By: David Frank
All night long the foghorn sounded on Partridge Island. When day broke on the first Monday morning in September 1902, it was cold and misty in the streets of Saint John. Still, nothing seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the men who crowded into the area around the Oddfellows Hall at Chipman Hill and Union Streets. They started to arrive at 9 a.m., some dressed in black suits and silk hats, others wearing white aprons, ribbons, badges or other decorations. By 11 a.m. there were more than 2,000 men in the streets. When Grand Marshall Samuel Cook of the Teamsters’ Union, mounted on a bay steed, signaled the start of the parade, the waiting men mounted their horses, climbed into carriages or lined up in marching rows. Accompanied by three bands, they proceeded along Union Street to Sydney, up Sydney to the south side of King Square, then around the square to the top of King Street and down King to Market Square. That was only the beginning of a long route that circled through the streets of the city and finished at the Exhibition Grounds more than three hours later.
This was not the first time workers in Saint John had marched through the streets of the city. By 1902 they had been taking to the streets for more than six decades. As early as 1840, when Saint John was one of strongholds of trade unionism in British North America, some 1,200 men representing ten different trades walked in a procession to the laying of the cornerstone for the new Mechanics’ Institute. They continued marching on various occasions in the following decades, and when the Dominion of Canada established an official Labour Day in 1894, the celebration in Saint John was the largest in the Maritime Provinces. With their handsome silk banners and decorative floats, these labour parades were part of the vigorous street culture of the 19th century, a kind of public education that reminded fellow citizens of the visible presence of the working class in the social and economic life of the community. In these parades there was the unmistakable message that the prosperity of the province depended, as always, on the skill and muscle of the wealth producers of the land. As one of the banners proclaimed in the 1894 parade, “Capital and Labour Should Go Hand in Hand in the March of Progress”.
This theme of demanding respect for the rights of workers was prominent again in 1902. It was a time when local unions were worried about the place of labour in the changing world of the early 20th century. In the ruthless competitive conditions of the times, too many employers were tempted to exploit the labour of children and women, ignore health and safety hazards in the workplace reduce the wages of the skilled workers, smash their unions and bring in strikebreakers. In 1901 the condition of organized labour in Saint John was considered to be at a low ebb, and there had been no Labour Day parade for several years. But by 1902 the city’s unions had embarked on a new organizing drive, and many unions had strengthened their position by joining the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada and the American Federation of Labor. Meanwhile, the Saint John Trades and Labour Council was inviting the city’s workers to come out in force for a Labour Day parade and, in this way, to claim their place in the progress of the 20th century.
From contemporary newspaper reports of that year’s parade, it is possible to list many of the participating unions and their numbers as well as some of the union officers of the time. The Teamsters’ Union, for instance, was represented by as many as 200 mounted men; union officers followed in two carriages, including J.E. Fisher, Charles Colwell and Robert Harris, accompanied as well by several older members of the trade. The iron moulders, 40 in number and led by David Connolly and Charles E. Wales, made a striking impression in their black trousers, white gloves, blue shirts and white ties. The 40 bricklayers marched in Panama straw hats, blue shirts, black pants and white aprons, led by their president William Goldsworthy. The 60 painters, with President George Hay at their head, wore white overalls, white caps and white neckties. The 50 printers were dressed in frock coats and silk hats and wearing union badges and led by President Fred W. Emms. The bartenders rode on decorated buckboards and wore yachting caps and white duck coats with black ties.
Some of the delegations also featured instructive floats. The Freight Handlers’ Union, representing workers at the Canadian Pacific and Intercolonial Railways, were led by Michael Driscoll, Joseph Daley and Peter Sharkey; their float was a 20-foot model of a freight car
“rich with every detail of car construction”. The carpenters and joiners were counted at 54 men, including President Robert Gabriel, and their ingeniously built float demonstrated a fully operational carpenters’ shop; their banner carried the slogan “Labor Conquers Everything”. Another notable display was manned by about 40 sawyers from several of the local mills; these workers were demonstrating a New Brunswick-built shingle-making machine that was powered by the moving wheels of the wagon; the president of the Shingle Sawyers’ and Bunchers’ Union was John Lemmon. The Cigar Makers’ Union attracted special attention for their float, which was drawn by four horses and featured 15 men making small cigars, all of which were wrapped in a special souvenir union label from Local 340 and distributed to the crowds along the way.
The largest single contingent, estimated at 500 men, came from the Ship Labourers’ Union, the longshoremen’s union that dated back to the 1840s. They marched in uniforms of black pants, white belts, white bowties and blue shirts with the initials S.L.U. across the front. In the centre of their columns was one of the most popular floats in the parade, a huge model of the barque Robert Reed, complete with sails and rigging. They were led by President John Killen and the veteran union leader M.J. Kelley. In their front ranks the longshoremen carried a large banner showing a vessel under full sail, along with the name of their union and the words “Labor Creates all Wealth”.
The most prominent names in the reports were those of the officers of the Saint John Trades and Labour Council, including President William H. Coates of the typographical union, Secretary Charles M. Stevens of the cigar makers’ union, Vice-President William Keefe of the bartenders’ union and Treasurer Peter Sharkey of the freight handlers’ union. When the parade reached the grandstand at the Exhibition Grounds — by associating the parade with the Exhibition, the union leaders were once more making a connection between the city’s working class and local ambitions for civic progress — President Coates presented a gold headed cane to Vice-President Keefe for his part in organizing the parade. Another souvenir was presented to Alderman John McGoldrick, of Stanley Ward, who rode in one of the first carriages in the parade. Then there were speeches in support of labour organization, but no details of the remarks were provided in the newspapers.
One consistent theme in the reports was the repeated comment on the impressive appearance and respectable behaviour of the city’s workers. Typical was an editorial in the Daily Sun: “it is doubtful if any city on the continent the size of St. John could produce so fine a body of men representing the various trades and industries. . . . It was not alone that the men were physically superior but they leave with the observer the impression of manliness and independence and give evidence that they live sober, orderly lives.”
From all this evidence, we can conclude that there were no women in these ranks — if there had been this would certainly have been noted — so there was no sense of irony when reports referred to the “manliness” of the marching workers. Indeed, most of the unions mentioned were identified with the city’s traditional trades and skills, and in this respect the marchers represented only a minority of the city’s workers. There were no references to the thousands more unorganized, often unskilled workers, including women and children, who worked in the city’s cotton mills, sawmills and other factories. Moreover, at a time when most unions excluded non-white workers from membership, the only black citizens noted in the reports were “an assembly of colored musicians and vocalists” mounted on a wagon entered by the Teamsters’ Union.
As the marchers passed through the streets, waiting crowds cheered and applauded, and the message of the importance of labour to the economic life of the city seemed to be understood. As one reporter observed, “The parade afforded to the thousands which thronged the route a clear insight into the scope of some of the city’s trades and industries and manifested the rightful pride which is taken in the varied fields of honest human endeavor”. Interestingly, one prominent member of the audience was the province’s lieutenant governor, J.B. Snowball, an old-time lumber baron who was a dedicated enemy of organized labour during the days when he was blacklisting workers and recruiting strikebreakers on the Miramichi. But on Labour Day 1902 Snowball stood on a balcony at the Dufferin Hotel and bowed and lifted his hat to each of the passing unions. In turn, observed one reporter, his courtesy “was returned with cheers and the hearty waving of hats”.
While this acknowledgement of the King’s representative was a sign of working-class deference to established authority, the parade also revealed indications of labour’s independent political outlook. Seated in a place of honour in a horse-drawn carriage, alongside William H. Coates and J.W. Fanjoy of the Trades and Labour Council, were two prominent supporters of organized labour, George V. McInerney and W. Frank Hatheway. Both were already nominated to stand as labour candidates in the next provincial election. Their platform included ideas such as a workers’ compensation plan, restrictions on child labour and support for technical education.
Hatheway would in due course be elected to the legislature (as a Conservative-Labor candidate) and would be remembered in New Brunswick as a father of workers’ compensation. Meanwhile, during the next several years’ leaders of the labour council would work closely with social reformers such as Hatheway (and other members of the local Fabian League) and Emma Fiske (a leader of the Local Council of Women). Together they achieved the enactment of the province’s first Factory Act in 1905, a law that restricted the employment of children under 14 years of age and provided for the inspection of safety conditions in the workplace. At the time, this law was at least 20 years overdue in New Brunswick and far from satisfactory in its coverage or implementation, but the 1905 Factory Act marked the beginning of labour legislation that has attempted to maintain standards in New Brunswick comparable to those in other provinces.
From this perspective, that well organized Labour Day parade of a century ago marked the entry of Saint John labour into the 20th century. It was a time when most workers did not belong to unions, so there were more workers in the streets watching the parade than there were in the line of march. Even those who were organized had relatively little power in dealing with employers, except when they had the solidarity of large numbers or the advantage of skills that were in much demand. Unions themselves had barely started to think about such issues as the organization of workers regardless of skill, gender, ethnicity, colour, age or industry. Despite appearances, the position of unions in society was still weak. Although unions were legal, there were no laws to protect the workers’ right to join a union or to engage in collective bargaining with employers. Nor were there any laws to provide for minimum wages or vacation pay, workers’ compensation or pensions, unemployment insurance or health care. Organized labour was still in a minority, but these workers in the Labour Day parade in 1902 represented the beginning of a long march into the future. They knew they would need their unions and the support of their community to make a difference. In the century ahead, there was much to be done.
David Frank is a professor of history at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. He specializes in labour history and has published numerous articles on the Cape Breton Coal Miners. His latest contribution is a biography of J.B. MacLaughlan the working class leader from Cape Breton in the 1920’s and 30’s.