Hamilton, Ontario, is a city that was built by workers. Many of the City’s local traditions and historical sites reflect this fact. For instance, Hamilton has the Workers’ Arts and Heritage Centre, and even a public Monument at City Hall to honour the National Day of Mourning and all workers who have died, been injured, or become ill or disabled as a result of their job.
Hamilton’s rich labour history traces its roots, in part, to an interesting movement known as the Nine-Hour Movement. The Nine-Hour Movement was a Canadian movement based in and around Hamilton in the mid to late 1800s. It is widely seen as one of Canada’s first national attempts at creating its own Labour Movement, separate and distinct from our neighbours to the south, and its culminating parade that took place in Hamilton in May 1872 is considered to be a precursor to Canada’s current annual Labour Day traditions.
At that time, though unions existed (and were spreading across various industries), they were not legally recognized. Strikes were thus illegal and employers had no obligation to engage in collective bargaining. Associative activities such as rallies and parades would often end in arrest for union leaders and their supporters as a result, and it was not uncommon for union leaders to rack up a series of criminal charges including but not limited to mischief, incitement to riot, conspiracy, and sedition.
Relatedly, worker solidarity was low. Consistent with most Canadian institutions of the time, the Labour Movement itself was divided and structured to privilege the interests of a select few, to the detriment of most others. Divisions were thus created between members of the working class that impeded collective action.
The Nine-Hour Movement was interesting in this respect, because it was one of the first unified causes that was jointly supported by a cross-stitching of the working class. Generally speaking, the Nine-Hour Movement was as it sounds: a movement calling for a nine hour work day. This was appealing to most workers as the typical work day at the time consisted of 12 (or more) hours straight, with few rest periods (if any).
The Nine-Hour Movement began with a series of joint meetings held in various areas across Ontario, in which workers from any number of industries would meet and discuss the issues of the day. Though far from democratic, these “Nine Hour Leagues” did represent an early attempt at collective engagement. They were likewise notable for their insistence that labour and its issues should become a topic of public engagement and consideration in the political sphere come election time.
It was soon after determined that a series of general strikes would take place across the province in support of a nine hour work day. For whatever reason, and likely due to the decentralized nature of the Movement, the first general strike of the Nine-Hour Movement took place in Hamilton.
On May 15, 1872, over 1,500 Hamiltonians took to the streets and engaged in a collective parade focused on one single issue: the nine hour work day.
Unfortunately, no substantive improvements – let alone a decreased work day – were achieved at the time. Workers went back to work soon after their employers refused to meet their demands. Similar strikes held in other jurisdictions over the coming weeks fizzled out in similar fashion.
The Nine-Hour Movement was thus perceived initially as a failure.
From its ashes, however, came a series of important developments in Canadian Labour history. Politicians throughout Canada, for example, took note of what was one of the first major displays of Canadian working class collective action, and saw it as an opportunity to gain favour in the upcoming election. As a result, just one month later, on June 14, 1872, the federal government passed the Trade Union Act, which gave workers the right to associate in trade unions.
Though not a concession in any formal sense, the passing of this legislation was marketed as a nod by the federal government to the working class. Such recognition also represented a major shift in the Canadian Labour Movement, as it was among the first clear acknowledgements by a federal or provincial government that labour unions were here to stay. This emboldened organizers within the Nine-Hour Movement to continue organizing in support of collective worker issues.
In the coming years, these organizers founded the Canadian Labour Union, which ultimately became part of what is known today as the Canadian Labour Congress – the largest labour organization in Canada.
Today, reflection on the Nine-Hour Movement serves an important purpose. At a time when elected governments are trying to silence unions and other civil society groups from engaging in public advocacy, and when the Labour Movement struggles to represent and engage with workers in emerging economies and sectors, it is a reminder of the importance of engaging in collective action on a widespread scale. It can likewise serve as an important reminder for organizers, workers, activists, and supporters within the Labour Movement that even perceived “losses” within a campaign can and do result in concrete “wins” – both immediate and remote.
The spirit of the Nine-Hour Movement lives on in Hamilton today through the good work done by organizations such as the Hamilton and District Labour Council and the Hamilton and District Injured Workers’ Group, to name a few.
To learn more about Hamilton’s Nine-Hour Movement, see:
Special thanks to Tyler Boggs for his assistance in preparing this feature.
About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers.