Railways expanded quickly in North America in the mid-1800s and Railroad Brotherhoods were started in the 1860s to 1880s to represent the workers in the new trades. These were international craft unions with headquarters in the United States. The big four brotherhoods were Locomotive Engineers, Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, Railroad Trainmen, and Railway Conductors.
As the railways came west, the construction of the CPR required about 7,600 workers. There were experienced railway workers who moved from one construction project to the next but most were tramp workers and recent immigrants. Living conditions and wages in these moving camps were poor and the pressure to meet progress deadlines was great. In June 1883, a strike of 130 railway workers coincided with the unrest of the First Nations near Maple Creek. The North-West Mounted Police arrested the foreman and took steps to support the railway construction. In December 1883, engineers and firemen without a union started a strike against pay cuts.
Shortly after the completion of the railway the workers in the running trades founded locals of the brotherhoods on the Western Division of the CPR. By 1892 the four brotherhoods had established locals in the prairies including divisional points in Saskatchewan. The CPR proposed a wage cut that year and demanded employees sign a loyalty oath. The union men struck and gained public support against the CPR’s union-busting methods of importing scabs and mercenaries. The settlement favoured the workers and their unions were recognized.
The brotherhoods led the development of trade unions in the railway communities on the prairies. These brotherhoods only represented the elite crafts of the railway workers. The majority of workers involved in maintenance of equipment and the trackbed, the clerks, freight handlers, and many other trades were not yet unionized. They were also less well paid, less skilled, and often seasonal workers.
A number of additional international brotherhoods were organized on a craft basis for telegraphers, machinists, boilermakers and maintenance of way employees. There were also attempts to create Canadian and industrial unions that included all the trades in one union. The largest union was the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and Other Transport Workers. It covered many classes of workers on the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern Railways. An international union, the Brotherhood of Railway & Steamship Clerks, Freight-handlers, Express and Station Employees organized these workers on the CPR.
During the interwar period, railway centres in Saskatchewan such as Biggar, Melville, Moose Jaw, North Battleford, Prince Albert, Regina, Saskatoon and more than thirty-nine other Saskatchewan communities had locals of several railway unions.
The bargaining process was very complex, with multiple unions bargaining with different railways and with different contracts for different parts of the country. The unions tried various methods of co-operation to coordinate bargaining. The unions also coordinated lobbying efforts to initiate legislation to regulate the railways, improve working conditions, and increase safety. The strike by 130,000 railway workers against the CPR and CNR in 1950 was the largest strike in Canadian history. The federal government set a precedent by legislating them back to work.
Technological changes such as diesel locomotives, increasing competition by trucking, air and water transportation, and the abandonment of branch lines led to a rapidly decreasing work force on the railways and the railway unions were forced to consolidate. In 1968, four of the brotherhoods merged and became part of the United Transportation Union (UTU) with other transport workers. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) worked with the UTU in the Canadian Council of Railway Operating Unions and considered amalgation with the UTU. Their members rejected the merger and merged with the Teamsters to form the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference. Railway conductors formerly with the UTU and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees have also joined with the Teamsters. In 1998 the BLE opened an Engineer Training Centre in Saskatoon to train railroad engineers using senior engineers and a locomotive simulator.
The dangerous work on the railways is recognized in a monument erected in Melville in 2000 that names nineteen workers killed on the job between 1914 and 1974. These are only the CN workers out of Melville who worked between Rivers, Manitoba and the Watrous area in Saskatchewan.