Tour Introduction

Anyone out for a stroll in the old Market Square on the night of January 31, 1872, would have wondered what was going on at the Shakespeare Hotel. Dozens of men had gathered for a meeting. Their topic of conversation? The right to a shorter working day. Before the meeting was over, these men had founded the Hamilton Nine-Hour League. It was Canada’s first working-class organization dedicated to winning shorter work hours. Other Nine-Hour Leagues soon sprang up from Sarnia to Montreal, following Hamilton’s lead.

The campaign led by these workers marked the birth of Canada’s first real labour movement. Although their struggle for shorter hours ultimately failed, these industrial workers rebuilt their labour organizations in the 1880s to fight for fairness and dignity. Labour organizations made important contributions to life in Hamilton around the turn of the century. On this tour, you will walk the streets of “the Birmingham of Canada,” and see where its labour history began.

Hamilton’s Nine-Hour Pioneers held a huge parade through the centre of the city on May 15, 1872. They marched past the factories and workshops that had brought the Industrial Revolution to the city. This tour retraces part of their route. It takes you past some of the industrial sites that made Hamilton a major manufacturing centre — the railway, metal shops and textile mills. You will also see where the city’s first wage-earners lived, went on strike and organized their unions and labour councils. Many of the signs of these early years have been destroyed. But with a careful look and a little imagination, you will see traces of the Workers’ City.

Hamilton was not always a union town. Most unions sprang up once the Industrial Revolution was well underway. A working-class community began to develop in the 1850s, when manufacturing created more jobs. The arrival of the Great Western Railway boosted local businesses and gave them access to wider markets. By the 1860s, the city had bustling stove foundries, sewing machine factories, tobacco plants, a large clothing enterprise, a boot and shoe factory and much more.

These first “manufactories” were small by 20th-century standards. But they seemed new and different at the time. Work time and free time were set off by bells and whistles. Discipline on the shop floor was strict. Piecework was introduced to get workers to move faster. Some factories had fancy, steam-powered machinery to replace human muscle-power and skill. But most employers just divided the work up differently, spreading skilled tasks out among unskilled, poorly paid workers. Women and children shocked many working men when they began to work in factories.

Most of the crafts had a set of traditions

Many of the changes in the workplace were aimed at undermining the traditional control of craftsmen. But most industries still had to rely on these skilled workers’ know-how. In fact, the Industrial Revolution brought more skilled workers to Hamilton than ever before, especially in the metalworking trades. Moulders were central to the working life of the city until well past 1900.

Some employers never stopped trying to break the independence of these skilled men. They cut wages and flooded the market with badly trained men, women and boys. Their actions pushed the craftsmen to unite. Most of the crafts had a set of traditions that the masters and men respected. As early as the 1830s, journeymen had formed societies to carry on those traditions and support each other through sickness and unemployment. These unions were strengthened by the need to stand up to the bosses.

Hamilton carpenters threw down their tools in 1831, to protest the violation of craft traditions. The city’s stonecutters formed their first union in 1845, and the printers followed a year later. The Journeyman Tailors’ Protective Society was founded in 1854 to combat that “evil monster,” the steam-powered sewing machine. Many more unions appeared over the next 20 years.

Strong working-class solidarity

By the 1860s and 1870s, unionists were reaching out to other craftsmen in North America to form international unions. They slowly began to link with workers outside their own trade. Workers realized that they had many common struggles. Craft unionists founded Canada’s first local labour council, the Hamilton Trades Assembly, in 1864. Evidence of strong working-class solidarity came in 1872 with the Nine-Hour Movement.

Workers in all occupations wanted shorter hours. Wage earners across Canada worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. The Nine-Hour Pioneers argued that more productivity should mean more time off. They wanted more time to spend with their families and communities.

The Hamilton Nine-Hour League convinced the Great Western Railway and some sewing machine factory owners to agree to a shorter day. The rest of the city’s bosses closed ranks against them. Some locked out workers. The unions behind the campaign led a city-wide strike on May 15. But the bosses held firm, and the strikers filtered back to work. Their efforts were not wasted, however. They had succeeded in coordinating protests across central Canada and helped create the first regional labour organization, the Canadian Labour Union.

The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor

Labour had a hard time surviving the deep depression of the 1870s. The 1880s brought new energy, however. Craft unions grew in number and strength, and a new trades council formed. A brand-new group united Hamilton workers of all kinds — the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor.

This was a different kind of movement, based on the belief that physical toil deserved the highest respect. The Knights fought for workers’ rights on the job, and democracy and equality in politics. They offered educational and social activities and backed the city’s first labour newspaper. They ran independent labour candidates for public office and kicked off Hamilton’s first Labour Day celebrations in 1883. The Order promoted a spirit of working-class solidarity.

The Order had to deal with resistance from employers and internal turmoil. Some craftsmen began to doubt whether the Order had their interests at heart. Others lost faith in its ability to organize effectively. After a huge surge in popularity, the Knights declined quickly at the end of the 1880s.

The people’s spirit was tested

The craft unions that remained during the 1890s faced tough economic times. They were in much better shape by the turn of the century, though, and unionism spread through the city once more. Several Hamilton manufacturers put the union label on their products, including the Tuckett Tobacco Company. The spirit of solidarity was renewed.

The people’s spirit was tested in 1906. The privately owned street railway forced its workers out on strike. Working-class Hamilton united. “We Walk” buttons appeared on lapels. Crowds filled the streets and blocked the streetcars run by strikebreakers. Company property was pelted with stones. Even the troops brought in to control the uprising were heckled and harassed. In the end, the street railwaymen and Hamilton workers made important gains.

During the strike, local unionists helped to elect a labour candidate to the Ontario Legislature. Stovemounter Allan Studholme held his seat until his death 13 years later in 1919. Out of that campaign came the Hamilton Independent Labor Party, which played a major role in local politics through to the end of World War I.

In its first 50 years, the Hamilton labour movement helped working people in the city unite and voice their concerns. It struggled to make Hamilton a place where working-class families could live with pride and dignity.