James Alexander Whitebone was born in Saint John on May 31, 1894. He was the son of Jacob, an immigrant who came to Saint John from Amsterdam and worked as a cigar-maker, and Sarah (Pentland) Whitebone. In November, 1918, he married Lillian Gertrude Lynch. They did not have any children.
He claimed to have joined his first union at the age of sixteen. When he passed away on February 17, 1970 his contribution to the labour movement had been such that he was fondly remembered as “New Brunswick’s Mr. Labour.”
Whitebone was educated in the Saint John public school system. He went to work at the age of thirteen as an assistant projectionist. The hours were long and the wages were low. He found himself working ten hours a day for four dollars a week. In spite of this difficult beginning, he continued to work in the industry as a projectionist and stage electrician for the rest of his working life. He was still working at the Paramount Theatre in 1968.
During the latter part of the First World War he served in the 1st Depot Battalion, New Brunswick Regiment and during the Second World War he served as a warrant officer with the Reserve Coast Artillery (Searchlight Battery). He supported the “no strike pledge” that was adopted by many unions in support of the war effort. On July 1, 1946 he was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.) in recognition of his service during the war to the labour movement and the country.
In 1920, Whitebone organized his fellow workers into the International Alliance of Theatre and Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators, Local 440. He was elected Secretary and Business Agent of the Local and continuously held these positions until his death in 1970.
In 1927, he was elected president of the Saint John Trades and Labour Council, the forerunner to the Saint John and District Labour Council, and served in that position until 1942. In 1943, he accepted the position of Secretary-Treasurer of the Trades & Labour Council and served in that office continuously for many years. He served as president of the Saint John and District Labour Council from 1960-1964.
Whitebone was elected first vice-president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL) in 1930. When the president of the Federation resigned in 1932 he became acting president and was subsequently elected president in 1933.With the exception of two brief interruptions—in 1935 and 1959—Whitebone served as president of the Federation until 1964. In all, he was president of the NBFL for twenty-eight years.
In 1939, he was elected a vice-president of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC). In 1956, the TLC merged with the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) to form the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), with Whitebone continuing as a vice-president of the CLC until 1960.
During his time as president of the NBFL and vice-president of the TLC, Whitebone was well known both nationally and internationally in labour circles. In 1929, he was the fraternal delegate from the TLC to the convention of the American Federation of Labour and also served as the TLC delegate to the congress of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions at Milan, Italy. In 1945, he traveled to London, England, as a delegate to the organizational meeting of the World Federation of Trade Union Congress, and in 1952 he was an advisor to the Canadian workers’ delegate at the International Labour Conference in Geneva. He was, also, very active provincially, representing the labour movement on several provincial boards and commissions. In the 1960s he was a member of the provincial Royal Commission on Liquor.
Whitebone also had a long and successful career in municipal politics, being first elected as a Saint John city councilor in 1936. He continued to serve as a city councilor, on an on and off bases, until 1960. In all, he served sixteen years as a Saint John city councilor. In 1947, he held the position of county Warden. In 1958, he became the Deputy Mayor and then the Mayor of the city in 1960, when the incumbent Mayor passed away. He was, however, defeated when he ran for re-election in the next civic election.
During his time in municipal politics he served on numerous civic boards and commissions. He was a member of the first Saint John Harbour Bridge Authority, which was responsible for erecting the Harbour Bridge in 1968. It is interesting to note that at the same time Whitebone was serving as Mayor of Saint John, he held key positions in the labour movement, including; the president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour; vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress and president of the Saint John and District Labour Council.
He received a number of awards and honours for his many years of service, including, an “Award of Merit” from the CLC in recognition of long and faithful service to the labour movement in Canada. In 1956, he was honoured with a Canadian Picture Pioneers award for, “long and honourable service in the motion picture industry.” In 1961, the “Freedom of the City” was conferred on him, the highest honour the Saint John City Council can bestow. He was made the first honorary life president of the Saint John and District Labour Council. The NBFL also bestowed upon him the title of honorary President and established the James A. Whitebone Memorial Scholarships. Two scholarships are awarded annually to students entering their first year of post secondary studies.
Jimmy Whitebone, as he was referred to by his colleagues, was a dedicated and hard-working trade unionist, but pragmatic, cautious, a master of diplomacy and somewhat conservative. Whitebone was not a socialist. He endorsed the expulsion of the more radical unions from the TLC and his political philosophy was similar to that of Samuel Grompers, the first president of the America Federation of Labour, which was to not be aligned with any political party, but to, “support our friends and defeat our enemies.”
When he finally retired as president of the NBFL he told the convention delegates, “There is no more rewarding service than that rendered to the working people, and to be chosen to represent and serve them is a privilege and an honour not to be considered lightly.”
When he passed away, at the age of seventy-six, there were many compliments and tributes in recognition of his many years of service to the working people of New Brunswick. A newspaper editorial entitled “Mr. Labour’s Long Service” stated, “He won the confidence of his fellow workers, of business, of government at all levels and of the voters of his community, and held it in rare measure throughout a long career… New Brunswick was the richer for his life and the poorer for his death.”
He was survived by two sisters and several nieces and nephews. His wife had died in 1965. His remains rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in West Saint John.