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The Founding of the Saint John Labourers' Benevolent Association
One of the oldest unions in Canada, the Saint John Labourers’ Benevolent Association (LBA) was formed by ship labourers (later called longshoremen) in 1849 and played a pioneering role in the Canadian labour movement in the 19th century. It demonstrated that it was possible to recruit casual labourers into unions, and it served as a model for other workers to emulate. The LBA became a leader among longshoremen’s unions after the transition of Saint John into a port handling much of the winter trade between the interior of Canada and Britain in the early 20th century. In 1911, it merged with the International Longshoremen’s Association in response to changes in ownership in the Canadian shipping industry, further cementing its importance. The LBA was greatly influential in the labour movement in New Brunswick in the 19th and early 20th century and later in other eastern ports in Canada, particularly in the creation of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour in 1913 and the passage of workmen’s compensation legislation.
The LBA was formed during the age of the timber trade, when a large workforce of ship labourers was required to load and unload ships. Ship labourers performed back-breaking manual labour, and as long as the supply of labour looking for work exceeded the number of available waterfront jobs, they faced poor wages, long working days of as many as 14 or 15 hours, and often hazardous conditions as they tried to move heavy cargoes with hand tools and pulleys. In general, casual labourers had no readily marketable skills other than their physical strength, and they tended to be hired on a day-to-day basis. These factors made it more difficult for casual labourers to form lasting labour organizations. In Saint John, however, thanks to the importance of the timber trade to the local economy and the large work force the trade required, ship labourers were able to draw upon their advantageous position to become among the earliest groups of casual labourers in British North America to organize. A similar organization was formed in Quebec City, the other major timber centre in Canada.
The LBA served a dual purpose for ship labourers, providing mutual assistance for workers sick or injured in a dangerous occupation, while also vying with local shippers for control of the docks in order to improve the working lives of its members. With increased transatlantic trade in the early 1900s, there was pressure for the creation of a port that could handle cargoes heading to or from the port of Montréal when it was blocked by ice, and Saint John became Montréal’s winter port. As ownership in the North American shipping industry became more concentrated, the Canadian Pacific Railway and other shipping companies were able to ask for more concessions on wages and working conditions by exploiting divisions within the union and threatening to divert shipping business from Saint John. To meet this challenge, the LBA became the first union on Canada’s East Coast to merge with the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1911. The new LBA, Local 273 of the ILA, made gains for its members, particularly during the First World War.
During the early part of the century, LBA leader James Tighe led the move to organize workers in other ports on Canada’s East Coast, and the LBA exercised considerable influence over the labour movement in New Brunswick at least until the 1930s. In the early 20th century, LBA members helped to found the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and influenced the establishment of a workmen’s compensation system in 1918. The LBA has long been viewed as one of the building blocks of organized labour in Canada.
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