By Craig Heron
Getting hurt on the job in the nineteenth century was a double tragedy. First, you had to suffer the pain and the loss of income. And second, you had no legal way to get your boss to compensate you for putting you into a dangerous workplace. The courts said, under English common law, you had accepted the risk, including the risk from fellow workers who might screw up. Your boss was off the hook. He had no incentive to make his factory or shop safer.
Toronto’s first unionists were troubled by how many men, women, and children were injured every year on the job. In part, they said that shorter hours would lead to fewer accidents. Then they pricked up their ears when a Cornwall doctor, a backbench Conservative member of Parliament, introduced a series of bills in 1879-81 to regulate factories, especially to limit the employment of women and children.
To deflect that initiative, Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald set up a two-man commission of inquiry to investigate factory working conditions. In November 1881, the commissioners met with the Legislative Committee of the new Toronto Trades and Labor Council, formed only a few months earlier. The committee presented a set of recommendations for sanitation, protective measures for dangerous machinery, fire-escapes, the operation of steam boilers, the treatment of women and children, and the need for factory inspection to enforce these measures. On 2 December, one of the commissioners met with the whole Council and heard many dramatic accounts of factory hazards and serious accidents. A few months later the commissioners’ report presented a lot of evidence of how unsafe Canadian factories were. They recommended adopting legislation like what had been introduced in England and Massachusetts.
In April 1882, the federal government introduced a bill that would set limits on the employment of women and children and more generally on the safety and sanitation of workplaces for all workers. The Trades and Labor Council’s Legislative Committee declared that the bill was too weak, but manufacturers mobilized to get it stalled. The government then put it on hold. Labour was furious.
A year later the Council appointed its own committee to investigate factory conditions in Toronto. It painted a grim picture. When local labour leaders learned that manufacturers were in Ottawa trying to get the bill killed once and for all, the Council organized a labour delegation to travel to Ottawa and meet with Prime Minister Macdonald. He listened, and a new version of the bill with a strong role for factory inspectors followed soon after. A flurry of manufacturers’ lobbying got the bill weakened, especially putting more limits on the power of inspectors and exempting enterprises with fewer than twenty employees (a large number of industrial workplaces in those days). Later that year the brand-new Trades and Labor Congress of Canada passed a resolution demanding stronger legislation. The Toronto Council continued to lobby in Ottawa, but its requests for stronger provisions in the bill were ignored.