Lethbridge Opinion

Lethbridge has a long labour history

Given its propensity to vote in Conservative representatives, Lethbridge is known as a conservative stronghold. But it actually has a significant labour history going back over a century.

Given its propensity to vote in Conservative representatives, Lethbridge is known as a conservative stronghold. But it actually has a significant labour history going back over a century.

In the late 19th century, for example, the Union Western Federation of Miners had a local in Lethbridge, one of only four unions in the province at the time. The union lasted only a few years, but the Western Federation of Miners came to Lethbridge in 1899 from Montana to help organize against wage cuts. They also advocated for 8-hour workday legislation, which ended up passing and applied to all of the Northwest Territories (Alberta didn’t exist as a province yet).

In 1905, local labour councils were formed in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Also in that year, workers held strikes in Southern Alberta, including Lethbridge, so that their recent membership with the United Mine Workers would be recognized by their employers.

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In February 1906, 363 Lethbridge miners joined United Mine Workers of America. The union submitted a contract to the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company, one of the Galt companies (yes, those Galts). The company refused the demands (where have we heard that before?). When the company also refused the union’s recommendation for arbitration, the workers went on strike, only a month after joining the union. The strike lasted until the end of the year and included workers in surrounding communities. The company hired scabs, but never saw the same production output that they had with the unionized workers. After much pressure from politicians, the two sides eventually made concessions. The workers received some benefits: a small wage increase and the right to collective bargaining. Even so, the company continued to ignore the union, and workers staged additional work stoppages in 1909, 1911, 1919, 1922, 1923, and 1924 in an effort to fight for their rights. Each of those strikes lasted for months, some as long as 8 months.

The 1906 UMWA strike had far-reaching effects throughout Alberta and Canada. It led directly to the federal Industrial Disputes Investigation Act in 1907 and the provincial Workman’s Compensation Act in 1907, as well as a legislated 8-hour work day in 1909. It also lead to amendments to the Coal Mines Act.

Did you know that the Alberta Federation of Labour started in Lethbridge? At a 1912 convention in Lethbridge chaired by local miner and independent labour MLA Donald McNabb, 34 delegates from unions and the United Farmers of Alberta joined forces to form the Alberta Federation of Labour, which focused on protecting working conditions and improving salaries and benefits for workers throughout Alberta.

Today, there are over 20 unions in Lethbridge, some of which are part of the Lethbridge & District Labour Council, which has operated in Lethbridge for decades and belongs to the Canadian Labour Congress.

Lethbridge has not only a long labour history, but a history that includes work actions that made a difference to the broader labour movement and workers who were willing to take a stand.

It seems as though the aggressive, proactive, confident labour actions of the past have been forgotten. Certainly it’s not reflected in the government representatives elected in our ridings.

Obviously conservative governments don’t care about labour needs. Liberal governments aren’t any better when it comes to labour. We’ve spent decades watching voters cycle between Liberals and Conservatives. And it’s not working. Both parties care only for owners, not for labour.

Maybe it’s time to change that. Maybe it’s time to remind people of the importance of organized labour to Lethbridge. Maybe it’s time we remind everyone that Lethbridge was built on the backs of unionized labour. Maybe it’s time to finally put aside spats from the past, come together, and get behind candidates who have labour interests at heart.

This post inspired me to write a book about the labour history of Lethbridge. I’m in the process of writing it, but I’m not sure when it will be out. I’ve fleshed out about two chapters so far.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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