Jan. 29, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the second in a series of eight feature articles prepared for Heritage Week, Feb. 8 - 15. Entitled Spotlight on our Heritage, this series is a reflection on the people, places and collections of New Brunswick's past. This article was prepared by David Frank of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, a member of the research team for the New Brunswick Labour History Project. For more information about Heritage Week activities, visit the Heritage Week 2010 website.
Building the House of Labour
When New Brunswick workers organized a provincial federation of labour in 1913, they were among the first in Canada. British Columbia and Alberta started federations in 1910 and 1912, but most provinces did not take this step until many years later.
Trade unions are usually formed to represent workers in their occupations and workplaces, but the provincial federations of labour have a different purpose - to represent the common interests of all workers in a particular geographic area. This is because, in Canada, the provincial governments have the primary responsibility for labour and employment laws.
It was a small beginning. At the founding meeting in Saint John in 1913, there were only 20 delegates, and a year later the total membership was less than 2,000. But the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, also referred to as the house of labour, grew and by 1919 had 7,000 members. The first president was James L. Sugrue, a young carpenter from Saint John. In 1918 Célime A. Melanson, an Acadian who worked as a railway machinist in Moncton, became the second president.
The federation had its first major success when it helped convince the provincial government to legislate a modern Workmens' Compensation Act in 1918. In the following years, the federation advocated for free school textbooks, mothers' allowances, old age pensions, minimum wages, public health care, and equal pay for equal work. The federation led campaigns for union bargaining rights, which are now an integral part of the collective bargaining process.
Participation in the house of labour was not always high, but, by the end of the Great Depression, New Brunswick workers endorsed stronger unions in their push for greater economic security. Federation membership increased rapidly at the end of the Second World War, reaching more than 30,000 by the end of the 1960s. This growth was aided by the addition of large numbers of employees in public sector unions.
Acadian workers were under-represented during the early years, but their numbers increased when unions became more active in the francophone regions of the province, especially in the mines and mills of northern New Brunswick. In 1981 the federation passed a constitutional amendment adopting bilingualism as its official policy, one of the first major organizations in the province to do so.
There were few women delegates at federation meetings before the 1950s, but, by the 1980s, women accounted for more than 25 per cent of the delegates, many of them elected from workplaces where they were the majority. In 1980, the federation created a separate women's committee to advance the interests of working women. The federation soon adopted a new name in French to refer to both male and female workers.
Today, in addition to advocating for improvements to labour laws, the federation helps unions educate and inform their members. They hold workshops on workplace safety, job training, health care, pay equity and other social and economic issues. Every year the federation sponsors a solidarity award for students who submit essays or create poems or artwork about the importance of unions.
The provincial economy is always one of the federation's main concerns. When a mill or another major employer closes, this has an effect throughout the community. In these situations, the federation calls attention to the rights of the affected workers and encourages support for employers who pay good wages and practice good labour relations. As Sugrue, once said, "In the long run we hope to so improve conditions here that the people won't leave for the west in search of better wages and shorter hours of labour."
The current president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, Michel Boudreau, is optimistic about the future of the house of labour. At their convention in June 2009, the delegates represented almost 40,000 workers, one of the highest levels of membership in its history. This included dozens of new delegates from the New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees, the latest union to join the federation.
Also in attendance were visitors from the New Brunswick Nurses Union, whose history of representing registered nurses goes back to the 1910s. They liked what they saw in the house of labour, and when they held their convention in October, they voted to join the federation.
There have been many changes in the work world over the past century, but many workers continue to look for representation through their unions and their federation. For almost a century, the house of labour that is known as the New Brunswick Federation of Labour has helped workers and unions improve conditions and make their voices heard.
For information on the history of the federation and other aspects of labour history, visit the New Brunswick Labour History website.
MEDIA CONTACTS: Elizabeth Joubert, communications, Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport, 506-457-6445; Carol Ferguson, New Brunswick Labour History Project, 506-453-4599.