Toronto Printers Strike

by Doug Nesbitt

Only days before the Toronto Printers’ Strike of 1872, George Brown, a “father of Confederation” and founder/editor of the Globe, wrote that “it is utterly ridiculous to talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employer. The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case.”(1)The “tyranny of the employed” was a struggle for the nine-hour day, though the work week was still six days.(2)

The strike was the culmination of Canada’s first mass workers movement. In late 1871, many of the workers in Ontario and Québec were inspired by the nine-hour movement in England, which at the time was even supported by George Brown.(3) By January of 1872, mass meetings of mostly male workers, but their families too, were being held in virtually every urban centre in Ontario and Québec.

The Toronto printers’, represented by the Toronto Typographical Union, Canada’s oldest union were instrumental in the movement and were the first to transform words into deeds. After their demands for the nine hour day were not met, they struck on March 25, 1872.

The strike centered around George Brown’s globe, but engulfed every Toronto newspaper except the Leader which declared that “[t]he shortening of the hours of labour is one of the most commendable movements inaugurated by working men.” (4)The Leader’s owner/editor was Tory Mp James Beaty, who was keen on seeing George Brown, a leading Liberal MP, suffer from the strike. Despite offering important support to the strike, Beaty’s editorials warned against” obstinate dogmatism”, “ruffianism”, demagoguery and revolutionary ideas.(5)

The strike continued into April and helped lead to the biggest demonstration in Canadian History to that point. The Toronto Trades Assembly organized a march and rally on April 15. Two thousand workers gathered at the Trades Assembly Hall on King Street and marched down Yonge to College and then finally to Queen’s Park. Cheered along the way, the procession ballooned to then thousand by the time it reached Queen’s Park. Significant by contemporary standards, the demonstration was all the more remarkable considering Toronto’s population was just over 100,000.(6)

As working class Torontians threw their support behind the strikers, George Brown formed the “Master Printers’ Association”, a group of anti-union newspaper owners. The day after the demonstration on April 15, the Masters Printers’ Association secured the arrest of the entire 24 person strike committee.(7) Within hours for thousand Torontians gathered in Market Square to denounce George Brown and his Master Printers’ Association. Alongside labour militants, a Tory MPP and a representative of the Leader addressed the crowd. Defending the arrests, George Brown claimed that “[t]he proprietors have suffered for years from intolerable and increasing oppression and the effort they are now making is to free themselves from it and gain control of their own business.”(8)

The events of April 15 and 16 forced the federal government to play its hand. Prime Minister MacDonald, whose Tory Part had cultivate electoral support through the Leaders pro-worker stance, was faced with “a leading Liberal, George Brown, threatening to destroy the workers’ movement” and “an insurgent labour movement talking of going into politics itself.”(9) On April 18 Prime Minister John A. MacDonald introduced and passed the Trade Union Act to legalize unions.

The nine hour day was not won and in this sense, the strike was lost. But an unexpected and much larger victory was achieved; the legalization of unions. However, alongside the Trade Union Act, MacDonald passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made demonstrations and picketing illegal. And while unions were now legal, employers did not have to recognize or negotiate with them.

The Toronto Printers’ Strike was a first step in advancing the collective interest of the Canadian workers, and to this day, the rights of Canadian workers in Canada remain the monument to bitter strikes, mass demonstration and the day-to-day struggles to make ends meet.

(1) Globe, 23, March 1872
(2) Toronto Typographical Union, Minutes, 24 February 1872.
(3) Globe, 20, September, 1871
(4) Leader, 18 March 1872
(5) Ibid, 23, March 1872, 5 April 1872.
(6) Sally Zerker, The Rise and Fall of the Toronto Typographical Union, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 90.
(7) Charles Lipton, The Trade Union Movement in Canada, (Montreal: Canadian Social Publications Ltd., 1966), 30.
(8) Globe, 17 April 1872.
(9) Lipton, 32.

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