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Union Power

Working Canadians: Books from the CCLH

Series editors: Alvin Finkel and Greg Kealey

The Canadian Committee on Labour History is Canada’s organization of historians and other scholars interested in the study of the lives and struggles of working people throughout Canada’s past. Since 1976, the CCLH has published Labour/Le travail, Canada’s pre-eminent scholarly journal of labour studies. It also publishes books, now in conjunction with AU Press, that focus on the history of Canada’s working people and their organizations. The emphasis in this series is on materials that are accessible to labour audiences as well as university audiences rather than simply on scholarly studies in the labour area. This includes documentary collections, oral histories, autobiographies, biographies, and provincial and local labour movement histories with a popular bent.


Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist
Bert Whyte, edited and with an introduction by Larry Hannant

Working People in Alberta: A History
Alvin Finkel with contributions by Jason Foster, Winston Gereluk, Jennifer Kelly and Dan Cui, James Muir, Joan Schiebelbein, Jim Selby, and Eric Strikwerda

Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara
Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage

Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara


Carmela Patrias + Larry Savage



List of Abbreviations


Canallers Fight for Work and Fair Wages

The Early Labour Movement

Class and Ethnicity in the Early Twentieth Century

Labour Revolt in Niagara

Welfare Capitalism in Niagara

Unemployment and Organization During the Great Depression

The Crowland Relief Strike

The Cotton Mill Strike, 1936–37

The Monarch Strike

The CIO at McKinnon Industries

Fighting for Democracy on the Home Front, 1939–45

Niagara Labour’s Cold War

Women and Workers of Colour in the 1950s and 1960s

Ideologies Clashing: The 1970 UAW Strike

Strike Wave: 1972–76

Canadian Pulp and Paper Workers Fight Back

Corporate Restructuring and Labour’s Decline

The Eaton’s Strike: Women Workers Walk the Line

“Don’t Lower the Standard”: The Newsroom on Strike

Occupation in Thorold

Labour Builds Brock: Unions and the University

Living in a Dying Town: Deindustrialization in Welland

“Kicking Ass for the Working Class”: Hotel Workers in Niagara

The House Advantage: Organizing Niagara’s Casinos

Migrant Farm Workers in Niagara

Organized Labour and the New Democratic Party in Niagara





This book owes a great deal to a number of people. First and foremost, we are indebted to Ruth Frager, Wayne Thorpe, and Michelle Webber, for reading the manuscript and offering helpful suggestions for improvement, and to Hugo Chesshire, Roger Fast, and Bradley Walchuk, for their excellent research assistance.

Pamela MacFarland Holway and Megan Hall, at Athabasca University Press, were a pleasure to work with, and we are grateful as well to copy editor and indexer Jon Eben Field.

We would also like to acknowledge David Sharron and Edie Williams, in Special Collections at Brock University Library, Sandra Enskat, in Special Collections at the St. Catharines Public Library, Linda Kurki and Arden Phair, from the St. Catharines Museum, and Andrew Porteus, from the Niagara Falls Public Library, for their assistance in tracking down relevant materials.

The financial support of Brock University, particularly the university’s Jobs and Justice Research Unit, was greatly appreciated.

Finally, we thank labour activists in Niagara, past and present, who helped shape the content of this book with their stories of struggle and solidarity.



American Federation of Labor


Agricultural Workers Alliance


Canadian Auto Workers


Co-operative Commonwealth Federation


Canadian Congress of Labour


Communications, Energy and Paperworkers


Congress of Industrial Organizations


Canadian Labour Congress


Canadian Niagara Hotels


Canadian Paperworkers Union


Canadian Union of Public Employees


Golden Horseshoe Social Action Committee


General Motors


Growing Respect for Offshore Workers


Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Employees Union


International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers


International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees


International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union


Independent Labor Party


International Woodworkers of America


Laborers’ International Union of North America


Member of Parliament


Member of Provincial Parliament


New Democratic Party


Ontario Federation of Labour


Ontario Labour Relations Board


Ontario Public Service Employees Union


Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation


Plymouth Cordage Company


Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union


Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program


Trades and Labor Congress


United Automobile Workers of America


United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union


United Food and Commercial Workers Union


Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees


United Steelworkers of America


United Textile Workers of America



“Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power! What kind of power? Union power!” This call-and-response chant could be heard loud and clear at a 16 June 2007 rally in support of hotel workers in the heart of the Niagara Falls tourism district. UNITE HERE Local 2347, the union representing room attendants, servers, cooks, and bellhops working for three area hotels owned by Canadian Niagara Hotels, was locked in an intense and prolonged dispute with hotel management over intimidation of union activists, the unfair imposition of split shifts, and the non-payment of salary increases and negotiated bonuses.

Autoworkers, steelworkers, teachers, public service workers, postal workers, and university workers from across Niagara and throughout the province converged on the Sheraton on the Falls hotel in solidarity with the hotel workers to send a message to the hotel owners that the union was not going to back down without a fight. Union members and their allies peacefully marched through the streets waving flags and carrying banners demanding respect and dignity for hotel and hospitality workers. Different unions at the rally pledged their unwavering support for Local 2347 in its struggle against hotel management, emphasizing the need to stick together, stay strong, and keep up the fight.

Individually, workers have little bargaining power at work and little political power in their communities. When workers join together in unions, however, their collective voices have greater potential to shape and influence both the terms and conditions of their employment and the broader political, social, and economic spheres in which their employment relationships are embedded. Unlike corporate power, union power is not built on profit, status, or prestige. Instead, at its core, union power relies on the twin concepts of struggle and solidarity. Union and working-class solidarity is premised on the idea that workers have shared class interests and must struggle together, as a class, to achieve their goals. Where solidarity is strong, and the struggle is intense, union power is enhanced.

Niagara’s rich labour history is full of examples of union power. In some cases, as in Local 2347’s fight to defend its existence, workers managed to combat corporate power effectively. In other cases, especially when employers have been able to exploit divisions internal to the working class, whether based on ideology, race, or gender, union power has been weakened considerably, and the labour movement has lost ground. This book recounts and reflects on some of the pivotal union struggles and displays of working-class solidarity, past and present, that have shaped the character of Niagara’s labour movement. Although, on occasion, workers from across the peninsula have acted collectively on their own behalf, more often union struggles have taken place in individual workplaces and communities.


The Niagara region, 2011. Courtesy of the Brock University Map Library.


Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority map of the Niagara area, 1955. Courtesy of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

Canallers Fight for Work and Fair Wages

The right to work and fair wages have been workers’ goals since the earliest development of commercial capitalism in Niagara. Large numbers of waged workers first came to this area during the construction of the Welland Canal, which began in 1827. A few of these workers were skilled, such as the stonemasons who built dams and masonry locks, but the majority were unskilled labourers. Their work was both physically demanding and dangerous, much of it still completed by hand with the aid of such traditional tools as picks, shovels, axes, and wheelbarrows and animals for hauling. Accidents, especially those resulting from the use of explosives, could lead to injuries and even death. Canallers worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, in extreme heat in the summer and bitter cold in the winter. But the work was not steady, and if bad weather prevented them from working, they were not paid at all. Furthermore, the availability of work shrank during the winter months, and the resulting surplus of workers allowed contractors to force down wages. Some contractors paid their workers not in cash but in vouchers, redeemable only in overpriced provisions from stores run by the contractors themselves. Having underestimated the cost of building their section of the canal during the course of intense bidding with competitors, some contractors ran out of money and fled without paying the workers. But even those canallers who were able to work fairly regularly lived near subsistence level, most often in shacks along the waterway. When this phase of building ended, many of them migrated to other public building projects in search of work.1

By the time work on the second canal began in 1842, a reduction of canal construction in the northeastern United States created a huge surplus of canallers, many of whom came to Niagara in search of work. Their number was increased by new immigrants, primarily from Ireland. As a result, thousands of these workers could not find work, and they were so destitute that they were unable to leave Niagara to look elsewhere for work. In the absence of a public relief system in Upper Canada, they turned to begging and, in desperation, even to stealing from more established area residents. Soon the area’s permanent residents began to suffer from what we would describe today as compassion fatigue. Although locals understood that the labourers’ extreme poverty motivated their begging and petty theft, they increasingly viewed them with suspicion.2

Common labourers were vulnerable to exploitation because, lacking specialized skills, they were easy to replace. Sometimes the labourers reacted to the shortage of work by fighting for scarce jobs among themselves; at other times, however, they united to demand work and fair wages. In the summer of 1842, for example, they withheld their labour, demanding work for all. They put up posters along the canal reading, “Death and vengeance to any who should dare to work until employment is given to the whole.” To reinforce these threats, bands of workers patrolled the canal and drove off anyone who tried to work.3 Several thousand labourers took their complaints to nearby St. Catharines, parading through the streets bearing a red flag and a sign demanding “Bread or Work.” On this occasion, the superintendent of the Welland Canal responded by providing additional work by expanding construction. A year later, in July 1843, canal workers went on strike again, demanding — and winning — higher wages. But, given the fluctuations in canal work, such successes could not last. By November of that year, wages had been rolled back, and the competition for scarce jobs led to such violent fights among canallers from different parts of Ireland that the militia was called in. The St. Catharines Journal described the belligerents as “strange” and “mad factions … thirsting like savages for each other’s blood.”4 Canallers, who threatened to attack passengers on boats passing through the canal, also interfered with navigation. The government of the United Province of Canada and the board that oversaw canal construction perceived the canallers’ actions as such a serious threat to the local economy that they joined forces with the contractors to suppress labour protests. They compiled blacklists to prevent the hiring of labour activists. The government passed legislation forbidding canallers to carry arms, and the board hired mounted police to keep labourers in line.5 During the early stages of capitalist development, in short, unskilled workers occasionally acted together along class lines, but their collective strength was insufficient to counter employers backed by the state. They were not yet able to secure significant improvements in their condition.

The Early Labour Movement

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Niagara Peninsula became a hub of manufacturing. Water power, increased settlement, rich agricultural surroundings, closeness to American markets, and the construction of railway lines all contributed to the area’s economic development. Following Confederation, when John A. Macdonald’s government imposed tariffs on Americanmade goods to protect the development of Canadian manufacturing from competition, branches of American plants were also established in the area. Canneries, flour mills, breweries, and tanneries processed the district’s agricultural products. Farm implements factories, foundries, machine shops, and basket makers provided local farmers with tools and containers. Sawmills and paper mills relied on wood transported to the area by rail and water. Textile and rubber factories, carriage and bicycle makers, shipbuilders, and cigar makers constituted other early manufacturing establishments in the Niagara region. Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Thorold, and Welland developed as the larger manufacturing and service centres of the peninsula.


Company picnic for Queenston Quarry workers, 1890. Courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library (D417717).

In contrast to the unskilled, itinerant canal workers of earlier decades, skilled workers such as cigar makers, coopers, machinists, iron moulders, printers, and shoemakers enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy in their working lives. By the 1870s, skilled workers in St. Catharines had established branches of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, and the International Typographical Union. The town was also the Canadian headquarters of the union of shoe factory workers, the Knights of St. Crispin. In Welland, printers and stonecutters established unions during the same period. Their skill and organization allowed such workers, virtually all of whom were male, to exercise some control over their hours of work, their wages, and the number of apprentices taken on in their trades. The case of cigar makers in St. Catharines illustrates the benefits of unionization. In the 1880s, when non-unionized workers toiled as long as fourteen hours a day, cigar makers in St. Catharines worked an eight-hour day. While some unorganized workers were still paid irregularly and in vouchers, these cigar makers received cash wages every week. Perhaps nothing illustrates the power of organized cigar makers better than their ability to prevent the local sale of cigars made cheaply by girls and boys in London (Ontario) and Montréal. Despite their higher cost, only union-made cigars could be found in the city. Given that cigar manufacturers often started out as journeymen cigar makers, having completed an apprenticeship in the trade, and cigar factories were still rather small, relations between employers and workers in this industry appeared cordial. In 1887, a St. Catharines cigar manufacturer pronounced union men more reliable, sober, and industrious than their non-unionized counterparts.1

Even during the period of early industrialization, however, there were limits to the harmony between workers and employers. When St. Catharines employers, facing greater competition in an increasingly integrated market, attempted to lower the costs of production by lowering wages or breaking down the process of production, the threat of a strike was frequently enough to persuade them to change their minds. Skilled workers, moreover, did not hesitate to lay down their tools during conflicts with employers who defied threats. Some employers responded by bringing in workers from Toronto’s immigration sheds to replace militant workers, or by threatening to do so.

The ranks of unskilled workers, among them many women and children, in textile, garment, and canning factories and in the wood and iron industries, enjoyed none of the advantages of skilled, unionized workers like the St. Catharines cigar makers. Their wages were low, their working hours long, and their working conditions at times appalling. Canneries in Grimsby employed children as young as eight. Fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys, whose income was needed by their families and who found jobs in the wood and iron industries, were forced to operate machines with inadequate training, they suffered frequent injuries, sometimes losing fingers and even hands. To make ends meet, women and girls in the garment industry often had to take work home and sew late into the night.2

Adult women’s wages were so low partly because their work was seen as unskilled. Unlike tradesmen’s skills, acquired through years of apprenticeship, women’s work in the clothing and food-processing industries, and as domestics, cooks, kitchen help, waitresses, and chamber maids in Niagara homes and hotels, supposedly required no training. Such work was seen as a mere extension of work they performed in the home. Whatever skills such work required, such as attentiveness to detail or nimble fingers, were believed to come naturally to women. Both employers and male workers, moreover, considered women secondary wage earners. Working men aspired to earn enough so that their wives and children would not have to go out to work. They wanted to protect women and children from the harsh working conditions in factories. Indeed, the ideal of working-class masculinity rested on the notion that the male head would act as provider and protector of his family. But male workers also wanted to ensure that employers could not use women and children as low-wage competitors for “men’s jobs.” Whatever the goals of male workers, their idea of a family wage reinforced women’s financial dependence on men. Employers could justify paying women low wages on the grounds that they were merely supplementing the income of their family’s principal male breadwinner. Not surprisingly, most working-class women, once they married, withdrew from formal paid employment. Performing unpaid domestic work made more practical sense than staying in poorly paid jobs. Through careful shopping, keeping a garden and sometimes domestic animals, and preserving foods, women could stretch the wages that their husbands and children earned. Some women also sewed garments, made boxes, kept boarders, and/or took in laundry to add to their family income.3

With the arrival of the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor in Niagara in the 1880s, unskilled workers, including women, could join the labour movement. First established in the United States, the organization enjoyed rapid growth in Ontario, and in Niagara specifically, because of the rapid expansion of manufacturing at the time and the relative homogeneity of Niagara’s working class. In the 1880s, most Niagara workers were English-speaking, and their ranks included British immigrants with considerable prior experience in labour organizations. Some of the Knights’ assemblies (similar to union locals) were still made up of workers belonging to a single craft, some brought together skilled and unskilled workers in a given industry, and some, the so-called “mixed” assemblies, were composed of different types of workers. In principle, the Knights of Labor was open to all workers, regardless of skill, gender, or race. In practice, its policies toward women and racialized minorities were contradictory. The Knights were genuinely committed to improving the fate of women workers, arguing that women deserved the same pay as men. The organization also supported equal political rights for women, roughly three decades before Canadian women actually obtained the right to vote. Male Knights, however, also saw themselves as the protectors of the “weaker” female sex and continued to believe that women’s proper place was in the home.4 As for racialized groups, although we have no evidence of African Canadians belonging to assemblies in the Niagara region, we know that a number of assemblies in Toronto had black members. Yet in both Canada and the United States, the Knights were also not immune to a wider racism that called for the exclusion of people of Asian origin from North America.5

The organization’s agenda — to improve the condition of workers by limiting the hours of work, advocating temperance, promoting education through a labour press and other publications, replacing competitive individualism with the spirit of cooperation, and giving workers a voice in politics — clearly appealed to workers in Niagara. Over two thousand workers established twenty-three locals of the Knights of Labor in the Niagara Peninsula. St. Catharines had eight assemblies, representing coopers, tailors, sailors, clerks, axe makers, and wheel makers, as well as a mixed assembly, comprising various trades. Thorold, which at that time had only three hundred industrial workers, had three assemblies: one of stonecutters employed in the local quarry, one mixed, and one made up of women. Merritton’s Maple Leaf Assembly was the largest in the area, comprising five hundred cotton workers, many of them women. Sailors from Port Dalhousie and the Welland Canal, stonecutters from Beamsville and Welland, and railroad employees from the villages of Clifton, International Bridge, and York also joined the Knights of Labor.6

Knights from the Niagara Peninsula expressed their commitment to the organization’s goals by electing one of their own, William Garson — a member of St. Catharines Fidelity Assembly, temperance advocate, and well-known Orangeman — as a Liberal-Labour member of the provincial legislature in 1886.7 Garson expressed the Knights’ desire to unite all workers by urging Protestant and Catholic workers to overcome sectarian divisions. On 15 August 1887, the Knights marked a civic holiday by marching 3,000 strong through the streets of St. Catharines, carrying banners that proclaimed “Rise and Defend Your Dignity,” “The Land for the People,” and “Long Hours Must Go.”8 In 1888, they fought to end long hours for store clerks by pledging to patronize only stores that closed at six o’clock in the evening.9 In the same year, respect for the Christian Sabbath, as well as concern for workers operating the Welland Canal, led them to condemn the canal’s operation on Sunday. In addition to working and fighting together for a better world, Niagara Knights also played together. Balls, dances, and roller-skating parties served not only to offer alcohol-free entertainment but also to raise funds to help disabled workers.10

Like their attitudes toward women workers and racialized minorities, the Knights’ view of strikes was also contradictory. In principle, they favoured arbitration as a way of settling conflict between employers and workers. But when faced with stubborn employers, members of the organization did resort to strikes. For example, when John S. McClelland, a printer and a member of the Knights, purchased the Evening Star, a St. Catharines paper, in 1888 and refused to pay union wages, all but three of his printers went on strike. However, neither McClelland — who berated the strikers in the columns of his paper — nor the three strike-breaking printers were kicked out of the Knights of Labor. This lack of action led other workers to leave the Knights in disappointment.11 By then, however, the organization’s influence was decreasing in Niagara, as well as in many other parts of Canada and the United States. An economic downturn and disagreements within the organization were two of the main reasons for its decline.

Class and Ethnicity in the Early Twentieth Century

Proximity to cheap electricity, generated by the large hydro stations at Niagara Falls and Decew Falls, drew industrial employers to the Niagara Peninsula during the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth centuries. The imposition of tariffs on manufactured goods from the United States in the late nineteenth century, combined with proximity to the border, provided added incentive for American companies to establish branch plants in the Niagara Peninsula. Incentives from different communities in the form of bonuses, tax exemptions or fixed taxation, inexpensive hydro rates, and free links to sewage and water played a key role in determining where in the region employers built their factories. Both the number and size of local industries grew as new technology allowed employers to replace skilled workers with machines tended by semi-skilled workers. Although each of the larger communities in the peninsula attracted a variety of industries, a certain degree of specialization became evident among them. St Catharines became the centre of automobile parts manufacturing, chemical and allied industries located in Niagara Falls and Chippawa, metal and metal fabricating industries were Welland’s largest employers, Thorold and Merriton attracted large paper mills, while Port Colborne became a centre of flour milling and metal smelting. Construction of the hydro canals and power-generating stations, the new factories, and the fourth Welland Canal created additional demand for labour.1

Because the industrial boom coincided with a dramatic increase in immigration from southern and eastern Europe, many of the new industrial and construction jobs were filled by immigrant workers. Armenians, Hungarians, Italians, Poles, and Ukrainians were some of the larger groups to migrate to Niagara at this time. The region appealed to these immigrants because, in the event of a downturn in industry, the large construction projects connected with power development and the Welland Canal, as well as seasonal work in agriculture and canning, provided alternative local employment opportunities. Immigrants could thus save the time and expense of moving elsewhere in search of work. They took the least skilled, least secure, lowest paid, and most physically demanding jobs in manufacturing and large public works projects, partly because many were former agriculturalists without previous experience in factory work. Most were also sojourners, temporary residents who intended to work in Canada only long enough to save enough money to permit them to improve their situation when they returned to their native lands. Because they did not plan to stay at these jobs for long, they often put up with conditions that more established Canadian workers would have found intolerable.


Welland Vale Manufacturing Company, makers of agricultural implements, tools, and bicycles, established in 1901. Courtesy of the St. Catharines Public Library, Special Collections.

Even if they decided to settle in Canada, however, these immigrants had little chance of getting better jobs. Starting in the early twentieth century, the racializing of immigrant workers — attributing to them substantial, inborn characteristics that distinguished them from others — became even more significant in the development of Niagara’s labour movement than it had been during the building of the second Welland Canal in the 1840s. Many of their employers, fellow workers, and other Canadians believed that southern and eastern Europeans, and especially those of Asian and African origin, were racially inferior and equipped to perform only menial labour.

McKinnon Industries, for example, recruited Armenian workers from the United States specifically to carry out hot and heavy work in its foundry, which became known as “Little Armenia.”2 Poles, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and other immigrants from southern and eastern Europe joined the Armenians in the foundry and in other unskilled jobs. During World War II, when labour shortages enabled European immigrant workers to move to better-paying and less arduous jobs, the company recruited blacks from Nova Scotia for its foundry.

Employers in Niagara, as elsewhere in Canada during this period, attempted to use racism to their own ends. The first large American manufacturer to locate in Welland — the Plymouth Cordage Company, makers of rope and binder twine — encouraged northern Italian employees from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to relocate to Welland and to invite relatives from Italy to join them there. This move was financially important for the employers because these supposedly unskilled immigrant workers possessed skills in ropemaking that the company would have otherwise had to pay new hires to acquire.3 The company also believed that hiring based on family and ethnic ties would strengthen worker loyalty.4 At the same time, however, the company’s officers took ethnic inequality so much for granted that they did not consider placing their experienced Italian workers in responsible positions such as that of foreman within their Welland plant. Instead, they proposed to send forty or fifty local Anglo-Canadians with no experience in ropemaking to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to train for these positions. They advertised their plans in the Welland Telegraph, probably to appeal to the sense of superiority and entitlement to local jobs felt by Welland’s Anglo-Canadian workers.5 They gave little thought to how their Italian employees might view this policy.

Such evident discrimination undermined or at least challenged the loyalty of workers of Italian origin. Some of the workers who agreed to relocate to Welland did so because they hoped to improve their jobs. They were sorely disappointed. Flavio Botari, the son of one of the leaders of the original group of Italian workers from Plymouth, remembered that his older brother, who was “clever mechanically,” found that he was “hitting his head against the ceiling because he was quite low on the promotion scale” at the company. “The sons of the white Anglo-Saxons were always ahead of him, and he never got a chance to get into the machine shop that he wanted to go into. He always felt that people with a lot less talent were being promoted ahead of him, so he left.”6 Botari’s reference to “white” Anglo-Saxons, to distinguish them from Italian workers, illustrates the nature of racialization in this period. Esch Orsini, of the same generation as Flavio Botari, recalled his parents’ observation that one became a foreman at Plymouth Cordage only “if you were ‘one of them,’ one of the Anglo-Saxons.”7

Plans for worker housing also reflected the employer’s assumptions of racial hierarchy. Welland, still a very small town in 1905, could not accommodate the influx of workers. Consequently, the Plymouth Cordage Company built new housing for its workers. Over one hundred families were housed in three large single-family homes, twenty-four duplexes, ten four-unit buildings, and a large boarding house. Flavio Botari described how the hierarchy at Plymouth Cordage manifested itself in the configuration of company housing. The residents of the “upper crust section” were Anglo-Saxons: the foremen, office workers, and the painters and carpenters who performed maintenance work on the company housing. Almost all residents of the four tenement houses were Italian, with the rest consisting of a Portuguese, a Spaniard, and a Romanian, as well as one or two French Canadian families, all of whom came up from Plymouth. The single male workers housed in the boarding house were also mostly Italians.8


Plymouth Cordage boardinghouse for single male workers. Courtesy of the Welland Public Library.


Plymouth Cordage Company dwelling houses on Muir Street (above), and cottages on First Street (below), Welland, Ontario. Courtesy of the Welland Public Library

The Plymouth Cordage Company was not alone in its race-based housing policies. Another Welland employer, the Canadian Steel Company, built a separate lodging house for its “foreign” workers and employed an Italian immigrant to run it.9 In neighbouring Thorold, the British-owned Pilkington Glass Company, a manufacturer of sheet and plate glass, brought most of its tradesmen from its plant in the United Kingdom and built housing for them in the planned community of Windle Village.10 It made no such provisions for the ordinary labourers in its employ. The men, principally Italians, Romanians, and Bulgarians, built rough shacks from old lumber and tar paper for themselves. Without adequate services, they found it difficult to maintain sanitary living conditions in their dwellings.11 The Norton Company, a manufacturer of abrasives in Chippawa, also built housing for its workers, constructing individual cottages for its Anglo-Canadian workers and lodging houses for “foreigners.”12 During this boom period, Niagara developers assumed that local residents of British origin, whatever their class, probably shared the employers’ views. This is why the developer of a “better class of houses for working men” in Maple Leaf Park, Crowland, advertised the subdivision as “restricted,” assuring prospective buyers that “you will have no foreign element building or living next to you.”13 Even if “foreigners” had been able to afford homes in better neighbourhoods, restrictive covenants excluded them, thus reinforcing segregation. Consequently, immigrant factory workers who were not accommodated by company housing rented and built homes in “foreign quarters,” often on the outskirts of Niagara towns and villages, in the shadow of large factories. Soot from the factories covered their homes and gardens. Such neighbourhoods also lacked essential services such as sewers, sidewalks, and fire protection.

Employers’ exploitation of ethnic differences became most clearly apparent during strikes, when they recruited strikebreakers. In 1899, a strike by trackmen near Port Robinson for higher wages and shorter hours spread to other rail workers in the area. The Grand Trunk Railway responded by bringing in three coaches fitted up as living accommodations and filled with workers, some of them Italian, to replace the strikers. In this case, the plan failed. As Welland’s People’s Press reported, “Three prominent ladies of the town went out to the cars and made the men so ashamed of themselves that they left.” The paper added that “the sympathy of the whole village here is with the men who have struck for a living wage, and it is not thought any further attempt will be made to replace them here.”14 Four years later, “foreign” labourers, described as Italians and “Huns,” were imported from Buffalo to replace striking workers in the Sherkston quarry, between Port Colborne and Ridgeway. According to the Welland Telegraph, the government refused to enforce the federal Alien Labour Act, which prohibited the importation of contract labour. An angry editorial in the paper demanded: “Is it right that respectable Canadian citizens, the heads of families, should be compelled to compete for work with gangs of aliens whose mode of living is hardly above the Chinese standard?”15

Ethnically based inequality was also pronounced among workers on the large public works projects in Niagara: provincial hydro canals and generating stations and the federally funded construction of the fourth Welland Canal, each of which employed thousands of workers in the early twentieth century. The skilled workers among them, such as carpenters, machinists, electricians, masons, and operating engineers, were of British descent; the majority of common labourers were non–Anglo-Celtic. The skilled workers belonged to such well-established craft unions as the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters, and the International Association of Machinists. These unions monitored wages and hours on public works projects and attempted to ensure that they were consistent with those elsewhere in the Niagara Peninsula. When the unions called a strike, they could encourage the participation of tradesmen by threatening them with fines and blacklisting throughout the region if they continued to work. During the years of labour protest between 1918 and 1920, the “foreign” workers, with some exceptions, were unorganized. Consequently, they could be more easily replaced by returning soldiers and native-born workers at the end of the war, when the demand for labour along the canals became less acute.16