Wellness, Culture and Sport

Feature article #4 / Heritage Week 2009 (09/02/12)

NB 150

Feb. 12, 2009

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the fourth in a series of five feature articles prepared for Heritage Week, Feb. 9 - 13, 2009. This article was prepared by David Frank. For more information on Heritage Week activities throughout the province, visit the Heritage Week 2009 website.

Founded in Moncton, 1908

The Canadian Brotherhood of Railroad Employees

It's one of the lesser-known facts in Canadian labour history - Moncton, in 1908, was the birthplace of one of Canada's major unions.

In Canadian transportation history, Moncton is often remembered as the headquarters of the Intercolonial Railway, later part of the Canadian National Railway. Completed in 1876, it was the key transportation route from Halifax to Levis, Que., that linked the Maritimes to Central Canada in the years after Confederation. Not so well known is the fact that workers on the Intercolonial Railway were responsible for starting one of the largest and most influential unions in Canadian labour history.

It happened in Moncton on Oct. 11, 1908, when a group of 20 men, 10 of them New Brunswickers from the railway operations at Moncton, Saint John and Campbellton, assembled in an upstairs room on Main Street. Frank Smith, who worked in the Moncton freight sheds, presided at this event, at which those in attendance decided to form the Canadian Brotherhood of Railroad Employees (CBRE). The early members of this union were freighthandlers, roundhouse labourers, station clerks and other workers who were among the most overlooked employees in the railway system. Their wages were as low as 10 to 15 cents an hour, and they worked 10 and 12 hours a day, six days a week.

For such workers, the CBRE was an idea whose time had come, and within a few months the union had more than 1,000 members. In December 1909, more than a year after its founding meeting, the CBRE signed its first agreement with the Intercolonial Railway. The union's record of winning better wages and improved conditions soon attracted workers on other railway lines. By 1918, the CBRE members included more than 10,000 workers in almost 100 locals from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

In the 1920s, the CBRE was the third-largest union in Canada and had moved its headquarters to Ottawa. The long-time union president, A. R. Mosher, became one of the most recognized labour leaders in Canada. To this date, he is still the only Canadian labour leader to appear on a postage stamp, issued in 1981 on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

In the course of the 20th century, the CBRE continued to make history. It was one of the first unions in Canada to abolish racial restrictions on membership, opening the door for black sleeping car porters to join. In the 1930s, the CBRE was one of the only unions in Canada to support the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner of the New Democratic Party.

The CBRE often advocated the idea of all-Canadian unions in the belief that Canadian unions would be more effective than international unions based in the United States. The CBRE also promoted industrial unionism, the principle that workers in one industry should belong to the same union, regardless of their individual occupation or skill. As transportation technologies changed during the course of the century, the CBRE responded to the needs of workers on steamships and airlines. In 1958, the union changed its official name to the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers. The last stage in the union's evolution took place in 1994, when it merged with one of the biggest industrial unions in the country, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). Although railway workers are less numerous today, many of the ideals championed by the old brotherhood have been widely accepted.

Meanwhile, the CBRE is still remembered. When the CAW met for its 2008 convention in Toronto, the proceedings included a tribute to the centenary of one of the most influential labour unions in Canadian history.

For more information on the history of unions and workers in New Brunswick, visit the New Brunswick Labour History Project, www.lhtnb.ca.


MEDIA CONTACT: Danielle McFarlane, communications, Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport, 506-457-6445.