150th anniversary: the Nine Hour Movement and adoption of the Trade Unions Act

Understanding the workers’ protests that paved the way for the creation of unions to advocate for workers’ rights

  • Published Sep 27, 2022
  • Updated Oct 11
  • 1,150 words
  • 5 minutes
[ Disponible en français ]
A series of protests, dubbed the Nine Hour Movement, led to the government enacting The Trade Unions Act, which, for the first time, made unions legal in Canada. (Photo: Parliament Hill, Ottawa. Wikimedia Commons/Library and Archives Canada. C-002837.)
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Some 150 years ago, an international workers movement found fertile ground in Canada, where many industrial workers regularly laboured 12 hours a day, six days a week. Between January and June 1872, many workers took to the streets to demand shorter working hours in what became known as the Nine Hour Movement. The labour unrest was instrumental in Parliament passing the Trade Unions Act on June 14, 1872, legalizing the formation of unions to advocate for workers’ rights. 

This article forms part of Commemorate Canada, a Canadian Heritage program to highlight significant Canadian anniversaries. It gives Canadian Geographic a chance to look at these points of history with a sometimes celebratory, sometimes critical, eye.

In 1872, Canada was an agricultural nation with a handful of cities where factories sent plumes of smoke into the sky and railway engines shunted boxcars in switching yards in the centre of town. These were places where people lived for their work. They had no choice, as the typical work week was 70 hours.

The new factories took almost every waking minute of a worker’s life, except for Sundays — the Christian Sabbath.

Canadian workers were slower to unionize than their British and U.S. colleagues. Canada was a small country where employers could easily keep and share blacklists of troublemakers. And the government was always there to use force against workers who got out of line.

The Canadian Illustrated News in Montreal covered the movement with an illustration based on a photograph of the earlier strike and parade in Hamilton. (Credit: Procession of Nine-Hour Movement Men. The Canadian Illustrated News: Vol. 5, no. 23 (June 8, 1872). Canadiana/Société canadienne du microfilm inc._)
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Still, the immigrant Scots and English craftsmen who arrived in the 1850s brought with them an awareness of the value of trade unions, though these were still illegal in Canada. And so the union movement gathered momentum in the 1860s, with skilled and semi-skilled workers like shoemakers, newspaper type-setters, cigar-makers and other hard-to-replace tradespeople organizing to try to pry better wages and working conditions out of their bosses. 

Agitation for a shorter workday — eight hours, five days a week, with a few more hours Saturday mornings — began in New York in the 1860s and spread to Canada early in the next decade. In Canada, organizers did not demand quite as much as their American counterparts. They would follow British workers’ demands for a nine-hour day. 

To counter claims that they were greedy troublemakers, the backers said a nine-hour day, with Saturday afternoons off, was needed for the “moral, social and intellectual improvement” of working people, according to Craig Heron, professor emeritus of labour history at York University and an expert on early Ontario trade unions.

The Hamilton Connection

The Canadian Nine Hour Movement was founded on Saturday, Jan. 27, 1872, at the Mechanics Institute in Hamilton. But even before it came out of the shadows, the movement had been brewing for months, with organizers holding private meetings in their homes. 

The Nine Hour Movement started out strong: public meetings drew standing room-only crowds. At first, the movement had the support of at least one influential Methodist minister and even some merchants (they hoped that a work week that left tradespeople with time off on Saturday afternoons would lead to more Saturday sales).

Very soon, the movement had its first success: a Hamilton railway owner agreed to let his employees leave at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. James Ryan, a Great Western Railway engineer, became the leader of the Hamilton workers. He spread the message and tried to create a larger movement aimed at getting the same deal for all workers, using strikes if he had to.

The Toronto Movement

Toronto workers, led by J.S. Williams, a leader of the typographers’ union, were a little slower to join the movement. The Toronto Typographical Union, which would be, for another century, one of the most radical unions in the city, led the drive and kept out non-union workers. The first meeting of the Nine Hour Day Movement was held on Feb. 14, 1872. Rather than discussing, as they had in Hamilton and Brantford, the benefits of shorter weeks to the bottom lines of local retailers and the social benefits of giving workers more free time, the Toronto union leaders used their platform to denounce capitalism.

As news of the movement spread, organizers planned for big strikes in Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal at the end of May and the beginning of June. The strikes were to be staged so the workers who were on strike could be supported by the people who were still working.

But the organization was weak in Toronto, where there was a lack of consensus among the leadership because of disputes among the printers, who jumped the gun, deciding to go on strike right away to demand higher pay. They walked off the job in late March. Because union activity was still criminal, George Brown, a Father of Confederation, leading Liberal and owner of the Globe, promptly had 27 strike leaders in the typographers union’s Printers’ Vigilance Committee arrested for conspiracy.

The Trades Union Act

Three weeks after Brown had make his move, the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald — a fierce political rival of Brown — stepped in to enact The Trades Union Act, which, for the first time, made unions legal in Canada. Macdonald even bankrolled the movement’s newspaper, Ontario Workman.

Still, for all its initial success, the Toronto printers’ strike had used up most of the financial resources of the city’s labour movement. Employers, who had no trouble raising money, organized to fight the nine-hour day.

The gains won by the labour movement in the 1870s were stalled by the “Great Depression” and WWI, but the foundations were set for the future. This photo shows crowds in the streets during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. (Credit: Archives of Manitoba, L.B. Foote fonds, Foote 1705. P7400/5.)
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Meanwhile, the May strikes in other cities went ahead as planned. Hamilton had its first strike for a nine-hour day and shortened work week, with roughly 1,500 workers marching in a parade past their factories and workshops. Members of the public cheered them on. Though the workers failed to see their demands met, the movement strengthened through the spring.  Workers in Montreal sent cash to help the Hamilton strikers. But because the Toronto workers didn’t keep to the original plan whereby they were to walk out on June 1, the Hamilton strikers started drifting back to work. Plans for a strike in Montreal fizzled out.

The Aftermath

The railway workers were the only ones to win shorter work weeks. Many of the skilled workers who had led the Nine Hour Movement decamped for the United States, where unions had been more successful.

 The Canadian Labor Protective and Mutual Improvement Association, formed by the leaders of the Nine Hour Movement, gave way to the Canadian Labor Union, formed in April 1873.

By then, Canada was in a “Great Depression” that would last for the rest of the century. Power shifted to employers, who would have the whip hand until the First World War. They’d face serious labour action like the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. 

But the Nine Hour Movement and The Trades Union Act had made unions possible in Canada. In the decades ahead, the gains of the labour movement in Canada were built on those foundations.


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