Trades and Labor Congress of Canada

The Trades and Labor Congress of Canada was a Canada-wide central federation of trade unions from 1883 to 1956. It was founded at the initiative of the Toronto Trades and Labour Council and the Knights of Labor. It was the third attempt at a national labour federation to be formed in Canada: it succeeded the Canadian Labour Union which existed from 1873 to 1877 and the Canadian Labour Congress which held only one conference in 1881.

Full nameTrades and Labour Congress of Canada
Date dissolved1956
Federation mergerCanadian Labour Congress
Office locationToronto

The first meeting was called by the Toronto Trades Council and the Knights of Labor. It attracted mainly Toronto unionists with no one attending from outside of Ontario. It adopted policies which denounced government supported immigration, the Salvation Army for its alleged efforts to bring London’s poor to Canada; it opposed any Asian immigration, called for female factory inspectors to protect women workers, a single tax system, government only issued currency (Banks issued money at this time), the end of child labour, and the use of convict labour.


The Toronto Trades and Labour Council began in 1881, and similar citywide coordinating bodies were soon formed in Montreal, Vancouver, Brantford, Ottawa and other cities. They banded together in 1886 as The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada. At first it primarily represented Ontario and Quebec. It helped resolve jurisdictional disputes among its member unions. It used lobbying to secure wage and protective legislation, workmen's compensation, sanitary regulation of workshops, and the eight-hour day. Although few members were factory workers, it helped lobby for factory acts in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. It supported the Liberal Party move in 1900 to create the federal Department of Labour, with a system of negotiations to settle Labour disputes.[1] It was challenged by the American-based American Federation of Labor led by Samuel Gompers, who sought to unite the movements in Canada and the U.S. In 1902 Gompers effectively took control of the Congress. Gompers's policies tended to ignore the particularities of the Canadian labour force, especially the French-Canadian separatism in Quebec, the political impulses in the Prairies, and the left-wing socialism of the coal miners in Nova Scotia.[2]


The TLC developed a ‘Platform of Principles’ comprising 16 points. Added to its first adopted policies were:

  • free compulsory education,
  • an eight-hour work day and a six-day work week,
  • government inspection of industry,
  • minimum living wage,
  • public ownership of railways, telegraphs, waterworks, lighting,
  • abolition of the Senate,
  • use of union label,
  • abolition of property qualifications to vote,
  • arbitration,
  • proportional representation and the use of referendums.

In 1913 the vote for women was added as a 17th principle.


By 1900 the TLC had become the country's first truly national body. As the Knights of Labor declined in number unions representing skilled trades workers came to dominate the TLC. By the 1890s Samuel Gompers in the U.S. was planning an international federation of labour, starting with the expansion of AFL affiliates in Canada, especially Ontario. He helped the Trades and Labour Congress with money and organizers, and by 1902. At the 1902 TLC conference in Berlin (Kitchener), Ontario, under the influence of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its unions in Canada, the Knights along with the purely Canadian unions were banned from membership. The AFL came to dominate the Canadian union movement, although there were also radical unions in British Columbia and Catholic ones in Quebec.[3]

The TLC was initially opposed to the First World War but reversed its position as their members rushed to the patriotic call of the federal government and the British Empire.

While long-lived, the TLC underwent a number of splits and challenges as the labour movement developed. In the twentieth century the TLC faced rivals on the left in the form of syndicalist or socialist movements such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the One Big Union. In failing to respond to the demands of the mostly western workers who wanted more radical actions in the years following World War I, the TLC lost their confidence. They broke away from their AFL/TLC unions and formed the One Big Union following the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919.


The leadership of Canadian labour was challenged at the start of the Great Depression with the establishment of the Workers' Unity League (1929–1936). In 1935 unions that wanted to organize unskilled workers in the new mass industries of automobile, steel and rubber broke with the AFL and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The latter's strategy of industrial unionism was a direct challenge to the TLC (and AFL's) craft unionism.

Interest in the CIO was sparked in Canada when in 1937 more than 4,000 workers at General Motors in Oshawa joined the United Automobile Workers, a CIO union, and fought a strike for union recognition. In 1939, CIO supporters were expelled from the TLC and joined with the national All-Canadian Congress of Labour to form the rival Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) in 1940. The TLC continued to be the voice of skilled trades workers in the country.

Thirty-fifth annual meeting of the Trades and Labour Congress, Hamilton, 1919.

Just as the Cold War and the rise of anti-Communism led to the purge of leftists from the union CIO in the United States and the creation of the AFL-CIO in 1955, the same phenomenon in Canada led to the merger of the TLC and the CCL in 1956 to create the modern Canadian Labour Congress.

Further readingEdit

  • Clavette, Ken. "The 'Rag, Tag, and Bobnail:' The rise and fall of Ottawa's early working class." Ottawa: Making A Capital. Ottawa: Ottawa University Press, 2001.
  • Forsey, Eugene, "Trade Unions in Canada 1812–1902", Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.
  • French, Doris, "Faith, Sweat, and Politics: The Early Trade Union Years in Canada Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd 1962
  • Heron, Craig. The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History. Toronto: James Lormier, 1996.
  • Morton, Desmond with Terry Copp. Working People: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement. Ottawa: Deneau Press, 1984.


  1. ^ Harold A. Logan, The History of Trade Union Organization in Canada (1928) p. 49.
  2. ^ Robert Babcock, Gompers in Canada: A Study in American Continentalism Before the First World War (1974)
  3. ^ Robert H. Babcock, Gompers in Canada: A Study in American Continentalism before the First World War (1974)

External linksEdit