This year – 2021 – marks the 150th anniversary of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council. For a century and a half working people have organized collectively in this place with a vision of economic and social justice. The learnings from this journey are more than just history. They can provide a guide for those working for a more just society today and tomorrow.
We are in the “Dish with One Spoon Territory,” a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee. Our story began on the land of Indigenous communities, and it has been forged by those who have come from around the world as immigrants or refugees to build Canada’s largest urban centre.
One hundred and fifty years ago a small group of workers came together to give life to an idea – the creation of a collective voice for working people in Toronto. On April 12th, 1871 the Toronto Trades Assembly was founded by representatives of the emerging economy – barrel-makers, shoemakers, printers, bakers, cigar-makers and metalworkers. They were soon joined by other occupations. It was a time of rising for workers across the world, from the nine-hour day movement to the Paris Commune.
Within a year the fledging labour movement in Toronto would be tested. Printers at the Globe newspaper went on strike and were jailed for criminal conspiracy. Ten thousand people took to the streets demanding the printers’ freedom and labour rights. The call for justice echoed throughout the country and the federal government passed the first Trade Unions Act.
Each new wave of immigrants discovered that in order to have a fair share of Canada’s prosperity they needed collective representation – a union voice to fight for dignity and living wages. And from the very beginning our unions adopted the principle that “What we wish for ourselves, we wish for all”.
From the early foundation of skilled trades the labour movement grew with the garment industry, metal and packinghouse workers, brewers and transit workers. In the 1940’s mass industrial organizing spread to Toronto’s electrical, rubber, appliance, chemical and paper plants as well as hotels and restaurants. In the 1960’s public sector workers gained the right to bargain and strike, followed by teachers and other professionals.
In the early decades the Labour Council built campaigns for employment standards, sanitary conditions, limitation of working hours; and prohibiting child labour. It also called for equal pay for women, one of the first advocates for equality in Canada. There was a sweeping program for municipal ownership of the street railway system, telephone services, power, gas and the fire brigade. It lobbied for public health measures, unemployment relief and a quality education system including technical training. Workers Compensation and a Fair Wage policy were early victories.
Labour led the fight for the right of working people to vote and run for office. In the early 1900’s there were passionate debates about socialism, war and peace, and a massive upsurge of militancy in the post-WW1 period. Labour started to elect candidates to school boards and city council, including Jimmy Simpson who eventually became the first labour Mayor of Toronto. The creation of the Toronto Hydro Electric System was championed by William Hubbard, the first African-Canadian City Councillor.
Labour led a plebiscite to create the publicly owned Toronto Transit Commission. These crucial achievements reflected the determination of labour to engage in “political bargaining” to win social gains. But women’s rights were denied, while in every aspect of society systemic racism and bigotry were deeply ingrained.
Women were part of the labour movement from the earliest years and in dramatic moments in Toronto labour history such as the 1907 Bell telephone strike and the 1912 Eaton workers strike. The number of women in the workplace changed significantly during the World Wars when women surged into the workforce in Toronto munitions’ factories.
The Great Depression took a heavy toll on jobs and incomes. Organizing among the unemployed took on a new urgency, as the demand for “Work or Wages” spread across the country. The Second World War spurred the economy and created a new upsurge of organizing. Canada finally brought in unemployment insurance and new labour laws, as tens of thousands joined unions and struggled for collective agreements in Toronto.
At the war’s end there was again a massive strike wave to secure union rights as well as better wages and working conditions. The lessons of the fight against fascism were deeply felt, and in 1947 the Toronto Joint Labour Committee for Human Rights was formed. It led a relentless campaign against racist practices by employers, landlords and businesses. This legacy is honoured through the Bromley Armstrong Award.
The long post-war economic boom led to an unprecedented level of prosperity for working families, the spread of the suburbs and expansion of unionization. But it also saw the cold war impact on the labour movement in a fierce struggle over politics. With the creation of the New Democratic Party, labour formally adopted a social democratic orientation. Across the country, it continued “political bargaining” to expand workplace gains like health plans and pensions into universal social programs. The Labour Council was a founding partner of the United Way, and unions widely supported charitable work.
But the booming economy also had a darker side. Unsafe work conditions plagued the factories and construction sites. New immigrants suffered exploitation and discrimination. In 1960 the Hogg’s Hollow tragedy sparked an uprising by the Italian community demanding a new deal in their adopted homeland. New safety and labour laws were won, and mass organizing swept across construction sites and industry. Discrimination was challenged in schools and institutions, including immigration policies. Little by little, a “new deal” was shaped for immigrants, and the demographics of Toronto changed. But discrimination continued to shape the reality of many Torontonians.
The turbulent 60’s and 70’s saw the rise of anti-racism struggles, health and safety activism, and a women’s movement that was deeply grounded in labour. The Labour Council Development Foundation was formed to create co-operative housing projects, and the partnership with United Way led to the creation of Labour Community Services. The Labour Education Centre started to offer extensive training on union issues as well as workplace adjustment. Teachers won bargaining rights, public sector workers won the right to strike, and in 1976 the country-wide Day of Protest hit against wage controls.
By the 1980’s the labour movement in Toronto was changing as industry shed jobs and public sector unionization increased. Women were moving into leadership of unions, workers of colour were organizing to challenge barriers, and the emerging gay rights movement found growing support. Global solidarity fused into the culture of Toronto labour. But business was transforming as well, and the signing of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement marked a decisive change. A third of all industrial jobs in greater Toronto were lost through plant closures, and employers went on the offensive demanding cuts and concessions.
The anger of working people set the stage for the historic election of the Ontario New Democratic Party in 1990. Its five-year term was marked by important achievements and heart-breaking disappointments including the Social Contract legislation. It broke ground with new labour law, Employment Equity and environmental policies, although those were repealed by the Harris Conservatives. The Harris “common sense revolution” attacked workers rights and ushered in tax cuts and privatization. The labour movement mobilized, building alliances and a powerful resistance movement that featured a full general strike in October 1996.
By the end of the decade the Conservatives forced a merger of six municipalities into a Toronto mega-city; merged the school boards; and downloaded massive costs. In York Region, the first major privatized transit service was established, setting the stage for future transit schemes across Ontario. In response unions committed themselves to a higher level of political action, defeating the Conservatives in every Toronto seat in 2003 as well as electing David Miller as Mayor.
The 21st century has posed many challenges to the labour movement. Governments have embraced austerity, employers are imposing two-tier wages, and tough strikes or lock-outs are more frequent. Precarious work seems to be the norm for the next generation. Labour Council worked with community allies on many issues – from stopping privatization of water and hydro, to raising the minimum wage, to demanding policies that support good jobs for all.
In response to the climate emergency, labour is calling for a just transition to a low-carbon future. There are new approaches to organizing and a focus on bringing a labour message to newcomer communities. Union structures are more reflective of the diversity of the overall population. Climate justice is being incorporated into labour’s analysis, along with an equity lens. And despite the hostility of employers, people seek out and form unions in every sector of the economy.
Labour has been deeply involved in the struggles for community safety, for racial equality, for public services and for an education system that gives every student what they need to succeed. We recognize the vital need to challenge systemic racism in every aspect of society. We have laid out a vision for an economy that is both sustainable and offers good jobs for all. And we are training a new generation of activists who will continue to lead these efforts in the decades to come.
Today the Labour Council represents over 220,000 women and men who work in every sector of the economy. Over the years Labour Council has broken ground on key issues, sometimes developing positions that were clearly ahead of the national labour movement. In the sweep of history working people in Toronto have been on a remarkable journey since 1871. Those who started 150 years ago laid a solid foundation for justice in Canada’s largest urban centre.
But what about young people entering the world of work today? Will they have decent jobs, with dignity and wages that can support a family? Will their children be able to breathe clean air and live in harmony with their neighbours? Or does each generation have to discover that people do need collective voice and a strong union movement – to win social, economic, racial and climate justice for years to come.