Thursday, March 25, 2010

Calgary Hosts Iconic 1919 Labour Conference

This Month in History
Project 2010

In mid-March 1919, 239 representatives from various labour organizations in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, including the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), gathered at the Calgary Labour Temple for the Western Labour Conference. The conference was chaired by R.J. Tallon, vice-president of the Calgary Trades and Labour Council.

One of the main outcomes of the conference was the formation of the One Big Union or OBU, which, for a period of time, threatened the supremacy of the national Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC). The OBU was formed during a time of considerable discontent among the working class in western Canada. Many workers were frustrated not only with their employers and with government, but also with the international unions to which they were affiliated. Some were also influenced by recent working class victories in Europe, particularly the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

It was the BC Federation of Labour, which had held its own conference in Calgary just prior to the Western Labour Conference, that put forward the resolution that delegates sever their affiliation with their international unions and join in the formation of an industrial union that would include all workers. The OBU espoused organization by industry and geography, rather than craft or trade unionism. They also favoured direct action (e.g. using general strikes to force workers’ demands) over political action (e.g. lobbying legislatures for labour-friendly laws) to affect radical change.

Following the conference, referendums were held by labour councils and union locals to endorse the OBU, and a constitution for the new organization was created in June. The success of the OBU in getting labour councils and union locals to affiliate was greatest in BC and Manitoba. In Alberta, coal miners who, along with their counterparts in eastern BC, belonged to District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) joined the OBU. So did some carpenters, miners and machinists in Edmonton, although this resulted in their expulsion from the Edmonton Trades and Labour Council, which retained its affiliation with the TLC.

Not surprisingly, the OBU was strongly resisted by government and industry, as well as by the TLC and international unions. These groups sometimes cooperated in an effort to weaken the OBU. For example, coal operators in the Crowsnest Pass refused to take back miners who had been on strike unless they renounced the OBU and rejoined the UMWA. The OBU was also weakened by government actions, such as arresting and even deporting OBU leaders and supporters. By 1922, membership in the OBU had declined rapidly and eventually remnants of it were amalgamated into the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in 1956.


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