For the first few decades of the 20th century, workers had not yet become a majority in Canada and only a small percentage of mainly skilled tradesmen were organized into trade unions. Nevertheless, organized labour was growing as an interest group which exerted some influence over the political complexion of the broader society. They had achieved legal recognition and made some progress in struggles to abolish child labour and improve hours of work and working conditions. Unions had also played a role in achieving free public education and political reforms such as the secret ballot and a broadened franchise.
If unions were not yet a large part of the body politic in Canada, this was doubly true of Saskatchewan, which remained an overwhelmingly agrarian province for the first half century of its existence. But while trade unionists were not a significant percentage of the population, political and social ideas associated with labour exerted an indirect influence within agrarian and political organizations. Most immigrants to the province became farmers, but many were from urban working class backgrounds. Several of the leaders of the early farm organizations had previous experience in trade unions and labour and socialist parties. Indeed the Farmer’s Union of Canada, a forerunner of the United Farmers of Canada, was founded in 1921 by former members of the One Big Union, a radical industrial union founded in 1919.
The 1930s would see tendencies associated with labour involved in both social democratic politics and extra-parliamentary struggles. In 1931, the small Independent Labour Party (ILP) joined with the United Farmers of Canada (UFC) to form the Farmer-Labour Group; the latter would become the provincial section of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which was founded as Canada’s national social democratic party in 1932. The CCF in Saskatchewan would be mainly an agrarian party, but with an urban labour component. It had established itself as the main parliamentary opposition in Saskatchewan by the end of the 1930s.
On the extra-parliamentary scene, the Worker’s Unity League (WUL) was a Communist-led union federation which headed many of the struggles of the urban unemployed and attempted to organize the coal miners in the Estevan-Bienfait district in 1931. The unemployed struggles in Saskatchewan and elsewhere were a factor leading to the establishment of unemployment insurance by the federal government in 1941. Organized labour became a significant influence in achieving legislative gains for both themselves and others after the CCF formed the provincial government in 1944; these gains included a new Trade Union Act, which was one of the most advanced in Canada for that period. Provincial government employees were the first in the country to be given collective bargaining rights. Saskatchewan enacted the first provincial Bill of Rights. The province also pioneered hospital insurance and enacted in 1962 Canada’s first universal medical care plan, which would soon become a federal-provincial program throughout Canada. Trade union activists played a role in all of these achievements.
In the 1960s, Canada and Saskatchewan saw an acceleration of transformations which had been evident for some time in the political economy and demographics of the country. Canada was urbanizing rapidly, and the public sector was becoming larger and more sophisticated. Trade unions were growing as a percentage of the work force and becoming more diversified, with public and service workers soon outnumbering industrial and craft workers. Women were also becoming a much higher percentage of the trade union movement.
Changes were underway in labour politics as the trade unions adapted to the evolving political economy. In 1961 the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) collaborated to found the New Democratic Party (NDP) in an attempt to make a broader electoral appeal to urban working people; it was led by longtime Saskatchewan premier T.C. Douglas. The new strategy enjoyed some limited success, and eventually the NDP governed four different provinces, whereas the old CCF had never won an election outside of Saskatchewan. There, the NDP became and has remained a predominantly urban party, but this has had more to do with changing demographics than with the transformation from CCF to NDP: farms became larger, and farmers became fewer and more conservative in Saskatchewan as in much of Canada. Paradoxically, the influence of organized labour within the NDP appears to have declined at the same time as the NDP became a more urban party. The old farmer-labour alliance dating back to the latter days of the CCF was gradually replaced by a leadership of urban professionals—middle-level civil servants and managers, lawyers, teachers, co-op and credit union bureaucrats, and other professionals. There has also often been conflict between public sector unions and the government, public institutions, and Crown corporations; this conflict has become a persistent source of tension between the NDP and the trade unions. Generally, the trade unions tend to support the NDP during provincial elections, and a majority of trade unionists vote for them; but the close connections of previous decades have declined. During the recent years of neo-liberal assault on the welfare state and trade union rights, the politics of organized labour has largely revolved around defending the gains of the past.