Labour History in Places with the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

What can your city tell you about history?

We joined Workers Arts and Heritage Centre collaborators Simon Orpana and Rob Kristofferson as they discuss the 1872 Nine Hour Movement in its spacial context in Hamilton. This video tells the story of this important labour movement by showing where things happened and where people met.


Hi everyone, I’m Rob Kristofferson. I’m a Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University. I’m also a specialist in Canadian Labor History, more particularly the history of Hamilton. We’re standing in front the of the Workers Arts & Heritage Center on Stewart Street in Hamilton right now. It is a labor arts and heritage museum that has been around since the mid nineteen nineties. I’ve had the fortune of being involved with the WAHC since it opened. I helped with one of the opening exhibitions and have watched it grow and flourish over the years.

I’m Simon Orpana. I’m an artist and an educator living in Hamilton. I’ve done several projects about Hamilton’s history. I was a facilitator for the Brightside neighborhood project which collected oral histories of a vanished working people’s neighborhood in the east end of Hamilton. I also helped Rob; together we made a graphic history about the 1946 Steelco strike. Today we are going to be talking about the Nine Hour Movement. Basically, on May 15th, 1872, somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 workers marched in front of this building as part of a 5-kilometer parade route petitioning for a 9-hour workday. The standard workday was between ten and twelve hours at that point. This was a consolidated movement to get a nine-hour workday implemented. There was a nine-hour movement underway in Britain and the United States. Hamilton was the epicenter of the nine-hour movement in Canada. Many of the outcomes of that day had implications for the entire country and for future labor history. Today we are going to visit several sites that the parade would have passed by and examine some of the stories associated with that and the implications for this larger history.

Stop 1 – Railway

Behind me is the site of the Great Western Railway which was built in the 1850s and provided an important link for good between Hamilton, New York, and Michigan. It helped turn Hamilton into an industrial center. James Ryan, who was the secretary of the Nine Hour League, had just recently arrived from Britain where he was a member of the amalgamated society of engineers. They had recently won a nine-hour working day in the old country. When he came to work at the Great Western Railway, he spoke to his colleagues and co-workers and planted the seeds of the idea here. They then started selling the idea to larger Hamilton and to workers in other industries and set the date for the parade on May 19th to be the day that, afterwards, nine hours would constitute a working day. That set the stage for the nine-hour movement. They called it officially at Dan Black’s Club House which is one of the next stops on our tour. The organizing would have happened quite a lot here as well. People were coming through the Great Westerns Railway yards from different parts of the province and country. It gave Ryan and his colleagues an opportunity to organize in other locals as well.

Stop 2 – Dan Black’s Club House

We’re standing in front of what used to be Dan Black’s Club House. In 1872, this would have been a meeting spot for workers to come and relax at the end of a busy workday but also to talk about the news of the day and the issues of the day. At that time, the nine-hour movement would have been on everyone’s mind. Dan Black himself was known as a friend to labor organizers and unions. This establishment was also known for oysters, and it had a bowling green in the back, a large tent in the summertime. It was a place for workers to relax and be away from the eyes of foremen as they discussed issues that mattered to them.

It was also an informal hiring hall. People would come looking for work and they would find out from other people what type of jobs were available, who was hiring, where they could go to find the kind of work that they were trained for. It was an important hub of working-class culture on James Street North. The parade would have gone right by this establishment on May 15th, 1872.

Stop 3 – Sewing Machine Factory

One of the major features of Hamilton’s early industrialization was that a number of sewing machine factories sprung up in Hamilton. This added a lot to a city that was already big in metal production and clothing production and things like that. By the time of the nine-hour movement there were five or six sewing machine manufacturers in Hamilton. This building behind me was built in the early 1860s and it was the original factory of the R.M. Wanzer Sewing Machine Company. The men and boys that worked in that factory produced sewing machines that were sold internationally. The little wanzer sewing machine won the medal for the best sewing machine in the world at the Vienna exposition at around this time.

Richard Wanzer was among 145 other Hamilton factory owners who, during the nine-hour movement, signed a pledge not to grant his workers nine hours of labor. His general argument, and those of the others who signed that petition, was that if you gave people shorter hours of labor in Hamilton but not in other places in Canada that Hamilton factories would become un-competitive and would end up going out of business. It needed to be a Canada-wide thing if it was going to be anything at all. This factory behind me was the original factory. By the time of the nine-hour parade, Wanzer was doing so well that he opened another factory a few blocks from here. It has been torn down since then. When the nine-hour parade went by his factory that year, the men stopped in front of the factory and chanted: “Nine Hours, and no surrender!”

Stop 4 – Larking Hall

The building behind me was originally called Larking Hall. The name on the building currently is “Treble Hall” and the date associated with it is actually later than the date when it was built.

This was the cooperative store for the Knights of Labor, and it involves the aftermath of the nine-hour movement. After 1872, there was an economic recession and it put a damper on a lot of labor organizing. When the economy picked up again, it brought a new wave of labor organizing, including the Knights of Labor, an organization from the States. They had a different philosophy, a different approach to organizing which, instead of being based on strikes and actions, it was based on collaborative, mutual aid and cooperatives, like this grocery cooperative behind us. The manager of this cooperative was Allan Studholme who would go on to become the first provincial member of parliament representing working people in Canada. It was also, as an organization, a little different from the craft unions that were part of the nine-hour movement. The nine-hour movement was organized by craft unions which were associations representing particular professions. The Knights of Labor sought to organize entire working communities which included women, racialized workers and forms the precursor to the more inclusive forms of labor organizing that would emerge in the industrial period, in the twentieth century.

Stop 5 – Hamilton Trades and Labor Council

This building behind me was built in 1923 as the home of the Hamilton Trades and Labor Council. It tells us a lot about where the labor movement ended up in the years after nine-hour movement. In the wake of the big splashy parade of May 15th, 1872, involving up to 3,000 Hamilton workers, the movement to actually get nine hours and get the bosses to reduce working hours fell apart. On June 15th, there was another attempt in Market Square to get people together to drive some more enthusiasm into the movement. Only about 300 people showed up and things fizzled out from there. However, there were a number of really important things that came from the Nine-Hour movement. First of all, we had Canada’s first labor newspaper, the Ontario Workman, which became the mouth of working people throughout the struggle. The second thing is, the passage of a major piece of legislation called the” Trade’s Union Act”. Sir John A. McDonald, the Prime Minister at the time, passed this to foil his political foes but what it did is it legalized trade unions in Canada for the first time ever. Before this, workers organizing unions got charged with something called “conspiracy”. The act didn’t really have a lot of teeth but at least it was the beginning of something. Third, the movement morphed into more of a political movement after that. Essentially, what happened in Hamilton is, the nine-hour issue became a debate between older coworkers more established in Hamilton and younger workers who recently arrived here. The younger workers led by people like James Ryan wanted employers to immediately order nine hours of labor in factories but older, more established workers, wanted a solution that would keep things in business. They agreed with employers that you needed to institute nine hours at all factories in Canada in order for it to be successful and for competition to go on. It was not a disagreement on whether nine hours of labor was a good idea. I think everyone agreed on that. After the movement fell apart, this older group set to pull their heads to the federal elections in the coming months. They sought to elect one of their own, a worker from the Great West Railway yards; called H. B. Whitton. And it worked. He was elected as Canada’s first working-class parliamentarian and served for the next four years in that capacity.

Stop 6 –  Finale

At our last stop we talked about some of the accomplishments the movement made in spite of failing to achieve its immediate demands. I wanted to talk about one more very important accomplishment of the movement as we wrap things up today. Just a few days before the nine-hour parade, there was a big meeting at Temperance Hall in Hamilton and nine hour league secretary, James Ryan, managed to get folks from across central Canada, as far east as Montreal and Toronto and environs together to talk about creating a way to get together as a labor movement. Out of that meeting came an organization with a very long name but it was soon shortened to the Canadian Labor Union. That was the first regional labor movement in Canada that resulted from that. It, like so many things that were knocked back by the depression of the 1870s. But by the 1880s, the labor movement had reformed itself, first, with the noble and holy order of the Knights of Labor. After that, in league with a lot of American unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor in a thing called the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada. It has been a strong and robust labor movement in the decades since, ending up today with the labor centrals like the Canadian Labor Congress.

Today we got to see a few sites of important labor history in Hamilton, Ontario. The events that occurred here in 1872 reverberated across the country. I hope that this inspires you to look at your own city, town, and surroundings and search for that history that is all around us. Thank you very much for joining us today.