By: J.W. Warren
From the early 1700s until the 1840s, a job with one of the fur trading companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) provided virtually all the paid employment opportunities available in the northwestern interior of present-day Canada. It was a small workforce: in 1820, at the peak of fur trade activity, there were fewer than 2,000 wage workers employed by the fur companies. These workers accounted for a scant minority of the population of the fur country, which had a First Nations population that probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Paid employees in the fur trade were almost exclusively male; there is only one known example of a woman who went to work for the HBC—disguised as a man, her cover eventually blown by a pregnancy. In the parlance of the time, HBC employees were referred to as servants; the Montreal-based NWC preferred the French term engagés for its workers. Fur trade managers in the English-owned HBC were known as officers; in the NWC they were often referred to as bourgeois or partners. European society during the heyday of the fur trade was rigidly hierarchical; its class divisions were reflected in the way working relationships in the North American fur trade were structured.
Employees signed contracts, generally from three to seven years in length. Over the duration of their contracts, they were required to provide loyal and obedient service to their employers. There were stiff penalties for employees who quit their jobs, disobeyed orders, or were disrespectful to officers; these penalties could range from fines and forfeiture of wages to imprisonment and even flogging. Upward mobility was rare. There are only a handful of examples of servants who managed to earn positions in the ranks of the HBC officer class. The NWC was somewhat more liberal about advancement, but even within that company, movement from the lower to upper ranks was rare. The relationships between employers and employees were governed by master and servant laws, which included prohibitions on workers engaging in collective actions such as strikes to win improvements in wages and working conditions. It would not be until 1872, when the government of Sir John A. Macdonald passed The Trade Union Act, that Canadian workers could legally belong to an organization that tried to engage in collective bargaining. Nevertheless, fur trade workers did launch a number of strikes in support of improved wages and working conditions. The first strike known to have occurred in the territory that would become Saskatchewan took place in 1777 at Cumberland House: that first labour dispute, led by Orkney Islanders James Batt and William Taylor, resulted in an increase in wages for employees who worked at the HBC’s inland posts, as opposed to those assigned to less arduous work at posts located on Hudson’s Bay. While striking workers occasionally won improvements, they were more often fined, fired with their wages forfeited, or imprisoned for defying their masters.
The fur trade companies developed schedules to govern the wage rates for their servants and engagés. For example, there were three general classes of workers within the HBC. First the apprentice clerks, who could eventually hope to move into the officer ranks upon completion of their three-year apprenticeship period. Then there were two other servant classes for whom movement into the officer class was by and large out of the question: one included the voyageurs, canoemen, hunters and interpreters, who were generally First Nations, Métis or French Canadian; the other consisted of skilled tradesmen and labourers. The HBC relied heavily on recruits from Britain, especially men who hailed from the Orkney Islands, to fill the ranks of the latter group. In the NWC, workers in this category were a mixture of British, French Canadian and people of Aboriginal ancestry. Wage rates in this group were determined by craft: highest paid were skilled trades such as joiners (carpenters), stone masons, coopers (keg makers), and boat builders; sail makers and net menders made less; and labourers earned the least. Regardless of craft, wages in the fur trade tended to be higher than those available for similar work on the Orkney Islands or in Lower Canada.
The voyageurs of the northwest developed a distinct and colourful culture. Their endless miles of canoe paddling were accompanied by a repertoire of traditional songs, many of which were too ribald to have been recorded by the literati of the time. They valued humour and told tall tales; and they took great pride in feats of bravery and strength, paying special tribute to those who could carry the greatest number of ninety- pound packs over portages the furthest or the fastest. When competition between the NWC and HBC was at its highest, in the early 1800s, fur trade workers were able to earn higher wages and improved working conditions simply because they had the option of threatening to quit and go to work for the opposition. While this sort of action ran contrary to master-and-servant law, the rivalry between the two companies was so intense that masters did little to discourage deserters from their competitor’s ranks. The Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 reduced the numbers of workers available for the fur trade, as able-bodied men were scooped up by naval press gangs in Britain or by the militias of Canada. The shortage of new workers, combined with inter-company rivalry, further strengthened the bargaining position of fur trade employees.
The fur trade made considerable use of the unpaid labour of Aboriginal women, who married à la façon du pays (what we now call a common-law relationship) or otherwise cohabited with fur trade officers and employees. These women performed important functions: they prepared food and hides; they made moccasins and snowshoes; and they acted as interpreters and diplomats, helping to build alliances with Indian bands, native trappers, and traders. Children from these unions became the founders of the Métis Nation; they were often employed by the fur companies as hunters, interpreters and voyageurs. The fur companies avoided hiring First Nations people for wage labour in districts where furs were plentiful, preferring to have Indians trapping for them out in the bush. There were significant exceptions, however, such as the Iroquois voyageurs from the Great Lakes region, who became famous for their skill at traveling by canoe.
Following the merger of the NWC into the HBC in 1821, wage rates fell and nearly a third of the workforce was laid off because of downsizing (many trading posts closed, and use of the trade route to Montreal was reduced). In the wake of post-HBC-NWC merger lay-offs, many Métis and First Nations people in the northwest earned their livings from self-employment, supplying buffalo meat and pemmican to the HBC and the region’s early agricultural settlers. Many former fur trade employees became independent traders themselves; some started businesses as freight haulers, while others took up farming. This trend continued as the fur trade waned in importance over the mid-decades of the 19th century.
The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which began in the early 1880s, saw a new wave of wage earners appear on the Canadian prairies. A small army of men and hundreds of horses and mules were required to build the roadbed and lay the tracks for the new railroad. Approximately 7,600 men were employed in the construction of the CPR from central Canada to the Pacific coast; about of third of that number worked on the construction of the prairie section. Many of the men who came to work on the construction of the CPR had been employed on other railway projects. They often referred to themselves as boomers who traveled from one railway construction boom to another; their employers called them navvies. They were of mixed ethnicity, many just recent immigrants to Canada or the USA: the legendary “giant Swedes,” who handled railway ties as though they were toothpicks, as well as Italians, Irishmen, Germans, British and Canadians; and the Chinese “coolies,” who worked on the Pacific section of the project but did not participate in the work on the prairie portion of the line.
This work was physically demanding: ten-hour days were the norm, but twelve and even fourteen-hour days were not unheard of. Accommodations were Spartan: the men slept in crowded, airless, three-storey dormitory cars or tents. The quality of meals varied depending on the sub-contractor providing them; it was understood, however, that boomers simply would not work if they were not adequately fed. Wages compared well with those paid in the settled regions of the North America: the pay rates ranged from $1.25 to $2.50 per day, putting a higher-paid navvy in the same income range as a skilled carpenter in the east. The biggest cause for dissent among the boomers was the Company’s frequent inability to pay wages on time.
Like the voyageurs before them, the navvies developed their own unique working culture; they were proud of their physical prowess and skill at laying tracks. Sub- contractors facing completion deadlines no doubt appreciated the boomers’ penchant for wanting to set construction records. Men working on the CPR took pride in laying four or five miles of track in a single day, surpassing the efforts of boomers on other projects; the work was done with both strength and finesse, often in time with traditional working songs such as “drill ye terriers drill.” Labour disputes erupted during construction of the railroads when wages were late or pay cuts were threatened. A strike by construction crews occurred near Maple Creek in 1883; the boomers’ picket lines were broken by a contingent of North-West Mounted Police. In most of the strikes involving late wages, the boomers refused to return to work until their wages had been paid.
The men who operated the trains on the completed railway belonged to the running trades: skilled engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors. The running trade’s workers on the prairies went on strike in 1883 over a wage cut. After losing in that first attempt, they increased their bargaining power by establishing locals of the US-based international railway unions: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the Order of Railway Conductors, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. The railway running trades brotherhoods were the first unions to appear in the territory that would become Saskatchewan. The unionized railroaders were in a much stronger position in 1892, when the CPR again attempted to implement a wage cut for workers on the prairie section of the line: the conductors and brakemen were able to defeat the company in a groundbreaking strike which saw the company recognize and bargain with their unions and provide raises as opposed to wage cuts.
The completion of the CPR provided the transportation required for thousands of agricultural settlers to come west and take up homesteads: the population of the region that became Saskatchewan jumped from 91,279 in 1901 to 647,835 in 1916. Not everyone who came west had homesteading in mind: the region’s new agricultural economy would require an infrastructure of railway branch lines, grain elevators, and towns and cities with repair shops, retail stores, warehouses, schools, hospitals and offices for clerks, realtors, insurance agents and lawyers. Skilled trades people and labourers working for wages were required to meet these needs. During the settlement boom, which lasted roughly from 1900 to 1913, many workers came west to take advantage of plentiful job opportunities and of wages that were typically higher than what could be earned in central Canada. For example, a carpenter in Regina in 1911 could earn up to 63.75¢ an hour while his counterpart in Toronto could expect to earn 52.5¢ an hour. However, the cost of living in the growing west was higher than it was in the settled parts of the country, and at times cancelled out any real advantage.
Skilled workers and labourers were in high demand during the settlement boom. Workers in this sector included carpenters, masons, bricklayers, plasterers, painters, plumbers, and electricians as well as ordinary labourers. The ranks of the skilled trades were made up primarily of recent British immigrants or Canadians of British ancestry; labourers were a mixed group of British, Germans, and Eastern Europeans. The building trades workers, like the railway running trades before, brought their union organizations with them to the west. Most were members of craft unions, which promoted united worker efforts to encourage employers to bargain collectively with their employees, maintained apprenticeship systems for training new entrants to the various trades, and provided their members with a variety of benefit schemes and insurance plans, covering for instance funerals and emergency loans.
The province’s new cities soon had labour temples, later called union halls, which hosted union meetings, libraries, lectures, and social events. The boom time unions held picnics, sporting events, and Labour Day parades complete with floats, bands and uniformed marching workers. Trades and Labour Councils, made up of representatives from the cities’ various unions, were established in the larger centres; along with their union affiliates, they belonged to the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, which had been established in Toronto in 1883 as a national voice for labour. Moose Jaw became home to the province’s first labour council in 1906, and was soon followed by other centres. The unionized building trades had the practice of collective bargaining well established in the province’s urban centres prior to the outbreak of World War I. Contract disputes with the employers’ organizations, known as “Builder’s Exchanges,” occasionally resulted in strikes, but for the most part labour relations were fairly amicable. The construction sector was booming, with profit levels that allowed for steady increases in wages. Despite seemingly good wage rates, workers in the building trades were subject to lengthy periods of lay-off and down-time due to the seasonal nature of construction work on the prairies: they could expect four to five months a year when weather conditions did not permit outdoor construction. At the time, an average family could aspire to owning a home and living comfortably on an annual income of $1,200. In 1912, a skilled bricklayer making around $143 per month would have been in reasonable financial shape if it were not for the winter months, when there was little if any work.
The province’s new unions received a warm welcome from Saskatchewan’s first Premier, Walter Scott. Prior to entering politics, Scott had been a unionized printer in Winnipeg; while owner of the Regina Leader and the Moose Jaw Times, Scott became one of the first employers in the province to engage in collective bargaining with his workers, who were members of the International Typographical Union. He was probably the first employer in Saskatchewan to recognize the eight-hour day, which was put in place at his newspapers by 1906. Scott won the support of organized labour when he insisted that the province’s new Legislative Building be constructed under the provisions of a Fair Wage Clause included in the builder’s contract. This clause ensured that local union wage rates would apply to work on the provincial government’s first mega-project; he appointed one of the province’s early labour leaders, Tom Molloy, as Fair Wage Commissioner, to ensure that the contractor met the conditions of the clause. Scott also introduced the province’s first occupational health and safety rules, and established a modest workmen’s compensation program.
Construction labourers and workers in the province’s small but growing mining industry fared much worse than skilled workers, even in the midst of boom time conditions. Workers on projects such as sewer and waterline construction in Regina and Saskatoon earned as little as 17.5¢ per hour while working under hazardous conditions; a regular work day was ten hours, and Sundays were the only days off. Miners in the coal fields of southeastern Saskatchewan generally earned higher wages than construction labourers, but working conditions underground were no better than those in a sewer line trench: during peak seasons, miners would be required to work 14-hour days, six days a week; they had the rent for small uninsulated company-owned shanties deducted from their pay, and were forced to shop at company stores with inflated prices. Urban day labourers gravitated to what housing they could afford. Regina’s working class ghetto at the time was known as German Town—even though the majority of residents in the area were Eastern European, not German. Houses in the slum area were typically three-room shacks; they were all jammed together on 25-foot lots; very few of them had either sewer or water service; and there was no regular garbage pickup. Not surprisingly, the residents of German Town experienced a far higher rate of communicable diseases than people in more affluent parts of the city.
Out-of-town work usually required contractors to supply bunkhouse accommodation. Bunkhouses were generally overcrowded and poorly ventilated; the straw-filled mattresses and blankets were often ridden with bed bugs; and there was frequently nowhere to bathe or shower. On some jobs, room and board came “found,” meaning free and on top of wages; in other instances, room and board were deducted from a worker’s pay. Workers were typically paid in cash every Saturday, which proved a weekly bonanza for bar owners in the province. The forces of temperance including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaigned for prohibition, deploring the fact that some families went hungry because Saturday’s pay packet was squandered at the bar before the worker made it home. The battle for the prohibition of the sale of alcohol in the province was won in 1917, following the awarding of the electoral franchise to women in 1916; the taps would stay turned off until 1925.
The settlement boom and the frenzied business speculation that accompanied it sputtered out by the time World War I began in 1914. With most of the good land taken up by homesteaders and further immigration stalled by the disruptions produced by the war, the Saskatchewan boom was over. Work dried up for the construction trades, and railway branch line construction came to a virtual halt. Unemployment rates initially soared, even though thousands of working-age men from the province had signed up for military service. The British-dominated building trades unions had a tough time sustaining even skeleton organizations during the war, as some lost over 75% of their membership to service in the military. Saskatchewan lacked the heavy industries that produced jobs through war-related production in other regions of Canada. Once it became clear that the war would be a long one, more workers left the province to seek jobs elsewhere, reducing the need for municipalities to provide relief work to the unemployed. Coal production in the province increased during the war; however, wartime labour laws stood in the way of miners who tried to organize unions to improve their wages and working conditions. Agriculture fared well during and immediately after the War: grain prices rose steadily, reaching record levels by 1919. Hired men were hard to come by during the war, and at peak times farm workers could earn wages that compared favourably with those of urban labourers.
Women formed a low-paid minority of the labour force during the early decades of the 20th century. The traditional values of the time viewed motherhood and homemaking as the appropriate roles of women: indeed, when women had to take jobs it was seen as a sign of societal failure, or a dire necessity in the case of widows or women whose husbands were unemployed. Young women were considered eligible to perform wage labour in order to support a poor family or to earn pin money until such time as they found a husband and left both their parents’ homes and the workforce. With limited knowledge or means of birth control, larger families were the norm, and working-class women of childbearing age typically had enough on their hands to make paid work something they sought only out of serious economic necessity. The reality was that many women needed to work. Many young women of limited means left the Dickensian poverty of the industrialized cities of Canada, Britain, and Europe to take low-paid work as domestic servants on the prairies. Affluent rural and urban families paid very little for the services of girls who worked unlimited hours with few days off. The province’s first Minimum Wage Act, passed in 1919, applied only to female workers: it excluded domestic servants, even though these accounted for most of the women working at the time.
Secretarial work, retail store clerking, waitressing, teaching, nursing, and the new trade of telephone operator followed domestic service as the job categories containing the most women. The established craft unions of the day were somewhat slow to respond to the plight of female workers: they offered little more than a few words of encouragement when waitresses at Regina’s Balmoral Café staged the first women’s strike in Saskatchewan in 1918 to increase their wages of $5 a week, to reduce their work day from fifteen hours to ten, and to have at least one day off per week. While the Regina labour council did put the waitresses in touch with the appropriate craft union to assist them, it failed to employ the sort of boycott and picketing support the waitresses needed to succeed. When the province’s mostly female telephone operators went on strike in 1918, they did so under the leadership of an organizer from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The strike was poorly managed: staged in the midst of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, it lacked public support and ended in a defeat for the workers. With Walter Scott now retired, the new leadership of the Liberal government was less sympathetic to labour and not prepared to grant concessions to workers in the government-owned telephone exchanges.
Teaching was another occupational category with a significant level of female participation. The numbers of women in the profession grew during World War I as male teachers left their jobs for military service. Many of the province’s 5,000-plus teachers were members of the teachers’ alliance by the end of the war. Wages for teachers were low compared to those for skilled tradesmen at the time, but there were other important issues facing teachers as well: these included the right to bargain collectively with their school boards, and the frustrations of a highly decentralized school system that placed teachers under the control of trustees who had little background in education.
During the first four decades of the 20th century, nurses in the province worked within a system that combined the virtues of selfless service of a Florence Nightingale with British military discipline. It was not until World War II produced a nursing shortage that nurses were allowed to continue working after they were married. Student nurses were among the most exploited workers in the province: they lived in hospital dormitories and worked countless hours for a meager allowance, under the direction of matrons who governed virtually every aspect of their lives. It took until the early 1970s, when nurses finally organized themselves into an effective union, that the last vestiges of the old authoritarian hospital workplace were overcome.
At the end of World War I, Canadian workers were anxious to catch up after four years of stagnant wartime wages. Working people across Canada believed they had paid a higher price during the war than the business community: working men, farmers, and their sons made up the largest proportion of the volunteers who actually fought the war. Working people believed their sons bled while many of the country’s business owners made windfall profits from war-related contracts. Workers’ wages had been held down by wartime controls and laws which prevented strikes in war-related industries. Adding further to workers’ concerns, returning service men and the shutdown of war-related industries produced a surge in unemployment. Many non-British immigrant workers and farmers suffered the indignity of losing the right to vote during the war. Immigrants of German ancestry were prevented from joining the Canadian military; union activists of foreign birth could find themselves deported or thrown into internment camps where alleged “enemy aliens” were held during the war. The government seemed confused about the geography of Europe: somehow determining that thousands of Ukrainians were a potentially dangerous alien force, they had them interned—even though the Ukraine was part of Russia and the Russians were among Canada’s allies for most of the war. Non-British immigrant workers, who formed about half the workforce in the coalfields of western Canada, had plenty of reasons to call for major changes in the way the country was run in the post-war period.
Post-war tensions erupted in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the spring of 1919. On May 15, workers in the building trades and industrial plants began a general strike in which thousands of workers from most occupations walked out in support of wage and other contract demands. The Winnipeg General Strike occurred in conjunction with the rise of a small but vigorous labour movement in western Canada, known as syndicalism. The syndicalists argued that labour should be organized on a broader industry-wide basis than the system of individual craft unions that constituted the mainstream of the labour movement: for example, an industrial union for a railway shop should include all workers regardless of their craft. This ran contrary to the craft union model, which saw workers in a railway shop belonging to a variety of different unions—possibly one for the mechanics, one for the machinists, and another union for the maintenance staff. The syndicalists thus promoted the idea of One Big Union (OBU) that would someday be able to counter the power of business and government to advance the cause of labour. Supporters of the OBU were a small but vigorous minority among the strikers in Winnipeg; the majority of strikers were more concerned with traditional bread-and-butter craft union issues, such as improved wages and working conditions, than they were with starting a revolutionary union movement.
Events in Manitoba had implications in neighbouring Saskatchewan. This province’s labour movement contained a small but vocal minority of OBU supporters. It also had a lot of trade unionists who were anxious to see improvements in wages and working conditions after all the sacrifices made during the war. Brief strikes in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike occurred throughout the province. The largest walkout occurred in Saskatoon and lasted over a week. In Regina, the labour council was divided over whether to stage a sympathy strike; the divisions over the issue became severe and resulted in the resignation of most of the Regina labour council’s executive (those who supported the OBU). The Moose Jaw Labour Council sent a delegation to Winnipeg to investigate prior to launching its own general strike; the delegation returned convinced that OBU supporters were playing too large and too troubling a role in the Winnipeg strike, and the Labour Council chose not to stage a general sympathy strike in Moose Jaw, leaving the decision to each separate local.
The Winnipeg General Strike was put down violently by mounted police on June 21, 1919; two citizens were killed and a number were injured on what some would call Bloody Saturday. In the wake of Bloody Saturday, union leaders including Methodist preacher and future leader of the CCF, J.S. Woodsworth, as well as some supporters of the OBU were arrested. In Saskatchewan the houses of OBU activists were raided by the RCMP and some literature was seized. OBU organizer Phillip Christophers was kidnapped by a gang of vigilantes that included a Saskatchewan Provincial Police officer, and driven out of the country to Noonan, North Dakota during an organizing drive in the Saskatchewan coal fields. But other than that bizarre incident, no OBU organizers are known to have been officially arrested in Saskatchewan. The One Big Union experienced a phase of rapid growth in 1919, but suffered from an equally rapid decline. Organized labour in Saskatchewan would rely almost exclusively on traditional craft unionism for the coming decade of the 1920s.
There was little for working people to roar about during the 1920s. Saskatchewan’s business community and the province’s labour movement eagerly anticipated a return to pre-war prosperity, but wishing didn’t make it so: the provincial economy never matched the settlement boom growth for the next two decades. The building of new railway branch lines to service new farming communities had become an enterprise of the past. New building construction also lagged well behind pre-war levels for most of the decade: with the exception of a few flurries of construction activity like the one in 1928, the hopes of the building trades workers and contractors were never fully realized in the 1920s.
In the agricultural sector the high grain prices obtained during the war disappeared following the dismantling of the wartime orderly marketing system. However, crops were generally good, and despite the labour-saving new machinery coming onto the market, farmers still required a lot of hired labour, especially at harvest time. Railway-sponsored “Harvest Excursion Trains” annually hauled thousands of eastern and central Canadian men west during the 1920s to ensure that the harvest came off. The last major harvest excursions ran in 1928, when 24,000 workers came west to help with the crop; but by 1929 drought and low grain prices were taking their toll on the prairie economy, and fewer than 5,000 workers were required from the east.
There was some expansion in the kinds of employment available in Saskatchewan during the 1920s. Both wage earners and employers benefited from the growth in the added value manufacturing of agricultural products and natural resources that occurred during the decade. The province now had flour milling, meat packing, and oil refining industries. The service and manufacturing sectors were also expanding. The distributive systems required to supply and sustain agriculture continued to grow: the decade saw the expansion of businesses devoted to warehousing and to farm equipment sales and repair. Hopes for increased industrial production rose with a few new ventures like the General Motors assembly plant that was set up in Regina in 1927.
The stock market crash of October 1929 signaled an economic depression that affected the entire western industrialized world. The impacts of the Depression were deeply felt in Saskatchewan, where low agricultural commodity prices combined with drought to ruin the farm economy. Thousands of people were thrown out of work across North America with the collapse of markets and the slow-down in commercial activity.
Conditions in the drought-stricken rural areas of the province were desperate. Teachers in rural areas shared the hardships of the Depression along with their pupils: local school boards were often unable to collect the taxes required to pay teachers’ salaries. Many dedicated teachers, however, worked months on end without pay; by the late 1930s, the province’s teachers were owed over $2 million in back pay.
For those in Saskatchewan lucky enough to have work during the Depression, things could still be tough: the constant fear of job loss through lay-off or arbitrary dismissal weighed heavily on the employed. In the unionized building trades sector, formerly agreed-to schedules were often ignored by employers; those who complained would be made aware of the thousands of people who would be happy to take their jobs.
This was the situation in the coal fields of southeastern Saskatchewan at the outset of the Depression. Miners in the region had been subjected to harsh conditions for the past two decades, and were determined by 1931 to establish a union that could bargain for better terms with the coal mine operators. The miners voted overwhelmingly to join the Mine Workers Union of Canada (MWUC); the union was known to have Communist leaders, but miners supported it nonetheless. People like T.C. Douglas, an ordained minister from the nearby community of Weyburn, reasoned: “People shouldn’t give up on a good cause just because a few Communists support it.” The mine operators refused to negotiate with the new union local. On September 29, 1931, the miners and their families staged a car cavalcade in Estevan to publicize their demands. The car parade turned into a riot; many people were injured, and police bullets killed three of the protesters: Julian Gryshko, Nick Nargan, and Peter Markunas. The MWUC effort was defeated and a number of strike leaders were arrested, deported, or blacklisted. It would take until 1944 for the miners to win recognition by the mine bosses for their union.
Emergency relief for unemployed workers and poverty-stricken farmers in Saskatchewan was supposed to be provided by the municipalities, but local governments lacked the resources to cope with the magnitude of the crisis in the 1930s. The province was also cash-strapped, and appealed to the federal government for assistance. Ottawa’s half-hearted response did little to solve the problem: modest relief measures were put in place for families, but single young males were denied relief and expected to find work even though there was seldom any to be found. Thousands of unemployed single young men became transient job seekers, hitching rides on freight trains and traveling across the country looking for jobs that did not exist. Alarmed by these thousands of potentially angry young men, the federal government established a system of relief work camps for single men; these camps, located in remote regions of the country, were operated by the Department of National Defense. To enforce attendance at the camps, municipal authorities were encouraged to deny even the assistance of soup kitchens to young men in the cities: if they wanted to stay warm and fed, the camps became about their only option. Conditions in the camps were bleak, and wages for working on government relief projects were only 20¢ a day. When inmates attempted to organize themselves and present their complaints to authorities, their leaders would be kicked out and blacklisted at other camps.
The government’s unwillingness to improve these conditions led to a mass walkout of camp inmates in British Columbia in the spring of 1935. Under the leadership of the Relief Camp Workers Union the striking camp workers traveled to Vancouver, where they came up with the idea of taking their concerns to Prime Minister R.B. Bennett in person; they would hitch rides on freight trains and stage an On-to-Ottawa Trek. When the ranks of the Trekkers swelled to over 1,500, the Prime Minister decided to put an end to it long before it reached Ottawa; Regina was selected as the place to stop the protest and force the men to return to the camps. The efforts of police to arrest Trek leaders as a first step in stamping out the protest resulted in the Regina Riot of July 1, 1935. Following the riot, the government softened its stance somewhat, allowing the men to return to camps of their own choosing as opposed to a specially built internment camp at Lumsden, Saskatchewan. Within a year Prime Minister Bennett was out of office, and the new Liberal government abolished the relief camp system. (See also on-to-ottawa trek and the regina riot.)
By the late 1930s economic conditions were improving in many parts of Canada—but not in Saskatchewan, where agriculture remained plagued by drought and low prices. Nationally, though, the unemployment crisis was letting up a little prior to the start of World War II. The impacts of the Depression and of unforgettable events like the bloody strike in the coal fields and the Regina Riot convinced many Saskatchewan people that their society needed changing. This attitude was reflected by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a social democratic party that advocated a major restructuring of society in support of the interests of farmers and working people. The CCF comprised strong proponents of social measures long advocated by the nation’s labour movement, including unemployment insurance, old age pensions, state-funded health insurance, and legislation guaranteeing trade union rights. By the close of the Depression the CCF was the official opposition in Saskatchewan.
Canada’s entry into World War II solved the country’s unemployment problem as thousands of young men and women signed up for service overseas and industry began hiring to meet the demand for war-related production. Grain prices did not return to World War I levels during this war, but demand for dairy and meat products increased: the province’s meat and dairy processing industries expanded, producing hundreds of new jobs in what would become thoroughly unionized sectors of the economy. As had been the case in World War I, Saskatchewan continued to lack the manufacturing industries that were producing record levels of new jobs in other parts of Canada. There were exceptions, though, such as the former General Motors Assembly plant in Regina, which was turned over entirely to armament production. The war effort had virtually eliminated the pool of unemployed men in the province, so the Regina plant did what other manufacturers across Canada were doing at the time and hired hundreds of female workers in addition to males to operate the plant. Wartime propaganda praised the role of women working in industrial plants, proclaiming the virtues of “Rosie the riveter.”
In 1944, the year before the war ended, the CCF led by T.C. Douglas formed the government in Saskatchewan. One of the first actions of the new government was to enact some of the most progressive labour legislation in North America. The union movement; especially the aggressive new industrial unionists who belonged to the Canadian Congress of Labour, took full advantage of the new Trade Union Act to increase union membership in the province by over 100% between 1944 and 1956.
Women had entered the workforce in growing numbers during the war. More women were employed in government offices and as teachers, as well as in a host of other occupations, filling places left by men who went overseas. The nursing profession relaxed rules on married women working as nurses, in part because so many nurses had gone overseas in support of the troops.
At the end of the war many feared there would be a severe recession and a return to high unemployment. But this was not the case. In Saskatchewan the economy grew, and so did new job opportunities. The war effort had demonstrated that well-considered government spending could act as an economic stimulant that would not throw the financial system into complete disorder. The CCF government invested public money in the expansion of the province’s electrical grid into rural areas, in the construction of new roads and highways, and in new Crown-owned enterprises such as the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office (SGIO), creating hundreds of new jobs in the process. The expansion of government services into new areas of health care and social welfare also contributed to the expansion of the public sector workforce. New government employees enjoyed the benefit of unions since the Douglas government was the first in Canada to allow its employees to unionize. The post-war period was one of steady improvement in the lives of most of the province’s working people. Jobs were now relatively easy to come by; by the early 1960s most working families could plan to own their own home and car; and virtually everyone had a television set. The CCF’s new minimum wage and minimum standards of work legislation, combined with the advances won by unionized workers through bargaining, made work life better and living standards higher for most working families. Minimum labour standards now provided every worker in the province with annual paid vacations; the standard legal work week was reduced from 48 to 44 hours, allowing virtually all employees to have two days off per week.
The crowning achievement of the CCF government was the introduction of universal free medical care in 1962; this measure constituted one of the greatest advances made by a government in the interests of ordinary people anywhere in North America. The effort to create medicare provoked deep political divisions in the province. The labour movement became the CCF government’s most stalwart ally through the demonstrations and the doctor’s strike that accompanied the creation of medicare. Walter Smishek, a prominent Saskatchewan union official, represented labour on the committee that designed the basic framework of medicare and co-coordinated union support during the turbulent months of debate and protest. Bill Davies, long-time executive xecretary of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, was the CCF Minister of Health who implemented the medicare plan. Working people, like other groups in society, benefited greatly from free access to health care: they were understandably relieved to be free from onerous health insurance premiums and the threat of financial ruin in the event of serious illness.
The union movement experienced growth on many fronts during the post-war period. By the early 1970s Saskatchewan’s workforce was one of the most unionized in the country, with over 20% of workers belonging to unions. Greater labour unity was achieved in 1956 when the unions from the craft-based Trades and Labour Congress merged with the industrial unions of the Canadian Congress of Labour to form the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), which would play a leading role in 1961 in the formation of the New Democratic Party. Mergers between unions would become a trend during the 1970s and beyond. In many cases unions merged to counter the growing power of the multi-national corporations they bargained with. Mergers also occurred because the unions involved appreciated the cost advantages and other organizational efficiencies that are available through greater economies of scale. For example, as the meat packing industry consolidated during the 1960s and 1970, unions in that sector consolidated as well. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union was created through the merging of a number of food industry unions over the course of the 1960s and 1970s; the UFCW now represents workers in meat-packing plants as well as in many of the retail stores that sell the meat.
Technological change became a growing threat to workers’ jobs and the survival of their unions following World War II. For example, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was wiped out by the adoption of the diesel locomotive by the railways. Saskatchewan’s clay sewer pipe and brick plant workers saw the ranks of their union shrink as fiberglass pipe came onto the market in the 1960s; to ensure strong union representation, the clay brick and pipe makers folded their original union into the larger and more powerful United Steel Workers of America. Unions have bargained incessantly to protect workers from job loss due to technological change; these efforts have won for many workers the right to be advised well in advance of any planned technological changes that might threaten jobs, as well as opportunities for displaced workers to retrain for other work in their bargaining unit.
Growing Canadian nationalism in the 1970s was an important force behind the creation of many new independent unions. The Saskatchewan section of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was one of the first unions in Canada to break away from its US-based international union—although this decision had as much to do with the indifference of the American head office to the wishes of its affiliates as it had to do with nationalism. What had been a radical move by the RWDSU in the 1970s became acceptable practice in the 1980s when Bob White led the Canadian Auto Workers out of their US-affiliated international union.
Saskatchewan’s working people enjoyed their highest levels of disposable income and greatest access to employment opportunities during the 1970s. The foundations for this period of relative prosperity had been laid by CCF governments from 1944 to 1964 through the creation of a number of Crown agencies in the utilities, resource and insurance sectors, and through the development of the province’s infrastructure of highways, power and telephone grids. In combination with the private sector, the government had encouraged the construction of the province’s first steel mill and a number of forest product processing companies. The Liberal government of Ross Thatcher added to the province’s economic potential by encouraging the development of its potash industry. The NDP government of Allan Blakeney, first elected in 1971, made a number of important reforms to the province’s labour legislation; this was required since much of the labour-friendly legislation enacted by the Douglas government in the 1940s and 1950s had been dismantled by the Thatcher government. Thatcher’s actions were reversed by the NDP within months of their taking office; the NDP also made improvements to the workers compensation system.
In its first term, the Blakeney government enacted some of the most advanced Occupational Health and Safety legislation in North America. Saskatchewan had a long and disturbing record as one of the Canadian provinces with the greatest proportion of workplace injuries and deaths. The new legislation was developed to reverse this trend. The right of workers to refuse unsafe work without fear of employer reprisals was one of the key features of the new Act, which had been developed in consultation with the province’s federation of labour. The NDP also embarked on a series of initiatives that saw it take ownership control of major parts of the potash, uranium, and oil and gas industries. These moves were intended to increase resource revenues to the province, to ensure that head office jobs remained in Saskatchewan, and also to create a better work environment in the resource industries. Unions were encouraged to participate in management decisions that affected worker welfare and safety, and nominees from the labour movement were placed on the boards of Crown corporations.
Progress in improving wages and working conditions was made across a wide front of occupational categories. Non-nursing staff in the province’s hospitals had been among the province’s lowest paid workers until the 1970s, with wage rates barely above minimum wage. The unions for these workers succeeded in convincing the government to implement province-wide bargaining for health care employees. Under province-wide bargaining the health care unions were able to bargain huge wage increases for rural hospital workers, whose wages had lagged far behind their urban counterparts for decades.
By the mid-1970s double-digit inflation was viewed by governments and most other observers as the most critical problem facing Canadians. Government and the business lobby laid much of the blame for inflation on high wage settlements won by unionized workers. Labour argued that interest rates, corporate profit taking, and runaway energy costs were as much to blame for inflation as unions. In addition, with most organized workers locked into two- and three-year collective agreements, by the time negotiations on a new contract came around, workers’ purchasing power had been substantially eroded by increases in the cost of living. Workers demanding 10-20% wage increases were often only trying to catch up for losses over the term of their previous agreement and to protect themselves against future inflation. Many collective agreements at the time had COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) clauses built into them as another way to safeguard workers’ purchasing power over the course of their collective agreements.
Federal politicians debated the wisdom of implementing nationwide wage and price controls during the 1974 federal election campaign. The Conservatives argued in favour of controls; Pierre Trudeau argued against them, claiming that prices could never be held down and only wages could be controlled. Trudeau won the election, then changed his mind and implemented wage and price controls in October 1975. In Saskatchewan, the NDP took advantage of a provision in the federal controls program that allowed provinces to set up their own wage and price control system; the provincial program would apply primarily to public sector workers. The NDP government argued that it would run its program with a lighter rein than the federal government. Saskatchewan’s labour movement, especially the civil servants, opposed the measure; major labour demonstrations, including the nationwide Day of Protest of October 14, 1976 (Canada’s largest strike), were held to protest controls and the policies of the NDP provincial government.
Wage controls, combined with the NDP government’s imposition of back-to-work legislation on striking SaskPower workers, dairy workers, and hospital employees, created rifts between the government and sections of the labour movement. While the NDP lacked some of its usual labour support going into the 1982 provincial election, its defeat at the hands of the Conservatives had more to do with high mortgage interest rates and gas prices than with labour issues.
The Progressive Conservative government led by Grant Devine dismantled much of the pro-worker legacy put in place by previous administrations. Labour legislation that was not changed often was not enforced, or was ignored. Building trades workers lost their ability to win and hold union certifications with contractors; the latter were allowed to “double breast,” that is to create a new non-union spin-off company to avoid collective agreements. Public sector workers lost jobs when the government privatized many government services and sold off its highway equipment. Occupational health and safety regulations were not enforced, and the minimum wage was rarely increased over the course of Devine’s nine years in office. Workers compensation benefits became more difficult for injured workers to collect. A whole range of other social programs that working people had come to rely on as part of Canada’s traditional social safety net were reduced by government cutbacks.
Working families lost ground during the Devine years. Federal and provincial government restraint programs that put caps on public sector wage increases became a pattern followed elsewhere in the economy. The unions, weakened by the erosion of labour legislation and pattern bargaining, became less capable of winning significant wage increases. While inflation was down from its double-digit heights in the 1970s, it was still around and producing small but steady increases in the cost of living; the purchasing power of workers’ incomes shrank in the 1980s and the 1990s, and is still shrinking today. By the 1980s, most families had two incomes. Women, who had entered the work force in growing numbers over the past four decades, would soon constitute 44% of the paid workforce. Many women worked to earn a greater degree of independence; some worked for the satisfaction that comes with employment; but most worked because families needed two incomes to make ends meet. Women in the labour movement encouraged their unions to support the principles of pay equity intended to eliminate the discrepancy between pay rates for men and women. Access to quality affordable daycare became another important cause for working women in the labour movement.
By 1986 the Conservatives had put the province heavily in debt with a series of consecutive deficit budgets. Not even the sale of income-generating Crown assets in potash mining, uranium mining, and forestry product manufacturing could pull the province out of deficit and debt.
The labour movement was hopeful that the defeat of the Devine government by the NDP in 1991 would mark a return to better times for working people and their unions. This, however, has not proven to be the case. The NDP of the 1990s did not echo the Blakeney government’s eagerness to reverse the regressive labour legislation of its predecessor, and it moved very slowly to reverse even those elements of Devine legislation that were most irritating to labour. It was not until 1994 that the Trade Union Act was revised, and even then not everything was returned to pre-Devine status. The NDP blamed the fiscal mess left by the Conservatives for its own inability to make more substantial improvements in the lives of working families. Also at play was the NDP’s new interest in having the business community on its side, assuming that any revised labour legislation had to be part of a broad consensus supported by employers.
The snail’s pace of labour law reform since 1991 has rekindled debates within the labour movement over whether the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and its affiliates should reconsider their automatic support of the NDP in provincial elections. The labour movement continues to await significant changes to labour laws in support of pay equity for women. Another early 21st century demand is the implementation of anti-scab legislation: already in place in Ontario and Quebec, anti-scab laws prevent employers from hiring professional strike breakers during labour disputes. Another current demand, referred to as “most available hours,” would provide existing part-time employees in workplaces like big box retail stores with the opportunity to take on any new hours of work that come available, so that they might turn their part-time jobs into full-time employment.
The province’s workforce is getting older: by the close of the 1990s the average Saskatchewan worker was 39.7 years old—the oldest average in Canada. The workforce is getting older because young people have been steadily leaving the province since the 1970s to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Most young people who enter the Saskatchewan workforce take low-paying part-time “Mcjobs” in fast food outlets and big box retail stores: this is because these are generally the only jobs available, and also because part-time work fits in well with an on-going post-secondary education. Unfortunately, once studies have been completed many graduates leave the province for brighter job markets. Employees in many of these workplaces lack the protection offered by a union. Unions are attempting to meet the challenge of bringing more young people into the ranks of labour by organizing workplaces like Wal-Mart and the fast food chains, where so many young people are working. Ongoing efforts by the labour movement in support of increases to the minimum wage and “most available hours” legislation are also intended to assist younger workers. The idea seems to be that if better jobs were available, more young people would remain in the province.
Another great challenge facing Saskatchewan is the need to make meaningful job opportunities available for the province’s young and growing Aboriginal population. The province’s labour movement has been supportive of employment equity legislation and of programs designed to provide a leg-up for Aboriginal people seeking employment. Unions like the United Steel Workers of America have been leaders in this regard: beginning in the 1970s, the Steel Workers included provisions in their collective agreements with uranium mining companies in Saskatchewan’s north that allocate a proportion of the jobs available to Aboriginal northerners.
Saskatchewan’s paid labour force has fluctuated in size between 400,000 and 450,000 workers over the past two decades. It is clearly the largest occupational sector in the province, far larger than the self-employment and farming sectors. Saskatchewan’s wage earners, by far, pay most of the taxes in the province. Women now make up around 45% of the paid work force, and their role in institutions like the labour movement is becoming increasingly influential. Approximately 20% of the people currently working for wages in the province belong to unions and are generally the highest paid workers with the best benefits in the workforce. Questions are currently being asked as to whether growth in union membership has stalled, and whether the unions’ past level of influence on public policy will re-emerge in the near future. Whether unions experience a surge in growth or not, the aspirations of working people and their families will clearly play a leading role in the future direction of Saskatchewan society in the 21st century.