James Edmund Tighe (known as “Ned” to his closest friends and colleagues) was born in Saint John, N.B., on March 22, 1878. He was the son of Irish-born Patrick Tighe and Nova Scotia born Mary Driscoll. On July 6, 1909, he married Sarah Louise Garnett. They had one son, William Patrick. Sarah died in 1918. In 1925, he married his second wife, Isabel Andrews. They had one daughter, Margaret Ann.
Tighe attended St. Peter’s School, but went to work early in life on the Saint John waterfront and for a short period of time worked as a longshoreman. He soon headed west, where he worked for a number of years as a trainman and brakeman with the Canadian National Railway.
Returning to Saint John in 1904, Tighe went back to work as a longshoreman and became a member of the local Longshoremen’s Association. In 1909, he was elected to the Association’s executive. He became the driving force that in 1911 brought the local association into the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), as Local 273. It was at this point that his union career began in earnest. In 1912, he became employed as the Local’s business agent and at the 1913 convention of the International Union was elected Third-vice-president. He organized longshoremen in Halifax, in the Miramichi and Restigouche areas and became the key representative for the ILA in the Maritimes. A new organization called the “ILA Atlantic Coast District” was formed at this time, and Tighe played a major role in its formation.
A pioneer in the organization of the labour movement in New Brunswick, Tighe was one of the founding members of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL). He was elected a vice-president of the Federation in 1916 and in 1921 was elected president, a position he held until 1929. He was again elected president of the NBFL in 1934. During his years as president he worked tirelessly for legislation that would improve the working conditions in the province. He stepped down from the presidency in 1936, stating, “I want to make way for younger men, while still doing my fair share.”
Tighe’s abilities as a labour leader were recognized by his brothers in the ILA, when in 1927 they elected him the First-vice-president, the second highest position in the organization. He continued to be re-elected as First-vice-president until his untimely death in 1937. Tighe was known as a prominent labour leader nationally and internationally. In 1929, he travelled to Geneva Switzerland to attend the 13th conference of the International Labour Organization, as a representative of the Federal Department of Labour. He was a regular delegate to the annual conventions of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC). When the TLC held their convention in Saint John in 1929, Tighe was acknowledged in the Saint John Globe as “The man who brought the labour Congress to Saint John.”
Tighe fought hard for such things as vocational training, mother’s allowances, minimum wages, workers compensation and old age pensions. But he was not a socialist. He was a supporter of the Liberal Party and had somewhat of a conservative streak in him. In 1928, he was quoted as stating, “The employment of workers with ‘unpronounceable names’ was forcing our own men to continue to leave the Province.” He was a strong supporter of the ILA President, Joseph P. Ryan (aka King Joe), who ran the ILA with an iron fist. However, he did not hesitate to protect the interest of the Canadian workers. Speaking at the 1923 ILA International Convention, he stated, “As far as I am concerned, I am here in the interest of the Canadian Locals, and I will get up anytime they or myself are not used right”…
In 1937, Tighe’s mother passed away and on Sunday evening, November 7th, he was attending his mother’s wake. Later that evening, while traveling south on Main Street, he collided head-on with a streetcar. He died in the Saint John General Hospital the following day at the age of fifty-nine. Numerous tributes were received from national, international and local labour organizations. As word of his death spread, it shocked the community. James Whitebone, the president of the NBFL and a Saint John city councillor, praised him as a thorough labour man, very sincere in his work and that he had helped to build the labour movement up to its present standard. Condolences arrived from the Shipping Federation of Canada, provincial and federal politicians and flowers were received from all parts of Canada and the United States.
ILA, Local 273 announced “That work would be suspended Thursday morning so that members could attend Mr. Tighe’s funeral.” The Saint John Evening Times Globe reported that “Mourners from all walks of life assembled for his funeral and more than 1,000 people followed the body on its way to its last resting place in St. Joseph’s Cemetery.” The pallbearers consisted of the current President and Secretary-Treasurer of Local 273 and four former presidents of the Local. The newspaper reported that sympathy and condolences had been received from the Federal Minister of Labour, New Brunswick Premier A.A. Dysart and ILA President Joseph P. Ryan of New York City. In 1939, when the ILA delegates gathered in New York City for their thirty-second convention, ILA President Joseph P. Ryan lamented the loss of his First-vice-president and dear friend “Ned Tighe.”
Tighe had risen from the Saint John waterfront to a top position in an international union. Yet, he had never forgotten where he came from, continuing to bring concerns of Canadian workers to the international arena and to dutifully discharge his responsibilities as a Canadian labour leader protecting the interest of Canadian workers on the international stage.
His death was an enormous blow to the local longshoremen and they decided to honour their fallen leader with an appropriate monument. At an ILA Local 273 union meeting on January 3, 1938, the members adopted a resolution to assess every member twenty-five cents, to finance the project. In August 1938, a large granite stone was placed on Tighe’s grave lot, in St. Joseph Cemetery. The stone was designed and carved by two Local 273 members, Oscar Johnson and Thomas McGratton. On the top of the stone is engraved a cargo ship. The wording on the stone reads:
Erected to the Memory of James E. Tighe Vice-President International Longshoremen’s Association by his Brother Members of Local 273 I.L.A. The Port of Saint John.