Beyond the Nine Hour Movement:
Katie McVicar, the Knights of Labor, and the Organization of Women Workers
By: Joseph Burton
Joseph Burton is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. His research explores the transmission of anarchist ideas in North America during the middle and latter twentieth century, focusing on the Industrial Workers of the World and linkages between democracy and revolutionary practice. His writing has been published in the Canadian Historical Review and he has shared and discussed his work at academic conferences in Canada and the United States. As an educator and sessional instructor, his teaching has focused on histories of work and working life in Canada.
The Trade Unions Act of 1872 and the emergence of the Canadian Labour Union (CLU) heralded a new wave of labour organizing in Canada. For the first time in the history of the nascent Canadian state, and in British North American before it, workers organized across localities and broad occupational lines, aggregating their strength to challenge employers who had long coordinated their assault on workers’ autonomy and welfare.
However, major barriers to solidarity remained. Barred from the CLU were labourers traditionally designated as “unskilled,” including workers in the factory assembly lines, the canals, and lonely manor houses. Such jobs were disproportionately worked by immigrant workers, by women, and by workers of colour, fracturing the labor movement along ethnographic as well as occupational lines. These divisions hampered labour strength and solidarity during the nineteenth century and tethered the labour movement to racist projects that aligned nationality with whiteness and northern ancestry.[i]
When progressive change and inclusivity did come to the labour movement, it did not arrive by the guiding hand of the labour officialdom. Much as the Nine Hour Pioneers were not “given” the right to unionize by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, workers in the so-called unskilled occupations took increasingly greater leadership roles for themselves during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They organized their workplaces and demanded that unions broaden their political vision.
This article will explore one example of how such organizing transpired, focusing on the organization of women in Ontario and the actions of labour organizer, Katie McVicar. As we will discover, McVicar, a shoemaker in Hamilton, did not wait for the craft unions to organize her fellow workers in the city’s industrial heartland. She instead worked closely with a growing and militant organization, the Knights of Labor, to win better conditions for factory workers and to tether her struggles as a shoemaker to the experiences of women in other trades. McVicar was interested not only in the organization of shoemakers, but in cultivating greater labour solidarity and in demonstrating that the struggle for working-class and women’s autonomy were deeply connected.
Labour and 1872
The 1872 Trade Unions Act has rightly been characterized as a defining moment in Canadian history, not because the Act heralded a period of universal advancement for the working class, but insofar as the battlefield on which workers confronted capitalism had been transformed forever.Workers both incorporated new tactics into their strategic arsenal and preserved old ones. It was a moment of contradiction, not only of progress.
One contradiction pertained to stipulations in the legislation itself. On the one hand, the Act prevented employers from prosecuting workers under British common law for conspiring to restrain trade, thus clarifying and affirming the legal status of unions and providing workers surer footing when bringing demands before the bosses. On the other hand, however, Prime Minister Macdonald introduced new restrictions against picketing with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which incorporated vague provisions against “coercion” into the new legislation that better controlled and reduced strike action. If workers could form unions with greater legal surety, then, it was not clear what that union could do without inviting prosecution or heavy fines.[ii]
A second contradiction related to the creation of unions themselves. The Nine Hour Movement and the formation of the CLU in 1873 signalled unprecedented coordination among workers in Canada and a greater recognition that solidarity and not provincialism was necessary to improve working conditions. As historian Craig Heron noted, the CLU – originally the Canadian Labor Protective and Mutual Improvement Association – was the first union in Canada to coordinate workers’ movements “across local and occupational boundaries.”[iii] However, there were significant limitations to this solidarity because the leadership of the Nine Hour Movement, and most of its active members, were virtually all male, white, and skilled workers, including James Ryan, a railway engineer; J.S. William, a printer; and John Hewitt, a cooper. Admittedly, the Nine Hour Pioneers sought to link non union and unionized workers during the campaign and encourage “workingmen of no organization” to march alongside established unions such as the cigar makers and iron moulders.[iv] But there is little evidence that this campaign yielded sustained engagement with the most disenfranchised and marginalized communities of workers, whether immigrant labourers, black workers, or women. For historian David Goutor, “the CLU and the Hamilton and Toronto labour councils were made up entirely of craft unions. Their leadership and membership were white and male, and their objective was to protect the social status and the control of the workplace of skilled workers.” The CLU was dominated by the bricklayers and printers unions, not by occupations that were disproportionately staffed by workers of colour or by women, i.e.coal heavers, domestic labourers, or manual railway workers.[v]
This was not a de facto exclusion, as though this demographic composition only reflected circumstances beyond the control of the union movement. Many labour leaders actively supported restrictions on the immigration of asian workers or imposed constitutional restrictions on women’s access to skilled trades and the union infrastructure. Such measures included bans on all-women locals (the branch of a union comprising members of a given city or region) or imposing rigorous apprenticeship requirements to enter skilled trades that many women, burdened with gendered household expectations, could not meet. These measures were often successful even into the late 19th century. In Toronto, for example, there were no unionized women compositors by the late 1880s, and only 35 women worked as compositors in the city, as compared to the almost 600 union and non union men who did so by 1889.[vi]
Large scale movements against these restrictions emerged in the Canadian labour movement during the early 1880s, though perhaps the most significant of such movements was not strictly speaking Canadian at all. The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded as a labour and fraternal society in Philadelphia in 1869, in response to the isolation and failure of the local Garment Cutters Association, founded seven years earlier. Early Knights stressed the need for organizing across occupational and ethnic boundaries, therefore encouraging the formation of “mixed locals,” so as to resist the growing coordination of capitalists in an industrial age. In this structure, many workers of different trades met in one local assembly, coordinating their efforts to elect political leaders friendly to labour and, in some of the locals, organize strike action.[vii]
The economic depression of 1877 strengthened the Knights’ commitment to solidarity. As Grandmaster Workman, Terrance V. Powderly, argued in the Journal of United Labor in 1880, “all men who labor have been brought by the hard times to one level and should have the good sense to remain on that level.” For Powderly, and other early leaders such as Uriah Stephens, this level was not only defined by perceived skill. From its inception, the Knights publicly advertised that their order was home to “men and women of every craft, creed, and color,” and in 1879 Powderly stressed that “the (outside) color of a candidate shall not debar him from admission [to the Knights]; rather let the coloring of his mind and heart be the test.”[viii]
By 1882 the Knights had expanded into Ontario, organizing not only local assemblies among skilled white workers but also black workers in the mining and transportation industries and women in the textile and shoe-making factories. One pioneer of this expansion was the shoe operative and factory worker, Katie McVicar (1856-1886). McVicar lived in Hamilton with her two sisters, her mother, and her father, who was a Scottish immigrant that worked in the city as a tinsmith.[ix]
During the 1870s, McVicar began work in Hamilton’s factories to supplement her family’s household income. It was there that she became increasingly frustrated with the conditions of factory life and with the limitations on women’s autonomy in the city and country. In 1883, she began contributing a series of extraordinary letters to the Knights’ Canadian outlet, The Palladium of Labor, outlining the dire conditions confronting women workers and the necessity for widespread unionization. These letters offer a look into how the labour movement was changing after the Nine Hour Movement and the Trade Unions Act, and illustrate how the most marginalized communities within the labor movement took an active role in this transformation.
“Organization Is Our Only Hope”
McVicar had contributed letters to the Palladium as early as April 1883, writing to the “Women’s Own Department,” or the section of the paper allocated specifically to discussion of women’s issues, to call attention to the poverty wages paid to women in the sewing and textile industry. In September, she again reached out to the editor to reiterate the need for organizing women in the union and for joining their “fathers, brothers, and friends” in the Knights of Labor. She began her letter by criticizing what the philosopher and political economist Karl Marx had termed in his recently published book, Capital, the “fetishism” of commodities, or the tendency to ideologically separate a finished product from the labour which had created it. In a store front or shop window, customers would see fine hats and dresses, but they did not see the exploitation which had gone into creating those clothes in the first place. For McVicar, however, every “‘splurge’ to Europe, the North-West or the Pacific Coast, or a Princely Donation to … a Mission or Charity means another ‘grinding’ of the operatives.” Every season and new fashion-line which flooded the markets in Paris or Toronto was predicated on squeezing as much work from the labourers for as little expense as was possible for the employers.
McVicar did not release her own wage or even provide her name in this article, because such information would have revealed her complaints and ambitions to the employers and would have jeopardized her work and perhaps her safety. Instead, McVicar wrote using the pseudonym, “A Canadian Girl,” and she focused on grievances that were common to all women and workers in the sewing trades. For example, in addition to receiving poverty wages, she noted that workers were obliged to provide their own materials such as thread, which they were forced to purchase from their employers at exorbitant costs. Further, if workers ever confronted the bosses about this state of affairs, they were summarily informed that if they “‘don’t like the prices, don’t take the work,’” in spite of the fact that employers coordinated with one another to reduce labor costs and “Sir John protect[ed] them from outside” with tariff and import fees. For McVicar, then, it was abundantly clear that “organization is our only hope.”[x]
The Principle of Solidarity
McVicar did not limit her call to sewing workers. Her articles identified commonalities between sewing and other trades and she made space to illustrate both the particularity of women’s grievances and the solutions that working-class mobilization might provide. In one letter, for example, she explained that “there is another class of girls which I hope will join the Union as soon as it is formed, i.e. the dry goods clerks, for they are if anything worse off than we are.” For McVicar, “no workingmen’s wife or daughter” would patronize the “vampires” of the dry-goods industry if they understood the conditions worked by the clerks, who were “on their feet seventy-one hours per week” and who “scarcely receive[d] sufficient wages to buy butter and bread for an average appetite,” not to mention the “clothes and thousand and one little nothings which a girl needs.”[xi]
Domestic workers were similarly exploited and in need of a union. “Like clerks and sewing girls,” McVicar noted, these workers were underpaid, earning just four to eight dollars per month. But they also experienced issues particular to their employment, because as members of the household and onsite attendants, domestic servants never really stopped working: “she is supposed to be on hand to do anything and everything, she is told at any minute of the night or day, never grumble or even sigh, but appear as if she thought her mistress was conferring a great favor upon her by allowing her to perform the task.”
This strenuous and emotional labour was not only physically debilitating. For McVicar, it jeopardized many domestic workers’ futures and the possibility for a happy life. She explained that girls and women between the ages of sixteen and twenty five were “expected to support themselves” and sought out “opportunities [for] becoming mistresses of houses of their own.” But this was impossible for a domestic worker because if “she has a gentleman friend, as a rule, she is not allowed to permit him to visit her at the house where she is employed,” and therefore intimacy and friendship were prevented from developing in the first place. If women failed to find a relationship by the age of twenty six, McVicar argued, “their chances of obtaining a suitable partner is slim, and in all probability [she] will remain single through life.”[xii]
McVicar was not overstating the expectations and constrictions imposed on women during the Victorian era. The social tethering of womanhood to reproduction meant, according to such viscous patriarchal attitudes, that women’s bodies socially “depreciated” with age, compelling women to find partners early in life or risk isolation and ridicule.[xiii] However, it is important to note that McVicar did not expressly challenge these expectations, nor did she argue that women could lead fulfilling lives without a partner or children. Such criticisms certainly informed elements of feminist thought during this period and in earlier texts, such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Mary: A Fiction. But they were far less prevalent than they are in the twenty-first century.[xiv] In this instance, McVicar’s arguments complexly waver between defending and criticizing Victorian mores. She argued that “every sensible person will admit” that to “remain single through life … is not the proper thing to do,” and she took for granted that all women “naturally” looked for the chance to become “mistresses of houses of their own.”
Nonetheless, if McVicar believed women should establish their own households, she was adamant that these be founded on (and reflect) women’s expanded autonomy and freedom of choice. For her, the principal function of the union must to equip women with better opportunities for navigating the social and political worlds around them. She argued that “after a girl has reached her eighteenth year she should have at least two nights a week at her disposal,” and she concluded one editorial by noting that if domestic workers were “combined and acquainted” in the Knights of Labor, they “could easily manage to get more time to themselves and more money for their work.”[xv]
Excelsior Assembly No. 3179
McVicar’s writing was evidently persuasive. On 3 November 1883, following at least three letters from “A Canadian Girl” written between September 9th and October 13th, the Palladium of Labor featured an editorial titled “A Reply to Canadian Girl” by “A Knight of Labor,” who identified himself as a “brother” in the union. The letter commended McVicar for her “very pertinent queries” and outlined suggestions for moving forward with organization. Aware of likely “persecution by unjust and avaricious employers,” the Knight urged wariness, suggesting McVicar “by cautious inquiry find out who among their companions and friends are trustworthy.” After she had secured the names of ten workers to join the union, McVicar was instructed to contact the Knight through the Palladium, whereupon they would be invited to use a “comfortably furnished and well lighted hall, free of charge, where they would be free from intrusion by persons opposed to their proposed step.”[xvi]
Seven days later, McVicar responded with suggestions of her own, thanking the Knight for his “lucid and pointed answers” but arguing that his strategy was not cautious enough, because it would only take one opponent to reveal the campaign to the bosses. Instead, she noted that “a better plan would be for the girls who wish to assist in organizing, to send their cards to a ‘A Knight of Labor, PALLADIUM OFFICE,’” and then to allow the Knights to appoint a suitable meeting date. Not only would this mitigate opportunities for subterfuge, but it would ensure no one member of the group would “appea[r] as the moving spirit” and therefore a target for possible retribution by the employer. McVicar herself noted that it would be “suicidal policy to make myself known to any more of my acquaintances,” and she preferred to remain anonymous during the campaign and to reveal her identity on a wider scale only after formal organization had been secured. [xvii]
According to historian Gregory Kealey, “women, under the leadership of McVicar, must have followed this advice.” because by January 1884, two months after McVicar’s correspondence with the “Knight of Labor,” women in Hamilton’s textile and shoemaking industries formed Local Assembly (LA) 3040 along with their male coworkers. It is possible that McVicar and others soon experienced paternalistic attitudes from those male workers, or that LA 3040 failed to take women’s interests seriously, because three months later all the women of that local left to form Excelsior Assembly No. 3179 – the “first local in Canada comprised exclusively of women.” Eight other women’s locals would emerge in Ontario during the 1880s, as the Knights hoped to expand their influence across North America’s burgeoning industrial landscape and to unite an emerging and fragmented working class.[xviii]
Despite ambitious intentions, the Knights did not build on this momentum. Employer repression, the recomposition of the working class through successive waves of immigration, political infighting, and competition from the emerging American Federation of Labor (AFL) diminished the influence of the Knights, and by the late 1890s the federation was all but extinct. In Canada, in spite of the growth of women’s locals, the aggregate number of women in the union actually went down over this period, and McVicar herself would not continue her leadership of LA 3179 for long. In 1886, she would suffer an untimely death at the age of just thirty, and was mourned by many in the labour community. This included LA 2132, the Shoemakers’ Assembly, which arranged for a resplendent floral display to accompany her body during the funeral procession.[xix]
But women’s leadership in the labour movement did not end with Katie McVicar, nor should her leadership be understood as an exception to a long, unbroken trend. We have seen that her activism signalled a vital challenge to the male dominated craft unions in North America as part of much wider assault on craft exclusion by the Knights of Labor. Her leadership was an indication that women would not uncritically follow the dictates of a male authority, but would organize themselves to make space for issues and occupations long neglected by the traditional union movement. Women’s leadership in the movement would continue to grow, unevenly and not without opposition, during the subsequent years and decades.
As Kealey notes, the Trades and Labour Council of Canada that was formed in 1886 featured an early core of women representatives, the first of whom all came from the Knights of Labor. By the turn of the twentieth century, new organizations would emerge to facilitate and encourage women’s leadership in the labour movement. Perhaps the most significant of these during early twentieth century was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose industrial unionism challenged the exclusionary attitudes of the American Federation of Labor and provided vital outlets for immigrant workers, including many women and workers of colour, to win a better life for themselves.[xx]
[i] For an accessible history of this exclusion and the struggle against it, see David Goutor, Guarding the Gates: The Canadian Labour Movement and Immigration, 1872-1934 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007); see also the chapters Bryan D. Palmer and Joan Sangster eds. Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[ii] For a useful discussion of the contradictions and ambiguities of the Trade Unions Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, see Eric Tucker, “‘That Indefinite Area of Toleration’: Criminal Conspiracy and Trade Unions in Ontario, 1837-77,” Labour/Le Travail 27 (Spring 1991), 15-54.
[iii] Craig Heron, The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History (Toronto: Lorimer, 2012), 15.
[iv] “Great Procession of Workmen,” Ontario Workman 18 April 1872.
[v] Goutor, Guarding the Gates, 12.
[vi] Christina Burr, “Defending ‘The Art Preservative’: Class and Gender Relations in the Printing Trades Unions, 1850-1914,” Labour/Le Travail 31 (1993), 51-54.
[vii] Philip S. Foner, The History of the Labor Movement in the United States: From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 433-438.
[viii] Foner, The History of the Labor Movement, 437, 511. Unfortunately, however, there were limitations to even this solidarity. Powderly and many other Knights supported racist limitations on Chinese immigration, in the belief that the “hordes” of immigrants from China would depress the wages of white workers and would be “willing” to labor in squalid conditions rather than hold out for a better life. See Goutor, Guarding the Gates, 40-41; Herman D. Bloch, “Terence V. Powderly and Disguised Discrimination,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 33, no. 2 (1974), 145-160.
[ix] Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario 1880-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 143-144.
[x] Canadian Girl, “Working Women,” Palladium of Labor, 29 September 1883.
[xi] Canadian Girl, “Working Women,” Palladium of Labor, 29 September 1883.
[xii] Canadian Girl, “Slavery in the Kitchen!” Palladium of Labor, 6 October 1883.
[xiii] For a discussion of this history, see Gwendolyn Davis, “‘Old Maidism Itself’: Spinsterhood in Eighteenth- and nineteenth-Century Literary and Life-Writing Texts from Maritime Canada,” in Mapping the Margins: The Family and Social Discipline in Canada, 1700-1975 Eds. Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau, (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 235-245. As Davis notes, women writers during the nineteenth century began to appropriate the title of spinster, noting such a designation was favourable to being trapped in an unhappy or violent marriage.
[xiv] Such ideas or criticisms, defending a woman’s right to lead fulfilling life beyond romantic partnerships and reproduction, are of course far from universally accepted today.
[xv] Canadian Girl, “Slavery in the Kitchen!” Palladium of Labor, 6 October 1883.
[xvi] A Knight of Labor, “A Reply to Canadian Girl,” Palladium of Labor, 3 November 1883.
[xvii] Canadian Girl, “Organization of Women,” Palladium of Labor, 10 November 1883.
[xviii] Gregory S. Kealey, “McVICAR, KATE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003; Kealey and Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be, 144.
[xix] Kealey and Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be, 144.
[xx] For a comprehensive study of women and the IWW, see Heather Mayer, Beyond the Rebel Girl: Women and the Industrial Workers of the World in the Pacific Northwest, 1905-1924 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2018).