Francis X. Crilley was born in Saint John on November 3, 1907. He was the son of an Irish immigrant, who came to Saint John and worked as a bricklayer. Frank learned about the labour movement early in life as his Father was an active member of Local 1, of the Bricklayers Masons and Plasters International Union.
Frank attended local schools where he graduated from St. Vincent’s Boys School. He went on to attend St. Joseph’s University. In 1927, he travelled to New Jersey to work with the Lehigh Valley Railway Co. Returning to Saint John in 1930, he found work on the docks with the Canadian Banana Company as a Steamship Checker. In 1931, he joined Local 273, of the International Longshoremen Association (ILA) and in 1938 he organized the Steamship Clerks into an ILA Local.
In 1949, the Canadian Seamen’s Union struck all vessels flying the Canadian colours. Canadian Seamen walked off three ships that were tied up in Saint John and set up a picket line. The International Longshoremen Association issued orders from their New York office for the longshoremen to cross the picket lines and work the struck ships.
However, Frank Crilley, who at the time was the vice-president of ILA, Local 273, was having none of it. He knew that the support of the longshoremen was crucial for the Seamen, if they were to win the strike. The Canadian Seamen’s Union were affiliated to the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada and the Seamen’s strike was legal. Crilley dug in, publicly announced his support for the striking Seamen and urged his members to respect the picket line, in spite of threats that the International Union would revoke their Charter. Crilley debated with the Regional Vice-President of the International Union, who was using threats and intimation in an attempt to get the longshoremen to cross the picket line. Crilley won the debates and was successful in having the longshoremen respect the Seamen’s picket line for six weeks. Finally, the International Union expelled Crilley from the union for “disruptive practices.”
Frank Crilley was then labelled a communist—a label that stuck in some circles until the day he died—and blacklisted on the waterfront. The only work he got during the 1949/50 winter season was shovelling snow off the CNR tracks for twenty-five cents per hour. Down, but not out, Frank Crilley never turned his back on the labour movement. His union principles had cost him his livelihood, but to the day he passed away he would never question that he made the right decision. History has shown that it was his finest hour.
Crilley finally got work, in 1951, as a CNR freight handler where he organized the workers into Local 297, of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers (CBRT&GW). Over the years, he held every elected office in Local 297 and for a number of years was chairman of the Board of Trustees of the CBRT&GW.
He held various offices in the Saint John District Labour Council and served as a Vice-President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (1965-1969). For a number of years Crilley was labour’s representative on the Public Service Labour Relation Board. He also served as a Director of the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission.
When he was forced to retire early, due to a work related illness, the Saint John District Labour Council held a testimonial dinner for him. On April 11, 1970, labour leaders from across Canada crowded into the Admiral Beatty Hotel to pay tribute to a man who never wavered in his support for the trade union movement and the working class. Some of those in attendance included: J.K. Bell, Sec-Treas., Nova Scotia Federation of Labour; John Simonds, Executive Secretary of the Canadian Labour Congress; Cupe’s Grace Hartman and Lofty McMillan; Paul LePage, President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour; Angus MacLeod of the Marine Workers Federation and many more. Almost every affiliate of the Saint John District Labour Council were represented. Among the numerous gifts and awards he was presented with was one from the Bricklayers Masons & Plasters Union, who made Frank an Honorary member, giving him the same number his father had carried in his union book.
Perhaps, J.K. Bell summed up the feelings for all, when he told the audience, “This is a story of an idealistic young man who had a vision; who saw the wider seaway, the longer run, and who maintained his hope for humanity with deep feeling and sensitivity.” Crilley’s response to all this praise was that he simply wanted to be remembered as “Longshoreman, Frank Crilley.” Always a man of wit, he told the audience that when he was in the hospital he had received a card from his union wishing him a speedy recovery by a vote of 117 to 56.
Frank Crilley was also known as labour’s intellect. His music was that of Caruso or Paul Robeson. He would often quote Shakespeare, Robbie Burns or Hamlet. It was often said that it was difficult to tell when he was quoting Shakespeare or Burns or when he was speaking for himself. On the third day of the 1964 New Brunswick Federation of Labour convention, President James Whitebone called on Brother Crilley to give the invocation to commence the proceedings, which he read as follows:
Look to this day for in it lies the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and
realities of your existence. The bliss of growth,
the glory of action, the splendour of beauty;
For yesterday is already a dream, and to-morrow
is only a vision, but to-day well lived makes every
yesterday a dream of happiness, and every to-morrow
a vision of hope. Look well therefore to this day.
Such is a salutation of the dawn.
When he passed away on June 19, 1982 an editorial in a local newspaper described him in these terms, “Tall and slight in build, neat as the proverbial pin in dress, jolly and witty whether in personal conversation or at public functions, when he returned home he would reach for his Shakespeare, his Robbie Burns. He would read and re-read, and study and memorize, putting aside for the while the problems which his day’s, often night’s, duties had brought.”
Frank Crilley never married and at the time of his death was survived by one sister and some nieces and nephews. His remains rest in St. Joseph Cemetery in East Saint John.