James Leonard Sugrue was born in Saint John, N.B. on September 1, 1883. He was the son of James Robert Sugrue and Mary Josephine Driscoll, both of Irish descent. On June 10, 1908, he married Estella Newman. They had one son.
Sugrue began work in the construction industry as a carpenter. He became a member of Local 919 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and in 1910 he was elected financial secretary of the local. His abilities as a union leader were soon recognized by the membership and in 1913 he was elected the local union’s business agent. That same year he was elected president of the Saint John District Labour Council and secretary-treasurer of the new Building Trades Council.
In 1914, he ran as a labour candidate for city commissioner and increased the labour vote substantially. That same year he was instrumental in convincing the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada to hold their annual convention in Saint John. It was during this period of time that he, also, served on a conciliation board, set-up under the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act of 1907, to deal with the notorious “1914 Street Railway Strike.” Sugure was able to convince the board to propose recognition of the union and the reinstatement of its president.
Sugrue’s most prominent contribution to the labour movement was his involvement in the formation of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour in 1913. He became its first president and was a strong voice for legislation that protected the rights of workers. As the Federation’s legislative representative he pushed for legislation that would improve the lot of workers on a number of fronts. He was particularly concerned with the inequities of the Workmen’s Compensation for Injuries Act that had been introduced in 1903. More advanced legislation had been adopted in a number of other provinces that included no-fault insurance, backed by mandatory assessments and administered by a compensation board. Sugrue pushed for similar legislation to be introduced in New Brunswick.
In 1917, Sugrue was appointed to a Royal Commission to consider amendments to the 1903 Workmen’s Compensation Act. Hearings were held throughout the province and the report of the Royal Commission resulted in the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1918. This Act called for a tripartite board to administrator the legislation. Employers strongly opposed the new legislation, while the labour movement supported it. The legislation was considered progressive at the time, notwithstanding that a number of occupations had been excluded.
Sugrue was appointed as labour’s representative on the newly established compensation board. This was a full-time salaried position. He remained on the board until his untimely death in 1930. While he was compelled to resign as president of the Federation upon accepting the appointment, he continued to speak at the annual conventions of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, keeping the workers abreast of the workings of the board.
Sugrue passed away on June 24, 1930, at the age of forty-six. He had been sick for two years prior to his death, and only able to work sporadically. His death was seen as a blow to the labour movement and the community. “Jimmie” (as he was often referred to) was remembered as having a kind disposition, as being an excellent orator and as a man of ideas. He was a pragmatic man, who believed in working within the system. In 1912, he was quoted as saying, “In the long run we hope to so improve conditions here that the people won’t leave for the west in search of better wages and shorter hours of labour.” The Catholic newspaper, the New Freemen, eulogized him as “a man who had given freely of his time in all movements for the betterment of the community.”
James Leonard Sugrue was laid to rest in St. Joseph Cemetery in East Saint John.