When the Great Depression began battering the economy in 1930, Canadian workers were faced with catastrophic unemployment as well as declining wages and working conditions in many sectors among those fortunate enough to keep their jobs. Only a small number of workers were organized within their own specialties: the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) was composed exclusively of international craft unions; the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) consisted of exclusively Canadian craft and industrial unions; and the Canadian Catholic Congress of Labour (CCCL) was limited almost entirely to Quebec. None of the federations had a strategy for dealing with the magnitude of the economic crisis; they were overwhelmed by the struggle to hold themselves together as they lost thousands of members to unemployment.
The inability of the mainstream trade unions to mount an effective intervention on behalf of working people left an organizational and political vacuum: the Workers’ Unity League (WUL) would be an attempt to fill this vacuum. The WUL was organized in 1930, mainly by Communists and leftist allies in an attempt to provide a radical alternative to the mainstream trade union federations. Unlike conventional federations, the WUL organized and affiliated associations of unemployed, women, and other groups who were not technically trade unions in that they did not have employers with whom to bargain. The WUL organized in the mining, forestry and other resource industries, as well as among immigrant communities, which had not previously been organized. The WUL led many of the strikes in the 1930–35 period, with heavy resistance from employers and repression from the state, in the form of police attacks on strikers and demonstrations, imprisonment of activists, and deportation of immigrants. The repression reached a level never seen before or since over an extended period of time.
In Saskatchewan, the WUL was active in organizing miners under the auspices of the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada (MWUC) in the Bienfait-Estevan coal fields, and the unemployed throughout the province; many of the latter affiliated to the National Unemployed Workers’ Association (NUWA) in the cities and the Relief Camp Workers’ Union (RCWU) in Dundurn relief camp. The MWUC temporarily succeeded in organizing miners around Beinfait in 1931, but was met by severe state repression. Three miners were killed and many injured by the RCMP, who dispersed a demonstration in the streets of Estevan on September 29, 1931 (see Estevan Coal Strike). This was followed by an all-out attack against the union and its sympathizers, which went on for months. The union was smashed, with many leaders and activists imprisoned on trumped-up charges, deported, and blacklisted from the mines. There would be later attempts to organize the miners in the late 1930s and 1940s, and eventually they became a local of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Today, the militants of 1931 are recognized as the pioneers of the local labour movement.
The NUWA provided a national focus to the unemployed movement in Saskatchewan, which participated in petitions, protests and demonstrations for improved relief systems and unemployment insurance. The RCWU also led a contingent from Dundurn relief camp to participate in the On-to-Ottawa Trek when it reached Regina in 1935, and led a strike in the camp in 1935–36.
The WUL disbanded in 1935. Many of its former affiliates and individual members joined other federations. In the late 1930s and 1940s, many WUL veterans were active organizing industrial unions; they achieved unemployment insurance in 1941, and other pro-labour legislation in subsequent years. In this sense, they were pioneers of what would become a greatly expanded House of Labour.
Lorne A. Brown