Electrifying Toronto Since 1903
Local 353 received its charter on February 2, 1903, 12-years after the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers held its first convention in 1891. This coincided with Pope Leo XIII Papal’s letter – the Encyclical Rerum Novarum – Defending the dignity of labour.
When Local 353 received its charter the IBEW was experiencing grave difficulties that affected its survival in spite of the electrification of society. While electrical workers accepted the union, the price paid often meant immediate dismissal. From its founding, Local 353 was active in the Trades and Labour Council of Toronto, which was and remains a conduit for union political activists.
From 1903-12, there were growing pains, and Local 353 delegates representing electrical workers would frequently use the Labour Council as a forum for local union issues (e.g., strike when Canadian General Electric had non-workers on site.)
Another concern for trade unionists was immigration and the exploitation of new immigrants as cheap labour. The Labour Council was a political voice for labour at City Council and the Ontario Government. A role it has continued. The infrastructure for electricity generation was in its infancy, and Local 353 was championing who will own it, and how will it be built. The most important consideration was whether power should be continuous 24 hours a day.
After WW1, there was a split in the IBEW regarding Canadian autonomy. In 1920, the bulk of the IBEW opted to join an all-Canadian Electrical Trade Union. Some members resented intrusion by Samuel Gompers who promoted conscription. In the end all but 30 members left Local 353. The split was encouraged by the electrical industry and for good reason. By April 1921, wages had dropped 71/2 cents per hour.
In 1926, the Trades and Labour Council was part of a membership campaign to unite the Licensed Journeyman’s Association (ILA) and Local 353 who were split over licensing, certification, and wages. The division was a detriment to both. The organizing campaign worked, and Local 353 brought in new members.
Local 353 rebuilt from 1923-1932 as Toronto’s population grew to 600,000. Local 353 targeted new members working for Toronto Hydro, Bell Telephone, and the Toronto Transport Commission (TTC) and members have worked on every major private and public construction project that defined Toronto’s skyline.
In 1931, 75% of the membership was unemployed as the depression set-in. One interesting project during Business Manager Frank Selke’s leadership was Maple Leaf Gardens, scheduled for construction on College Street, half a mile from the Labour Temple where Local 353 held its meeting and had its office. One wonders whether Selke had any influence on the construction of the Gardens. Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smyth made a deal to use only union labour for the project as long as they would take 20 per cent of their pay in Gardens stock. Local 353s union office was in Maple Leaf Gardens for many years.
Prosperity and Unity – Local 353 saw substantial growth in membership in the 1960s, with the signing of non-raiding pacts within the AFL and CIO, and between the TLC and the CCL in Canada.
However, by the early 1990s a downturn in construction resulted in 40% of the membership being unemployed. For the first time, Local 353 had a foodbank in the union hall. Under the progressive leadership of Joe Fashion, unemployed members were kept on the union benefit plan. Through excellent training in new technologies delivered at union training centers, IBEW contractors are the right choice for infrastructure projects, like digital hospitals, where Local 353 member skills are in-demand.
Another signature initiative was the creation of a member funded Market Recovery Program to gain market share lost to non-union contractors. By supplying funding to union contractors, Local 353 forced non-union contractors to bid even lower decreasing their profits. To remain in the market place non-union contractors were forced to become unionized.
Local 353 also launched an aggressive organizing program to complement the Market Recovery Program. In 1997, 90% of the low rise residential electrical contractors were organized, while hundreds of new electricians joined the IBEW and received significant wage increases over the years, contributed to a defined benefit pension plan, health and welfare benefits, RSP, plus access to training and employment in the High-Rise Residential (condo’s) and ICI sectors
For over 100 years, Local 353 has been part of every major political struggle facing workers, including passage of the Canada Health Act. In the late 1960s, Wally Majesky rose from the Local 353 bully pulpit and became a force in the Labour Council along with other Local 353 activists. Their commitment to the NDP and support for labour, community and progressive causes were a natural fit for their brand of activism. In 1974, Majesky became the Labour Council Projects Director, then in 1980 the first full-time Labour Council President. Jeff Irons is the current Labour Council Treasurer and continues the Local 353 tradition.