Street Railway Strike

(1906) James Street North and Wilson Street (former location of Hamilton Radial Offices)

The crowd attacks

James Street North was always crowded with shoppers, workers, horse-drawn carts and children delivering messages. Hamilton Radial had its office on this corner. It was a branch of the city’s street railway company. Employees had been fighting the company for years over long hours and low pay. Their efforts didn’t change much, however, and the recession of the 1890s squashed union hopes; on November 23, 1906, the street was a battleground in the most violent strike the city had ever seen.

In 1899, the street railway workers moved forward by chartering themselves as Division 107 of the Amalgamated Street Railway Employees of North America. They had a lot of support and soon won pay increases and union recognition. The owner of the street railway, Cataract Power, was unpopular with the labour movement and the community at large. It was seen as part of a national trend toward large, unfriendly monopolies.

The company extended its monopoly in 1906. It built two new lines and planned to run them without union men. But many of the new carmen joined the union. In August, the union workers won pay increases and shorter hours through arbitration. But the company backed out of its end of the bargain. On November 4, the unionists parked their streetcars and walked out.

People in the community backed the strikers. They wore little blue “We Walk” ribbons. Local shoe dealers gave the strikers free boots. The police chief complained that even respectable women and girls were vocal against the strikebreakers. The Hamilton Trades and Labor Council held a “monster procession” in support of the workers.

The public’s anger reached a boiling point on November 23rd. The company had again refused to negotiate and announced that the streetcars would run that evening. Thousands converged on the old City Hall, filling James Street North between King William and Wilson Streets. The crowd went from heckling to throwing stones at the streetcars when they tried to get through. The Radial office was next. Its windows were shattered as “big rocks crashed through and rolled about on the floor inside.” Fist fights broke out between citizens and strikebreakers at the Sanford Avenue car barns. A stick of dynamite blew a hole in the roof. The police were at a loss. The mayor chose not to “read the Riot Act,” for fear it would make matters worse.

Early the next morning, troops from the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal Canadian Dragoons arrived from Toronto. They were quartered in the James St. Armouries. The mayor and street railway officials filled them in on the situation. That evening, a large crowd gathered on James Street North again. This time, the mounted soldiers charged at the crowd. Many protestors were seriously injured. But the community did not give up. The next day, citizens heckled the troops outside the Armouries. Area merchants refused to sell them supplies.

The street railway finally agreed to arbitrate. The men received union recognition but nothing else. Four days after the strike, the citizens of Hamilton voted in labourite Allan Studholme to the provincial government. Many more labour candidates were swept into office in a municipal election a month later. Hamilton voters also got their revenge on Cataract Power by approving a publicly owned power utility.