The early 20th century was a time of economic growth. The province was becoming increasingly industrialized and urbanized, and people were leaving the countryside to work in town where there were lots of jobs. This period of growth, however, also brought inequality. Businessmen were getting richer, but workers often lived and worked in terrible conditions.

Why unions?

Until 1872, unions were illegal organizations. In 1880, the Knights of Labour was one of the first unions to arrive in Quebec. They demanded better wages, shorter working hours and better hygiene and safety conditions for workers. They also called for a ban on hiring children under the age of 15, and for equal pay for men and women.

Unionism made great strides in the early 20th century. During this time, several labour groups were created, and the number of union members rose from about 10 000 in 1901 (3% of workers), to 97 800 in 1921 (17% of workers).

Thanks in part to pressure from these unions, the Quebec government began to improve its work-related laws. In 1909, the government passed the Worker’s Compensation Act so that victims of work-related accidents could be compensated. Other laws were passed to protect children and women. For example, in 1909, the minimum age for working in a factory was set at 14.

Unions today

Today, nearly 40% of all Quebec workers are unionized. Agencies like the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail—CSST) (occupational health and safety) and the Commission des normes du travail du Quebec (labour standards) protect all workers against abuse and neglect.

Did you know that workers in Quebec and British Columbia are the only workers in Canada who are protected by anti-strikebreaking legislation? In other words, employers do not have the right to hire temporary workers to replace workers on strike. Workers have indeed made much progress since the early 20th century.

Author: Service national du Récit de l’univers social