912, strike action peaked in the pre-World War I period with 242 strikes involving 43,000 workers.

The record of the craft union movement in Canada was mixed. On the one hand, many unionized craft workers won improved wages and standards of living. On the other hand, some workers complained that AFL unions centralized decision making south of the border. In a particularly nasty episode in 1902 at a convention in Kitchener, Ontario, the Trades and Labor Congress (TLC) expelled all its Canadian unions for whom there was an AFL alternative (often referred to as "dual unionism"). This decision affected the remnants of the Knights of Labor and the Provincial Workmen's Association, as well as many independent unions in Quebec. The TLC took this action at the request of the AFL. In return for the exclusion of these dual or rival unions, the AFL promised the struggling TLC leadership financial and other organizing assistance. This decision fragmented the Canadian labour movement for many years.

As the craft unions carved out their place in industry, they also searched for greater solidarity amongst themselves. In many cities and towns across the country they created local trades and labour councils to co-ordinate political campaigns, organize union drives, and petition governments. Many experimented with the publication of weekly or monthly labour-orientated newspapers. Most councils met bi-weekly in local fraternal or other rented spaces. But a few of the larger and more stable councils built "labour temples," like Winnipeg's Trades and Labour Hall. (The Room 10, James St. Labour Temple Exhibit, Canada Hall, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization is based on Winnipeg's original central labour hall.)

Labour councils had an important political role in their communities. They lobbied local and provincial governments on safety and workers' compensation issues and addressed many concerns about how their communities were to be developed. Some councils entered labour candidates in elections and tried to maintain their own independent labour parties. While electoral success usually evaded these parties, their presence did pressure provincial governments into legislating improvements through factory and workers' compensation acts.

The success of the craft union movement was met by a stiffening resolve among corporate leaders to resist and, indeed, reverse union gains. As World War I approached, employers launched anti-union "open shop" campaigns. Once again, union activists found themselves the targets of firings, blacklistings, and, all too often, physical beatings. Governments and the courts rarely intervened on bahalf of the workers. But it took the severe depression that began in 1913 to halt completely the advance of the craft union movement. It quickly threw thousands of workers out of work and left labour activists waiting for better economic times to revive their movement. When that revival did come in 1916, it took a form that few of the craft leaders had anticipated in 1913.

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