Labour Day this year heralds the beginning of the B.C. Federation of Labour’s second century.
As we greet the dawn of our second century, the BCFED today represents more than 450,000 members across British Columbia. And as our province has grown, so too has organized labour.
Organized labour’s earliest days were not unlike the present: prosperous for many, yet turbulent.
In 1911, the census counted British Columbia’s population at just under 393,000. The province was thriving, in part because of a roaring mining industry in the Kootenays, and a nascent forestry sector that sent countless carloads of lumber to the then-booming prairie provinces.
Two transcontinental railways (the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern) were under construction, with thousands of workers laying steel rails across the province.
Two years later, BC was hit with a global economic downturn. Unemployment soared and the housing market crashed. In the following year, 1914, armed conflict erupted in Europe and Canadians soon were fighting in the First World War.
British Columbia now is home to more than 4.5 million residents. Skyrocketing commodity prices have sparked impressive growth in the province’s mining, and oil and gas sectors, and our forest products are finding new markets in China and elsewhere.
At the same time, the recent collapse in financial markets led to a painful, if thankfully brief, economic recession, and reminded British Columbians that we often are subject to forces beyond our control.
Sadly, Canada in recent years has had soldiers serving overseas, many of whom sacrificed their lives in the name of our country.
In its earliest days the labour movement was at the forefront of many battles, including the fight for a minimum wage, an eight-hour day, workers’ compensation and women’s suffrage.
Victory came quickly on a few fronts — a Workers’ Compensation Board was set up in 1916, and a minimum wage for women became law two years later. (Men received similar protection in 1925.)
In 1917, women won the right to vote in provincial elections, and in 1918 a Department of Labour was established to represents workers’ interests.
Other battles took longer to win. BC first enacted a law for an eight-hour day in 1899, but it applied only to miners working underground. Many decades were to pass before all workers won similar protection.
More recently, the B.C. Federation of Labour won the fight for an increase in the province’s minimum wage, stuck at eight dollars an hour (with a ‘training wage’ of just six dollars) since 2001.
The B.C. Federation of Labour is proud of its record of success and is dedicated to protecting and helping workers and their families through the 21st Century.
Together, we will continue to make British Columbia a safe and prosperous place to work and live.