The history of labor unions in Canada dates back to the early 19th century when workers began organizing to improve their working conditions, wages, and overall treatment in the workplace. Below is an overview of the key milestones in the history of labor unions in Canada.

Key Milestones in Canadian Unionized Labour

The first labor organizations in Canada began in the early 1800s. They were inspired by the labor movements in Europe and the USA. These early unions were mostly local and craft-based, organizations that represented skilled workers in specific trades.

Industrial Revolution and Union Growth (late 19th century)

The growth of industry in Canada during the late 19th century ushered in the expansion of unions. The Knights of Labor, founded in the US, had a large presence in Canada and advocated for workers’ rights across several industries.

Trade Union Act of 1872

The Trade Union Act of 1872 came into existence during the John A. MacDonald government and it legalized trade unions across all of Canada. This gave the unions legal protections and recognition. This act was a huge milestone for Canadian labor rights.

Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Formation of 1956

The Canadian Labour Congress was formed through the merger of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada and the Canadian Congress of Labour in 1956. The CLC became the largest labor federation in Canada, representing workers from various industries.

Expansion of Workers’ Rights in the 20th Century

Throughout the 20th century, labor unions played a crucial role in advocating for workers’ rights. They fought for improved wages, benefits, and workplace safety regulations. Key milestones during this period include the establishment of minimum wage laws, limits on working hours, and the introduction of collective bargaining rights.

Public Sector Unionization (1960s-1970s)

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a significant increase in public sector unionization. Civil servants, teachers, healthcare workers, and other public employees formed unions to negotiate better working conditions and benefits.

Labor Relations Legislation

Over the years, various labor relations laws were enacted to regulate the relationship between employers and unions. Provincial and federal governments introduced legislation to protect workers’ rights, establish fair bargaining practices, and resolve labor disputes.

Important Incidents and Programs

The Printer’s Strike of 1872

The Printer’s Strike of 1872 in Canada, also known as the Nine-Hour Movement, was a significant labor dispute that took place in Toronto, Ontario. It was one of the first major strikes in Canadian history and had a significant impact on the labor movement in the country. Here are the key details of the Printer’s Strike:

Background: In the late 19th century, workers in Canada, particularly those in the printing industry, faced long working hours and poor working conditions. Printers often worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Dissatisfaction grew among the workers, leading to demands for shorter workdays.

The Strike: On March 25, 1872, the Toronto Typographical Union, representing the printers, called for a strike to demand a nine-hour workday. The demand for shorter work hours was considered radical at the time, as the standard workday was significantly longer. The strike quickly gained support from other labor organizations and sympathizers, including workers from other industries, trade unions, and socialist groups. Thousands of workers, including printers, typesetters, and other tradespeople, joined the strike, effectively shutting down the printing industry in Toronto.

The Response: The strike faced strong opposition from employers, who considered the demands unreasonable and feared the spread of similar demands across industries. The strike was also met with hostility from government officials and the media, who portrayed the strikers as agitators and troublemakers.

Legal Consequences: In response to the strike, the government arrested several strike leaders, including George Brown, the owner of The Globe newspaper and a supporter of the strike. The leaders were charged with conspiracy, prompting public outrage and protests.

Legacy and Impact: Although the strike itself did not achieve immediate success in obtaining a nine-hour workday, it had a lasting impact on the labor movement in Canada. It brought the issue of workers’ rights and working conditions to the forefront and sparked discussions about labor reform.

In 1873, the Trade Union Act was passed, which legalized trade unions in Canada and provided legal protection for workers organizing collectively. The strike also contributed to the formation of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1956, which became a prominent labor federation in the country.

The Printer’s Strike of 1872 served as a catalyst for future labor movements in Canada, inspiring workers to organize and demand improved working conditions, fair wages, and shorter work hours. It remains an important event in Canadian labor history, symbolizing the struggle for workers’ rights and the power of collective action.

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was a significant event in Canadian labor history. It was a large-scale and unprecedented labor action that took place in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Here’s an overview of the history and key events surrounding the Winnipeg General Strike:

Background: In the aftermath of World War I, there was widespread economic uncertainty and discontent among workers in Canada, including low wages, poor working conditions, and a lack of collective bargaining rights. Labor unions across the country were advocating for better conditions and workers’ rights.

Events Leading to the Strike: In early 1919, a wave of strikes swept across Canada, including in the metal and building trades in Winnipeg. These strikes, along with the general discontent among workers, contributed to the growing momentum for a general strike in the city.

The Strike: On May 15, 1919, approximately 30,000 workers in Winnipeg went on strike to demand better wages, improved working conditions, and the right to collective bargaining. The strike involved workers from various industries, including building and metal trades, transportation, and public services.

Strike Organization and Leadership: The Central Strike Committee, representing a coalition of unions, led the strike. They coordinated efforts, established picket lines, and communicated strike activities. Many strike leaders were socialists or influenced by socialist ideas.

Scope and Impact: During the strike, essential services in Winnipeg were disrupted, including transportation, mail delivery, and public utilities. The city essentially came to a standstill, with workers demonstrating their solidarity and demanding better conditions.

Suppression and Violence: The strike faced significant opposition from government authorities, employers, and conservative groups. Attempts were made to break the strike through force and intimidation. The Royal Northwest Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) were called in, and tensions escalated, leading to violent clashes between the authorities and the striking workers.

End of the Strike: The strike lasted for six weeks, but ultimately, it ended without achieving its immediate objectives. On June 21, 1919, strike leaders called off the general strike due to mounting tensions, violence, and a lack of progress in negotiations. However, the strike had a lasting impact on the labor movement and the fight for workers’ rights in Canada.

Legacy: The Winnipeg General Strike had significant repercussions on labor rights and politics in Canada. It led to increased awareness of workers’ rights and collective action, as well as the recognition of unions as legitimate representatives of workers. The strike also influenced the development of labor laws and policies in subsequent years, including the establishment of minimum wage laws and the expansion of collective bargaining rights.

The Winnipeg General Strike remains a symbol of workers’ solidarity and their ongoing struggle for fair wages, better working conditions, and social justice in Canada. It continues to be studied and commemorated as a pivotal moment in Canadian labor history.

The Dawn of Unemployment Insurance in Canada (1940)

The history of unemployment insurance in Canada can be traced back to the early 20th century. Here is an overview of the key milestones in the development of unemployment insurance in Canada.

Great Depression and the Need for Social Security: During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Canada experienced widespread unemployment and economic hardship. This led to increased public demand for government intervention and social welfare measures to support those affected by unemployment.

1935 Employment and Social Insurance Act: In response to the economic challenges of the Great Depression, the Canadian federal government passed the Employment and Social Insurance Act in 1935. This act established a national system of unemployment insurance and other social security programs.

Early Unemployment Insurance Programs: Under the Employment and Social Insurance Act, provinces were responsible for administering unemployment insurance programs. The programs provided income support to eligible workers who lost their jobs due to no fault of their own. The benefits were funded through contributions from employers and employees.

1940s to 1970s: Expansion and Nationalization: During the following decades, there were various expansions and reforms to unemployment insurance in Canada. The federal government gradually took on a more prominent role, leading to the nationalization of the unemployment insurance system in 1940.

Creation of the Employment Insurance (EI) Program: In 1971, the federal government introduced the Unemployment Insurance Act, which later evolved into the Employment Insurance Act. This legislation established the modern Employment Insurance (EI) program, which provides temporary income support to eligible workers who lose their jobs.

Changes and Reforms: Over the years, the EI program has undergone several changes and reforms to adapt to evolving labor market conditions and societal needs. These changes have included adjustments to eligibility criteria, benefit calculations, and the duration of benefits.

Special Measures and Programs: During periods of economic downturn or significant job losses, the government has implemented special measures and programs within the EI system. These measures, such as extended benefits or enhanced eligibility criteria, aim to provide additional support to individuals and communities facing economic challenges.

Provincial and Territorial Jurisdiction: While the Employment Insurance program is administered by the federal government, provinces and territories in Canada also have their own labor market programs and initiatives. These programs complement the federal EI system and may provide additional support or benefits to workers in specific regions.

It’s important to note that the specific details of unemployment insurance, including eligibility requirements, benefit levels, and program administration, may vary over time and between provinces/territories. The EI system continues to evolve to address the changing needs of Canadian workers and the labor market.

The Windsor Ford Strike of 1945

Background: The Windsor Ford Strike of 1945 took place at the Ford Motor Company of Canada’s Windsor, Ontario, plant. It was one of the largest and most significant labor disputes in Canadian automotive industry history.

Events Leading to the Strike: During World War II, the Canadian government imposed wage controls to support the war effort. However, as the war was coming to an end, workers in various industries, including the automotive sector, began demanding higher wages and improved working conditions.

The Strike: On September 12, 1945, over 11,000 workers at the Ford Motor Company plant in Windsor went on strike. The strike was organized by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 200, seeking better wages, a shorter workweek, improved benefits, and union recognition.

Key Demands and Grievances: The striking workers demanded a wage increase of 30 cents per hour, the implementation of a 40-hour workweek, improved job security, and the elimination of arbitrary management decisions. They also wanted the company to recognize the UAW as the official representative of the workers.

Duration and Impact: The Windsor Ford Strike lasted 99 days, making it one of the longest strikes in Canadian automotive history. The strike significantly impacted Ford’s production in Canada, causing delays and disruptions.

Resolution: In December 1945, a settlement was reached between the striking workers and Ford management. The agreement included wage increases, improved working conditions, and the recognition of the UAW as the bargaining agent for the workers.

Legacy and Impact: The Windsor Ford Strike of 1945 had a lasting impact on the labor movement in Canada. It demonstrated the power of collective action and unionization in negotiating for better working conditions and fair treatment. The strike also paved the way for subsequent improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions in the Canadian automotive industry.

The Windsor Ford Strike is remembered as a significant moment in Canadian labor history, highlighting the struggles and achievements of workers in their pursuit of economic and social justice.

The Rand Formula & Rand Decision of 1946

The “Rand Formula” is a landmark decision in Canadian labor law that originated from a case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1946. The decision is commonly referred to as the “Rand Decision” after the plaintiff, A. A. Rand, who was an employee of the Ford Motor Company in Windsor, Ontario.

Background: In the Rand case, the issue at hand was whether all employees in a unionized workplace should be required to pay union dues, regardless of their individual membership in the union. This question arose from the practice of closed-shop agreements, where employers and unions negotiated contracts requiring all employees to be members of the union.

The Decision: In its 1946 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of the unions and established what came to be known as the Rand Formula. The formula stated that even non-union employees in a unionized workplace could be required to pay union dues or an equivalent fee to support the costs of collective bargaining and the administration of the collective agreement.

Key Elements of the Rand Formula:

  1. Agency Shop: The Rand Formula established the concept of an “agency shop,” where all employees, regardless of their union membership, must contribute to the financial costs incurred by the union in negotiating and administering the collective agreement.
  2. Union Security: The decision upheld the principle of union security, ensuring that unions would have the financial resources necessary to represent all employees in a bargaining unit, even those who chose not to be union members.
  3. Voluntary Political Contributions: The Rand Formula specified that non-union employees could not be compelled to contribute to the union’s political activities or causes unrelated to collective bargaining.

Significance and Impact: The Rand Decision had a profound impact on labor relations and the rights of unions in Canada. It solidified the principle of mandatory financial support for unions in unionized workplaces, even for non-union employees. This decision was seen as instrumental in promoting workplace stability, preventing “free-riding” by non-union employees who benefited from union negotiations and representation without contributing to the costs.

Since the Rand Decision, the principles of the Rand Formula have been incorporated into labor legislation in various provinces across Canada. The formula has also shaped subsequent labor relations jurisprudence and continues to be a foundational aspect of Canadian labor law.

Founding of the General Presidents’ Maintenance Committee (GPMC) in 1952

Formation: In response to clashes between labour and corporations, and the societal upheaval caused by such clashes (like the examples listed above), a new concept of labour negotiation was initiated in the critical energy sectors of Canada. This concept resulted in the founding of the General President’s Maintenance Committee (GPMC) in 1952.

Concept at Inception: Establish a centralized negotiating body (GPMC) representing multiple maintenance trades in multiple Canadian industries.

The Mandate: To negotiate and administer collective agreements for maintenance projects. These agreements cover issues such as wages, benefits, working conditions, and other terms of employment for the workers involved in maintenance activities. To collaboratively with participating trade unions and signatory employers to ensure fair labor practices, harmonious working relationships, and the overall advancement of the maintenance industry. Its efforts aim to promote industry standards, safety regulations, and workforce development in Canada.


  • Avoiding worker strikes and societal upheaval
  • Securing critical infrastructures for public services
  • Streamlining negotiations and grievance processes for workers in various industries
  • Enhancing long-term planning for future development(s)
  • Dramatically improving communication between all parties
  • Greatly improving worker safety

Legacy: The founding of the GPMC, and its evolution since 1952 has inspired other organizations in Canada and around the globe, enhancing worker safety, worker compensation, and public security for millions of people around the world.

Founding of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1956

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is the largest federation of labor unions in Canada. It represents millions of workers across the country and plays a crucial role in advocating for the rights and interests of Canadian workers. Here is an overview of the history of the Canadian Labour Congress:

Formation and Early Years: The Canadian Labour Congress was officially formed on April 23, 1956, through the merger of two predecessor organizations—the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL). The TLC had a longer history, tracing its origins back to 1883, while the CCL was established in 1927. The merger aimed to bring together workers from different sectors and strengthen the labor movement in Canada.

Growth and Expansion: After its formation, the CLC steadily grew in membership and influence. It became the primary voice for organized labor in Canada, representing workers from various sectors, including manufacturing, transportation, public services, healthcare, education, and more. The CLC’s primary goal has been to promote the interests of workers, fight for improved working conditions, advocate for social and economic justice, and influence government policies.

Social Activism and Political Engagement: The CLC has been actively involved in social activism and political engagement throughout its history. It has supported workers’ rights campaigns, social justice initiatives, and fought against discrimination, inequality, and unfair labor practices. The CLC has also played a significant role in lobbying for labor-friendly legislation and policies at the provincial and federal levels.

International Relations: The CLC has established connections and collaborations with labor organizations worldwide. It is affiliated with various international bodies, such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC). The CLC actively participates in international labor initiatives, advocates for global labor rights, and supports workers’ movements in other countries.

Key Achievements: Throughout its history, the CLC has achieved several significant milestones and advancements for Canadian workers. Some notable accomplishments include the successful campaign for universal healthcare in Canada, the introduction of labor rights legislation, the fight for gender equality and pay equity, improved workplace safety standards, and support for social programs such as employment insurance and workers’ pensions.

Current Role: The CLC continues to be a prominent voice for workers’ rights in Canada. It engages in collective bargaining on behalf of its affiliated unions, conducts research and policy analysis, advocates for workers’ rights and social justice, and coordinates campaigns and initiatives to improve working conditions and address emerging labor issues.

The Hogg’s Hollow Disaster of 1960

Background: On March 17, 1960, twelve young Italian immigrant construction workers in their twenties installing a water main under the Don River at Hoggs Hollow near Yonge Street and York Mills Road were nearing the end of their shift when a fire suddenly erupted in the tunnel. They were helpless because the contractor, experiencing financial difficulties, hadn’t provided even minimal safety measures and provincial government department of labour inspectors had turned a blind eye.

The workers, anxious to make money for their families, had tolerated the bad conditions. There were no fire extinguishers or flashlights, the exhaust pipe valve didn’t work, air compressors failed, the timber supports were so weak that they quickly toppled and there was no protective floor grout to keep out water, sand and silt from the river.

Firefighters arrived quickly, only to be ordered not to immediately turn on their hoses for fear the water pressure would collapse the tunnel. Officials dithered. Relatives gathered, weeping.

Six workers escaped, a seventh was heroically rescued. The remaining five died: Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo and brothers Alessandro and Guido Mantella.

Legacy: This horrible tragedy became the catalyst for reforms in occupational health and safety. The act was the foundation of the Canada Labour (Safety) Code that passed later that decade. It clearly set out laws and regulations for the safety of workers in Canada. Saskatchewan took this further by passing the Occupational Health Act, considered the first legislation of its kind in North America.

The act is still in existence today, making health and safety the joint responsibility of management and workers. Unions fought hard to give Canadians three important areas of power: the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to know about hazards in the workplace and the right to participate in health and safety discussions. And unions fight hard every day to keep forcing employers to fulfill their obligations to keep workers safe.

Note from the GPMC | NMC Team of Editors

The above history is described in brief for easy reading. If you feel we’ve left out any critical information, please feel free to reach out and let us know by emailing