he 21 years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II were bleak ones for the Canadian labour movement. High unemployment and poor working conditions plagued many working-class families throughout these two decades. Indeed, the years of good economic growth could be counted on one hand. These few years fell within the last half of the 1920s and came to an end with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Some regions of Canada such as the Maritimes saw little growth even during the better times of the late 1920s. Economic hardship forced thousands of Maritimers "down the road" to Ontario and the West in search of employment. The economies of the Western provinces, however, could not even absorb all those searching for work from within their own boundaries. In the inter-war period the West did not regain the economic "boom" of the early twentieth century. The southern, industrial areas of Quebec and especially Ontario did have a somewhat different experience. The beginnings of a consumer-based economy can be seen in the increasing emphasis on the mass production of automobiles, household goods, and clothes. But, many workers, even among those fully employed, found their incomes far too small to purchase most of the goods they produced.

High unemployment remained a major obstacle to union organizing. In fact, unemployment levels then, as now, serve frequently as a barometer of labour's fortunes. In times of low unemployment, workers were more likely to be able to organize unions; on the other hand, high unemployment with intense competition for jobs made union organizing difficult. High unemployment plagued union activists throughout the inter-war years. The weak legal status of unions made a bad situation worse. Union members had few legal protections and were often fired to be replaced by one of the many unemployed desperately seeking a job.

In these lean years, even the best organized craft unions struggled to survive. Overall union membership fell dramatically from the heights of 1919 to pre-World War I levels. Therefore, it is not surprising that from labour's perspective the majority of its conflicts with business were defensive struggles. They fought to resist wage reductions, "open shop" or anti-union campaigns, and worsening working conditions. Some of the sharpest conflicts over these issues occurred in Cape Breton in the 1920s.

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