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Review: The 9 Hour Movement: How civil disobedience made unions legal

Kevin Taghabon

January 1, 2018

"Our power does not come from what is written in law, but from our ability to bring our collective power to bear against employers and government." This rings true today, as it did during the late 19th century, and it serves as the opening of Rank and's excellent new pamphlet “The 9 Hour Movement: How civil disobedience made unions legal”. From Flint, Michigan's sit-down strikes in the 1930s to the physical shut-down of the WTO in Seattle in 1999, progress has always been made in part by people willing to organize irrespective of the law. This does not necessitate violence, but does require working groups laying the groundwork locally to wield power.

Labour Power

Rank and File editor Doug Nesbitt tracks the Nine-Hour Movement through the episodes of the early 1870s in the context of an industrializing, newly confederated Canada. Doing so reveals the divisions between arch-capitalists and “Fathers of Confederation” George Brown and John A. MacDonald, among many others. Heroes also emerge, including John Hewitt of the Toronto Typographical Union, who went on to found the Ontario Workman, a cooperatively operated labour newspaper that would collapse under the weight of the first Great Depression (1873-79). The heroes that loom largest in the story are the thousands of people who organized democratic associations across the country to coordinate for victory.

Young Canada & colonialism

In 1872 the Trade Union Act was passed, legalizing unions after a militant labour struggle. It is a habit of many progressives to sometimes think we are fighting the most contentious struggles today, against biggest obstacles in history. “Pseudo-scientific race theory permeated Victorian society.” At the time of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printers' strikes most workplaces had no more than a handful of workers. Unions were illegal. They were formed here in defiance of the law, and union cards acted as “a pledge to one another to uphold democratically-agreed upon working conditions and wages.”

Much like in our day, the establishment then was seen by many as illegitimate and unsavoury. Railway monopolies, which held an enormous amount of power, “were reviled by farmers...[they] were also seen by urban dwellers as deeply corrupt, in bed with politicians, and anti-democratic by their nature.”

The ugly history of Canadian colonialism shines through in the political actors of the day. George Brown, who was the leader of the Liberals and John A. MacDonald's chief political rival, was instrumental in preventing an elected senate during confederation talks. Additionally, “regardless of party loyalties, the Fathers of Confederation all agreed in pursuing this daunting project of westward colonization...and the cleansing of the land of its original inhabitants.”

Beyond this, the Fathers of Confederation were deeply anti-democratic and, “saw democracy as subversive and revolutionary.” As a result, the sexist and discriminatory laws that only allowed property-owning males to vote were continued. It was in the Nine-Hour Movement that local democracy sprung up.

The media

Printed newspapers, then abundant and diverse, had an integral role in the movements in North America. In the late 19th century Canadian newspapers were not beholden to the cult of impartiality that infects today's journalism and upholds the status quo. Each paper was partisan, and this “bias” was offset by the plethora of news sources available daily to every person. Toronto's 110,000 people then had “over half a dozen” daily papers as well as weekly and evening papers.

“It was common for people to read the paper out loud to friends, family, and co-workers at home or at the pub,” Nesbitt writes. Newspapers, “openly ridiculed the editorial line of other newspapers, especially if they were associated with political opponents.” The paper was an essential tool for “anyone seeking to build any political movement.”

Cross-boundary alliances

The Nine-Hour League was formed in early 1872 to organize workers across sector boundaries in Hamilton, “skilled and unskilled.” This “was not a union,” but a movement dedicated to advancing the demands of the Nine-Hour League. Much like Ontario's successful Fight For 15 and Fairnesscampaign, the linking of workers regardless of their status aided the struggle significantly. “Nine-hour movement meetings involved dozens, sometimes several hundred people”, and spanned the newly confederated Canada. These meetings practised democracy in a way that the Fathers of Confederation only paid lip service to.

Democracy itself does not automatically produce progressive values. “Racism and exclusion of women from unions, as well as prejudices among skilled workers towards unskilled workers,” permeated the movement, and as such, Nesbitt argues, “the Nine-Hour Movement should not be understood as anti-racist, anti-sexist, and non-sectarian.” Working through political issues often overcame these divisions. This was necessary to enable the movement to wield power collectively and not fracture internally.

Victory and Dissolution

Brown, looking principally to score points against his rival John A. MacDonald, initially supported the 1871 printers strikes. He showed his true colours when the strike wave hit his city, tarring the movement as going “beyond the limits of friendly negotiation”. A single Tory MP in Toronto supported the strike, James Beaty. This MP used his paper The Leader as a platform for the movement's ideas, and “to attack both George Brown's Liberals and George Brown's Globe [newspaper].”

Actions escalated across the province, with workers demonstrating their power in an enormous march to Queen's Park. The rally swelled to 10,000 people in a city of only 110,000. On April 18th John A. MacDonald brought forward the Trade Union Act which would make unions illegal, partially to rub his rival Brown the wrong way. Soon after he presented laws making picketing illegal.

The Depression which began the next year clawed back many of the gains made by the movement and weakened unions. The rising labour movement was “unclear” on important issues. A lack of coordination between different segments of the printers strikes undermined the networks that had been built.

Nesbitt's writings on the movement delivers lessons for our struggles today. Power does not come from kind people with a lot of power, or from laws sanctioning the actions of the people. It comes from organized working people leveraging their collective strength against recalcitrant governments and malevolent bosses.

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