- Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour by David Frank
Provincial Solidarities is a well-researched and accessible account of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour since its founding in 1913. David Frank’s study – published in both English and French – more than meets its stated goal of creating an “informed public awareness” about the role of workers’ organizations in society. That goal is enhanced by an impressive website (www.lhtnb.ca) that goes well beyond book promotion to provide an interactive community and teaching resource on New Brunswick labour history.
Through its well-organized chronology, amply illustrated with over fifty archival photographs, Provincial Solidarities details the influence of the Federation in advancing the interests of working people and, more broadly, building a more just society. Resolutions adopted at early federation conventions demonstrated its expansive goals: improved workplace safety, free school books and supplies for children, fair wages legislation, creation of a Bureau of Labour, free medical and dental exams for schoolchildren, protection of women and girls working in factories, labour representatives on public boards, government ownership of railways and utilities, and extension of the vote to women.
Frank convincingly demonstrates that the Federation’s influence rested on the necessary, ongoing task of building and rebuilding solidarity among workers and working-class organizations. Drawing its early support mainly from New Brunswick’s large urban centres and skilled, male workers, the Federation built on traditions of solidarity in local trades and labour councils dating back to the early nineteenth century. Speaking with a common voice, labour gained attention for its ideas and demands. To take one example, in 1918, after several years of Federation lobbying, recommendations from a provincial commission of inquiry, which included labour representatives, led to the passage of significant legislative reforms to New Brunswick’s workers’ compensation system – a sign that governments were prepared to respond to the expressed needs of organized workers speaking collectively.
Frank also traces the Federation’s many efforts over its history to defend workers from repeated attacks by employers and governments. In the context of the Great Depression, widespread unemployment, and several unsuccessful strikes for union recognition, the Federation [End Page 130] lobbied for provincial legislation establishing a basic regime of collective bargaining. The passage in 1938 of the Labour and Industrial Relations Act and amendments to the Fair Wages Act represented significant milestones, but legislation fully enforcing union recognition and employers’ duty to bargain remained elusive until the passage of the new Labour Relations Act in 1947. For public sector workers, the struggle took another two decades; their right to organize was finally achieved in 1968 – a victory won, as Frank demonstrates, through the Federation’s channelling of the collective, organized power of working people.
Yet the Federation also faced a difficult task in building, expanding, and maintaining solidarity over time. It never attracted the majority of unions and unionized members in the province. As a result, as Frank observes, the Federation’s ideals of solidarity were even more vulnerable to being undermined by an unstable provincial economy, and by divides of economic geography and “hierarchies of status and stature based on differences of skill, language, ethnicity, and gender” (10).
This history illustrates the importance of bringing broader constituencies into the house of labour. With the merger of the rival New Brunswick Council of Labour into the Federation in 1956, labour’s voice in the province became stronger and more diverse. The subsequent decade saw a greater role, including as Federation officers, for women, African-Canadians and Acadians in the new, bigger house of labour, and a greater emphasis on issues such as an internal Federation commitment to bilingualism, equal pay for women, daycare, and maternity leave.
The ascendancy in the 1970s of a neo-liberal agenda prompted a sustained period in which collective – and more militant – action ramped up in the face of repeated, sustained attacks by employers and government aimed at weakening employment standards, wages, and public services. Frank explores examples of significant collective action, such as the 1972 Days...