While workers in Canada started organizing themselves into unions in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as early as 1812, the real boom took place in the 1860s and 70s. There was a new country being formed and a workforce that was becoming more urbanized as towns turned into cities. The first place a union begins is at the work site. While some trades could look to the United States and join an established union, they were still truly isolated from them and workers in other communities. The union was the “Local” and still is today.
One of the reasons workers were forming unions is they felt that it was time to end working ten or more hours a day, six days a week, for a 60-hour work week. Their goal was to gain the nine-hour workday. For that to happen it took joining together not only at the workplace to face the employer but also with other unions to address governments and call on them to act. It was not long before the workers realized that they would need to build a movement. They started to call other unionized workers together to share their goals, to talk common strategy, and to support each other. That is how the first “Trades Councils” were formed. Today, they are known as Labour Councils.
The first city to form a Labour Council was Toronto in 1871. Workers wanted to gain shorter hours and they knew that only by forming a united front in a union would they make those gains. But they had a problem; unions were illegal in Canada. When the Toronto Typographical Union demanded a nine-hour workday from the city’s publishers and walked off the job on March 25, 1872 they gained strong support from other workers. When 10,000 people gathered in a support rally, the employers would not have it. George Brown, publisher of the Globe newspaper, had the strike committee arrested for criminal conspiracy the next day.
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald – a long-time political foe of George Brown – jumped at the chance to embarrass him and win the support of the newly forming working class. He introduced the Trade Union Act on April 18, 1872, protecting union members from such arrests.
From the struggle for the nine-hour day and gaining the legal right to form unions, workers learnt early on that their successes would only come from being united. Today, in every major community, there is a Labour Council chartered by the Canadian Labour Congress. Each local union that joins is assigned delegates based on the size of their local. Together the delegates debate and plan actions that will support the broader goals of the labour movement. When workers are on strike, the Labour Council organizes support. When a local union is facing cutbacks in the public services members provide Canadians, they turn to their sisters and brothers in the other unions through the labour council. UCTE has often done this in many of our battles and campaigns.
While we set policies at national conventions, it is our locals that turn them into reality. It is in our communities that we elect political leaders at all levels. And that is where united in a Labour Council we work together to achieve our goals of social justice.
How is a PSAC Area Council and a Labour Council different?
Almost all large unions have some form of area or local structure to bring their locals together. Since the founding of the PSAC in 1966, there has been some form of area body. When a large union has many employers and competing demands, a area council brings together the various local unions to work together in developing understanding and mutual support. By gathering together members from different locals and components, we are able to engage with PSAC campaigns at a political level. Members come together to lobby their political representatives and raise awareness of issues affecting “all” our members. PSAC Area Councils work with their community partners; they build links with other labour groups like those in Labour Councils.
Education is a key building block of the Labour Movement. Labour Councils host training that brings members from different unions together to share their experiences and knowledge. While learning they also build solidarity. In the PSAC the Area Councils do that within the PSAC umbrella.
When a UCTE member takes part in a Labour Council meeting, or training, they are not only learning from others and their experiences but also teaching them about our union, our work, and struggles. In PSAC Area Councils, the same chemistries are at work – only this time it is fostering understanding and solidarity across different Components. With both Labour Councils and Area Councils, the goals are the same, “Educate, Agitate, and Organize!” all in the aim to better serve our members needs.