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History of the IWW in Canada

Excerpted from A Brief History of the IWW outside the US (1905 – 1999) by F.N. Brill. 

Five Branches were formed in BC in 1906, including a Lumber Handlers Job Branch composed of Indigenous Canadians.

By 1911, the IWW claimed 10,000 members in Canada, notably in mining, logging, Alberta agriculture, longshoring and the textile industry.

In 1912 the IWW fought a fierce free speech fight in Vancouver, forcing the city to rescind a ban on public street meetings.

Organizing began in 1911 among construction workers building the Canadian Northern Railway in BC. In September a quick strike of 900 workers halted 100 miles of construction.

February 1912, IWW membership on the CN stood at 8,000.

March 27, unable to further tolerate the unbearable living conditions in the work camps, the 8,000 “dynos and dirthands” walked out. The strike extended over 400 miles of territory, but the IWW established a “1,000-mile picket line” as Wobs picketed employment offices in Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco, and Minneapolis to halt recruitment of scabs.

August, 1912 they were joined by 3,000 construction workers on the Grand Trunk Pacific in BC and Alberta.

“Scab on the job” tactic created, by sending convert Wobs into scab camps to bring the workers out on strike.

The IWW established an Edmonton Unemployed League, demanding that the city furnish work to everybody regardless of race, colour or nationality, at a rate of 30 cents an hour, and further, that the city distribute three 25-cent meal tickets to each man daily, tickets redeemable at any restaurant in town. On January 28, 1914 The city council agreed to provide a large hall for the homeless, passed out three 25-cent meal tickets to each man daily, and employed 400 people on a public project.

On September 24, 1918, a federal order in council declared that while Canada was engaged in war, 14 organizations were to be considered unlawful, including the IWW. Penalty for membership was set at 5 years in prison.

In 1919 Ontario lumber workers joined the OBU, but Wobbly delegates continued to bootleg union supplies to the minority who wanted to keep their IWW membership books as well, as well as did OBU-IWW delegates in B.C.

April 2, 1919 the ban on the IWW was lifted. Two branches were formed in Toronto and Kitchener.

By 1923 IWW had three branches with job control in Canada: Lumberworkers IU 120 and Marine Transport Workers IU 510 in Vancouver and an LWIU branch in Cranbrook BC for a total of 5,600 members.

1924 marked a peak year for the IWW in Canada. 8,000 in Northern Ontario, the Canadian Lumber Workers vote to join the IWW.

On January 1, 1924, IWW Lumber Workers IU120 struck the British Columbia lumber owners, calling for an 8 hour day with blankets supplied, minimum wage of $4 per day, release of all class war prisoners, no discrimination against IWW members and no censuring of IWW literature.

Fighting a mandatory dues check off to the United Mine Workers, Alberta Coal miners joined the IWW in 1924. The mine company unsuccessfully offered a 10% wage increase if they agreed to accept the UMWA.

Canadian delegates met in Port Arthur September 20, 1931, and voted to form a Canadian administration to coordinate specifically Canadian industrial activity.

IWW unemployment agitation generated a number of arrests. Ritchie’s Dairy in Toronto was unionized IWW for a time, and a fisher’s branch formed in McDiarmid, Ontario.

Organizing was undertaken in the Maritimes but did not sustain itself. In 1935 the IWW had 12 branches in Canada with 4,200 members.
IWW agitation continued strong in Canada until 1939, especially in northern Ontario. Wobbly units in Sudbury and Port Arthur were mixed membership branches of scattered lumbermen, miners and labourers.

During the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, the IWW in Ontario actively recruited for the revolutionary union militias in Spain.

In 1949 membership in Canada stood at 2,100 grouped in six branches; two in Port Arthur and one each in Vancouver, Sault Ste. Marie, Calgary and Toronto.

IN 1968 it was decided to sign up students alongside teachers and campus workers into Education Workers IU620. There followed a wild and erratic campus upsurge, two notables being Waterloo U in Ontario and New Westminster BC.

1974 In Vancouver a construction crew in Gastown was signed IWW — but certification was denied, the IWW declared not a “trade union under the meaning of the Act.”

1988 Student newspaper at Simon Fraser university organizes IWW.

1998 IWW organizes at Harvest Foods in Winnipeg, first legal Canadian IWW union in decades.

1999 IWW organizes series of shops along Whyte Avenue in Edmonton.

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