The 1872 Strike of the Toronto Typographical Society
Working 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, the Toronto Typographical Society went on strike. The reactions and outcomes changed Canadian labour law. The significance of unionization is gaining recognition again in 2022.
The workforce in the Industrial Age put in long, exhaustive hours, six days a week to earn even the barest of a living. They had few employee rights; the employer held the upper hand over all action regarding the workplace, especially over the length of the workday.
Tired, workers started a movement in the early 1870s to reduce the length of the workday to nine hours, enough to permit a little more rest, a little more “life” away from the job. Employers were not impressed. “By January of 1872,” said Alternative Canadian Heritage Moments, “mass meetings of mostly male workers, but their families, too, were being held in virtually every urban centre in Ontario and Quebec.” Weeks later, the workers had had enough. It was time for action.
Striking for a 9-Hour Day
On March 25, 1872 the Toronto Typographical Society went on strike against The Globe newspaper, owned by George Brown. (A Scottish immigrant, Brown was a businessman and a boisterous politician, one of the Founding Fathers of Confederation. His Globe newspaper later became the Toronto Globe and Mail.) Incensed, Brown was unsympathetic to the demands of his workers. “The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case,” he said, commenting on disgruntled workers’ “talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employer.” Brown refused to adjust the work hours. The printing machines of The Globe and other newspapers fell silent.
Ten Thousand March
The strike dragged on into the next month. On the 15th of April, the Toronto Trades Assembly, a labour association founded in 1871, organized a march to the government offices in Queen’s Park. Two thousand men marched along King, Yonge and College Streets, gathering more marchers as the blocks passed. By the time the strikers reached their destination, there were 10,000 participants demanding a nine-hour workday, ten percent of the city’s population in that year. The newspaper owners took matters into their own hands, creating the “Master Printers’ Association” to battle back.
Strike Leaders Arrested
The strike committee was arrested the day after the march, twenty-four members thrown into jail at the urging of Brown and the Master Printer’s Association. The act of unionizing and striking was illegal, and the leaders were charged with criminal conspiracy. Gathering a group of people together “to increase wages or lower hours was seen as obstructive to trade and commerce,” said Legal FAQs in “History and Development of Unions”. “In legal terms, this was called acting in restraint of trade and was illegal.” The union was illegal. The men were put on trial.
Historic Trade Unions Act
On April 18, 1872, the strike leaders appeared before the Magistrate in a Toronto court. After arguments by the prosecution and the defence, the judge found the men guilty. But John A. Macdonald was also busy, introducing a new bill in Parliament. Prime Minister Macdonald was interested in keeping the workers on his side. The Trade Unions Act of 1872 was passed, making unions legal in Canada. Union members could no longer be tried for organizing, no longer face criminal conspiracy charges (unless they were involved in criminal acts). The Trade Unions Act had its limitations, though. Employers did not have to recognize or negotiate with the now-legal unions. Demonstrations and picketing remained illegal.
Nine-Hour Day Won
The Printers Strike in 1872 made Canadian labour history. The workers won the right to nine-hour days. The Trade Unions Act opened the door toward better labour relations between employers and workers, though there would be decades of labour battles ahead. The law was amended in 1876 to permit peaceful picketing.
The Toronto Typographical Society is Canada’s oldest union, initially established as the York Typographical Society in 1832 by a group of 24 journeymen printers. The union collapsed, to be resurrected in 1844 as the Toronto Typographical Society. Still protecting workers’ rights, the union is now part of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, CEP Local 91-0.
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in March 2010. (C) Susanna McLeod