The Nine-Hour Movement
How civil disobedience made unions legal
Publisher: Rank and File
Date Written: 14/08/2013
Year Published: 2013
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21084
From todays strike-first strategy of fast food workers in America, to the 1965 postal workers wildcat which ushered in public sector collective bargaining, civil disobedience has long been essential to breaking through legal barriers imposed on workers. The birth of Canada's labour movement was during a movement of mass civil disobedience in attempt to secure the nine hour workday.
Unions grew and spread throughout British North America from the 1840s onward. They were, however, not legally recognized. Strikes were illegal, employers had no legal obligation to bargain collectively, and unionists could be arrested and charged for a range of crimes, including mischief, incitement to riot, conspiracy and sedition. Most unions were composed of skilled workmen who laboured in small workshops, often with only three or four employees. Larger workplaces with skilled workers included the shipbuilding, metalworking and railway industries. However, unskilled workers in these industries were not included in the union and often formed their own organizations. These early unions were often called "benevolent societies". They not only acted as unions, but pooled resources for basic necessities, including paying for doctors for its members.
Most unions were craft unions composed of skilled workers of a specific trade. A workplace with a carpenter, metalworker and general labourer could be represented by three different unions! Industrial unions -- covering all types of employees in a single workplace -- didn't exist yet.
Signing a union card was a pledge to one another to uphold democratically-agreed upon working conditions and wages. These demands would be presented to employers. If the demands were not met, then all hell could break loose. However, union organizing and strikes were illegal, making such demands (and threats) very risky and difficult to sustain. Instead of strikes, workers would often engage in other forms of protest, like slow-downs, sabotage or boycotts. Despite this, some employers did bargain with unions to avoid the costly effects of a strike and keep morale high.