Voice of the Workers
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A Demand for Change
Voice of the Workers
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Voice of the Workers
The daily struggle to survive convinces some Canadian workers to unionize
Israel Medres was 16 years old when he emigrated from Russia and found work as a tailor in Montreal. Like many Canadian workers in the early 1900s, Medres was exploited and forced to eke out a living while working in horrible conditions. And like many others, Medres eventually turned to unions for help.
Working class Canadians often lived in poverty in the early 1900s. There was no job security and no social safety net. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
Working class Canadians often lived in poverty in the early 1900s. There was no job security and no social safety net. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

"The tailors officially worked 59 hours a week," said Medres. "Unofficially, during the busy season, they worked from dawn until dusk. The workers were embittered by poverty and misfortune. There was perpetual class struggle between the workers and their employers."

Survival was a difficult task for the working class. In 1912, a Montreal social welfare committee reported that a worker could earn $1.75 for a twelve hour day, six days a week to make $550 a year.

"To get this much, a man must have continuous work with no sickness, no changes in jobs, and he must not waste his money on drink or dissipation. Granted all this he can give a family of five a mere existence. No allowance is here made for sickness, recreation, church, house furnishings, lectures and savings." The family would also have to live," the social welfare report stated, "in insanitary quarters, sometimes below street level."

Although unions had been around since the early 1800s in Canada, the movement grew on a national scale at the end of the century with the emergence of the industrial age. Factories and commerce flourished but workers had no job security and no social safety net.

Alfred Charpentier was the eldest of thirteen children and starting working at age 13. The family lived in a working class part of Montreal, Plateau Mont-Royal. Charpentier apprenticed as a bricklayer with his father, earning his credentials in 1907 at age 16. At the end of his apprenticeship, a recession hit the country and Charpentier and his father couldnt find work.

"We were fifteen at the dinner table, I was the only one, with my father, to provide for the needs of all. ... He taught me my first notions of labour unionism. I met the labour leaders of the time ... Their speeches impressed me a lot. I dreamt of being able, one day, to follow their example."

Like many workers, Charpentier's support for unions increased as his living standard decreased. Charpentier was elected president of the Montreal bricklayers union in 1911. Still unable to find steady work, he was forced to take a job as a Montreal fireman.

Few Canadian workers were unionized in the early part of the century. But the voice of the workers was beginning to emerge. In 1912, Montreal tailors called a strike, believing they could organize into unions to fight for better working conditions.

"The strike lasted nine weeks and ended in victory for the workers," said the immigrant tailor Israel Medres. "The 59-hour work week was abolished ... From then on they never worked more than 49 hours a week."

The union foundation was laid. In the next 25 years, Canadian workers would become more organized and unions would become an intricate part of the country's workplace.

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