They call it the movement of goods, as if the goods moved on and off ships of their own accord. But from the days of square timber and lumber deals to the cargoes and resources of today, none of this activity has been possible without the longshore workers. By muscle and by machine, they have done the loading and unloading at the blunt interface between the port of Saint John and the rest of the world.
In return they have asked for some share of the benefits, some say over conditions of work, and some measure of recognition. The longshoremen of Saint John hold a special place in Canadian history because they were among this country’s first workers to take common action to achieve those goals.
They did this by founding the Labourers’ Benevolent Association. It was a cautious name, calculated to allay fears in a time when the legal status of trade unions was uncertain. But, as historians have long recognized, it was one of the earliest labour unions in British North America. Possibly, it was one of the oldest continuously existing dockers’ unions in the world.
At a ceremony on November 16, at the Frank and Ella Hatheway Labour Exhibit Centre in Saint John, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a plaque recognizing the founding of the Labourers’ Benevolent Association as an event of national historical significance. These designations are not handed out casually. A nomination was put forward by Local 273, International Longshoremen’s Association, in 2009, and it has taken until now to go through all the stages of consideration, approval and implementation.
In the earliest days, the longshore workers belonged to the precarious employment and gig economy of their time, hired in season and by the day, working in all weather, under conditions threatening to life, limb and health, for meagre pay and zero security, twelve, fourteen or fifteen hours a day, all the while competing against each other in a race to the bottom to work for worse conditions.
The arrival of the union in 1849 was announced with the raising of the Labourers’ Bell on Market Slip, a bell that governed the working day, ringing in the day of work and bringing it to a close at the end of ten hours. At a later date, the plaque will be permanently installed at this location, which will make it a notable stopping point for all members of the public and for walking tours of the city.
This normalization of the working day, first to ten hours, later to nine and eight, began to bring some order to the chaos of exploitation on the docks. It helped make work available for more workers, made conditions safer, gave workers more time for family and community. The bell rang out, in their words, a “message of hope for the workers”.
With more than 1500 members in the 1860s, the Labourers’ Benevolent Association was one of the largest local labour unions in the Dominion of Canada at the time of Confederation. In an age when governments took little interest in such things, they negotiated wage agreements and provided benefits to thousands of injured workers and to the families of the hundreds of men killed on the docks.
And they built solidarities with other workers. They struggled to overcome ethnic and religious divisions, and in the face of a centralizing economy, they joined the International Longshoremen’s Association to strengthen unions in all the ports of the Atlantic coast.
The longshoremen helped establish the provincial Federation of Labour and lead the campaign for workers’ compensation, a cause that all of social reformer Frank Hatheway’s logic and passion could not win until the union took up the cause with a determination that could not be ignored. They went on to push for mothers’ allowances, minimum wages, pensions and other reforms that benefited all workers in the province.
The longshore workers also knew how to respect picket lines, and two notable examples can be mentioned here. In 1949 they stood with the Canadian Seamen’s Union when Canadian sailors were on strike in ports around the world. And in 1979, they supported protests against the repression of civil rights in Argentina and the export of heavy water supplies to the military dictatorship there.
It is not possible to know if the Supreme Court of Canada was thinking of the Saint John longshoremen when they ruled in 2007 that union rights and collective bargaining are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As the court decision put it, the rights of labour are “the culmination of an historical movement” towards greater democracy that has made them a “fundamental aspect of Canadian society”. To understand these kinds of rights, all citizens need to know this kind of history.
There is no better example than the story of the longshore workers of Saint John and their union that is now one of the oldest continuously existing labour organizations in the country. By joining together in a shared cause, ordinary workers, with relatively few skills and little economic security, supported by their families and communities, found a way to raise their standard of living, to improve conditions at work and to share their achievements with fellow workers. This is a story that deserves to be known by all Canadians.
David Frank is a labour historian. He is the author of Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (Athabasca University Press, 2013).