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.