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Alberta Federation of Labour

On Strike!Over the years, a number of labour organizations in Alberta have come and gone. At their height, many advocated radical ideas and tactics to achieve justice in the workplace. When their goals became unpopular or their methods failed, most of these unions suffered defeat from which they could not recover.

A few labour organizations, though, have endured. The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), formed in 1912, stands out in this regard.  The AFL is a labour central, made up of many unions who have voluntarily affiliated to deal with common concerns. Its ideas for economic reform have wavered from radical left-wing to reactionary. So too have the parties the AFL has supported over the years changed. Yet the federation has overcome ideological differences and political setbacks to promote workers’ interests before government.

Early Labour Unions

The AFL was not the first organization in Alberta established to bring together a wide range of trades and industries. The Knights of Labour, an international body representing mostly unskilled workers, set up a chapter in Calgary in 1886. The Knights advocated education and the formation of cooperatives to achieve labour reform. The American Federation of Labour pushed aside the Knights in Canada in 1902 but would not represent unskilled workers. It affiliated with the United Mine Workers and several craft unions in North America.

Calgary Daily HeraldAnother all-inclusive union came to Alberta around 1912: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The Wobblies, as the organization was popularly known, attempted to foment a socialist revolution by holding a series of general strikes in different cities across western Canada. For a time, these protests united workers and brought production to a halt. However, most demonstrations ended in arrests and labourers going back to work on their employers’ terms. In more prolonged strikes, strikebreakers protected by RCMP constables were brought in, enabling production in mines, on railroads and elsewhere to resume. When the strikes ended, many former employees were blacklisted, prohibiting them from working for the same company.

The AFL's Strategy

The AFL represented skilled and unskilled labourers, as did the IWW. However, its members were affiliated unions, not individual workers. Furthermore, the AFL focused on achieving political action that would improve working conditions rather than confronting employers. It lobbied the Alberta government and made resolutions on behalf of unemployed workers before and after World War I and during the Great Depression. It also published Alberta Labour News , one of several labour newspapers at the time.

The AFL twice threatened to call general strikes in 1919. In January, it demanded the release of a Diamond City miner jailed for the possession of banned literature. Later that year, the AFL gave its executive authority to call a general strike should any government attempt to suppress the new Soviet regime. While such a protest never occurred, many demonstrations in support of communism were held in Alberta and North America.

Calgary Daily HeraldThe AFL demanded these terms and promoted industrial unionism even against the interests of other labour groups. The Canadian Trades and Labour Congress (TLC), composed mainly of eastern representatives, had sided with the federal Conservative government during the Great War. They saw little use for industrial unions in the manufacturing centres, where workers were better organized than in the west. Frank Wheatley, who became the AFL’s president in 1922, helped organize a Western Labour Conference in Calgary to address these issues in 1919. The delegation also discussed the formation of a secessionist movement to the TLC. The One Big Union (OBU) they formed was a radical industrial union, advocating socialist principals and protest strategies similar to the IWW’s.

The OBU arose during the height of labour protest in western Canada. The Winnipeg General Strike, involving about 35 000 workers from many occupations, began on May 15, 1919 and spread to other cities including Calgary and Edmonton. The federal government, fearing a communist uprising, deported a number of naturalized citizens involved in the strikes. The RCMP also arrested strike leaders and other protestors, mostly in Winnipeg. These actions weakened the OBU and reinforced the effectiveness of political over direct action.

Support for Political Parties

Strikers from One Big Union (OBU)A number of left-wing parties arose, partly in response to the failure of strikes. During the tumultuous years during and after World War I, the AFL supported the radical Socialist Party of Canada. In 1919, the Communist Party of Canada and the rival Dominion Labour Party (DLP) were established. More radical AFL leaders supported the former party, while trade unions generally backed the DLP. The AFL reorganized the DLP as the Canadian Labour Party (CLP) in 1922. CLP members had some success in municipal politics, but they were unable to unite all workers. Farmers in the province had their own association and political party: the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA). The federation later aligned with the UFA party, after the CLP collapsed. From 1932, the AFL followed the UFA in supporting the new Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The CCF had little success in Alberta provincial politics, although many of its members were elected to the Edmonton City Council.

In later years, the AFL became less radical, distancing itself further from the floundering communist movement. The Great Depression brought increasing social activism, but the UFA and early Social Credit governments were more amenable to left-wing views. The Socreds passed the first minimum wage and overtime laws in Canada in 1937. Still, AFL president Fred White warned that the federation should not depend on the Socreds too much.

White’s fears were well-grounded: the Social Credit government took a sharp right turn under Ernest Manning , but so did the AFL. By the late forties, the federation had aligned with the government, even though Manning was opposed to unions. As AFL president Harry Boyse said in 1950, "Labour and government must work together." The federation even endorsed a Social Credit Bill preventing illegal strikes.

The Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL), formed in 1939, continued to represent more left-wing attitudes but had little success organizing industrial unions in Alberta. In response, the CCL formed the Industrial Federation of Labour of Alberta (IFL) in 1949. The AFL and IFL became bitter rivals until several young "turks" replaced the right-wing AFL leaders in the mid-fifties. Both federations signed a no-raiding pact in 1955, and they merged in 1956. The CCL and conservative TLC also merged that year as the Canadian Labour Congress. Both new organizations were divided between leaders who sided with company and craft unions and those following the principals of traditional industrial unions.

The expanded AFL became more activist amidst the predominantly right-wing political climate of the late 1950’s. The labour movement received a boost when the CCF reorganized as the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1960. The AFL has supported the NDP and attempted to introduce labour resolutions through the opposition party. However, some affiliated unions have become dissatisfied with the NDP’s policies and its effectiveness toward achieving political change. Currently, the AFL is evaluating its alliance with the NDP and the possibility of initiating a new political movement.

Since its foundation in 1912, the Alberta Federation of Labour has represented a wide cross-section of unions and non-unionized workers in Alberta. It has pursued goals as specific as reducing specific cutbacks in occupational health and safety spending and as broad as the end of the wage system. The federation continues to lobby government and publish Labour News , awakening politicians and its affiliates to working conditions and labour laws in the province. While the AFL has undergone significant changes, it has remained a strong voice in politics for Alberta’s workers.

Learn more about the Alberta Federation of Labour !

 

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