One Big Union (Canada)

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Full nameOne Big Union
Date dissolved1956
Federation mergerCanadian Labour Congress
AffiliationSocialist Party of Canada, Syndicalism
Key peopleRobert B. Russell
Office locationWinnipeg

The One Big Union (OBU) was a Canadian syndicalist trade union active primarily in the western part of the country. It was initiated formally in Calgary on June 4, 1919 but lost most of its members by 1922. It finally merged into the Canadian Labour Congress during 1956.


Towards the end of World War I, labor activism in Western Canada became more radical. Western Canadian radicals protested the management of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC), the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the governments in power. Western unions were represented by only 45 of 400 delegates at the September 1918 TLC convention. Their resolutions to condemn Canada's efforts for World War I were therefore defeated easily. Moreover, the socialist TLC president James Watters, who had had this post since 1911, was replaced by the conservative Tom Moore.

In those radical times, the federal government clamped down on radical publications and organizations, outlawing 14 different organizations including the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW). But labour activists and socialists did not allow the vision of that kind of society to die so determined to establish a new organization with the old IWW motto "The Workers of the World Unite" as their stated belief.

Western TLC unionists met annually in what became known as the Western Labor Conferences. The 1919 event was held on March 13, prior to the annual national TLC congress. The WLC conference was dominated by members of the Socialist Party of Canada, who favored secession from the TLC. The majority at the conference voted to form a new "revolutionary industrial union" separate from the AFL/TLC, to be initiated officially at a convention scheduled for June 11.[1] The conference also approved resolutions condemning the Canadian government's practices during the war and expressing solidarity with the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Spartacist League in Germany. It was also decided to poll Canadian workers on a general strike.


Crowd gathered outside old City Hall during the Winnipeg General Strike, June 21, 1919

The general strike that began in Winnipeg on May 15 was not associated organizationally with the OBU. Yet the federal government and some conservative labor politicians accused the OBU of instigating it. Many of the strike's leaders, including OBU activist Robert B. Russell, were arrested in conjunction with the strike, Russell being sentenced to two years imprisonment. Edmonton, Calgary, Drumheller and Vancouver began their own general strikes in support of the Winnipeg workers, and some of these strikeleaders, such as Edmonton's Joe Knight, were OBU affiliates.

The AFL and the TLC resisted the secession, by what would soon become the OBU. OBU members and OBU unions were expelled from most local trades councils. Nonetheless, thousands of workers resigned the AFL and the TLC and joined the OBU. These included loggers, hard rock miners, coal miners, longshoremen, construction workers, metalworkers, shop craft workers, etc. The One Big Union organized by industry rather than by trade, in response to a deemphasis of craftsmanship, (Taylorism), and the burgeoning demand for unskilled labour.[2] The OBU's anti-capitalist policy was evident by its constitution's pre-amble:

The O.B.U. ... seeks to organize the wage worker not according to craft but according to industry; according to class and class needs; and calls upon all workers irrespective of nationality, sex, or craft to organize into a workers' organization, so that they may be enabled to more successfully carry on the every day fight over wages, hours of work, etc. and prepare themselves for the day when production for profit shall be replaced by production of use.[3]

By late 1919 the OBU's membership was 40,000 to 70,000. The members were almost exclusively in the west of Canada. Efforts to organize in other parts of Canada and in the United States failed.

On June 4, the union was finally initiated officially at a small meeting in Calgary. Although an industrial form of organization was chosen, many questions were left unanswered in the constitution approved at this meeting. The manner of operation of the OBU did not differ much from that of the AFL or the TLC. Often, AFL or TLC union methods were simply incorporated into the OBU without any change; members simply started paying their dues to a different organization, but one with more radical aspirations.


The union's maximum was attained during late 1919 or early 1920. Due to persecution by employers, the media, government and even other unions, membership decreased. Employers refused to bargain with the OBU's representatives, and OBU organizers were beaten, kidnapped and dismissed from coalfields.[4] By 1921, it had only approximately 5,000 members, by 1927 only 1,600, almost all in Winnipeg. By 1922, most of the union's income came from a lottery it operated in its weekly bulletin. At the time lotteries were illegal in Canada, but it took the authorities years to successfully prosecute the union. The bulletin had a large circulation because of the lottery, even many businessmen bought it for the lottery coupons.

During the late 1920s the OBU briefly joined the All-Canadian Congress of Labour and considered joining the Canadian Congress of Labour during World War II, but by then its members were almost all employees of the Winnipeg Transit System. The One Big Union, by then with 24,000 members, merged into the Canadian Labour Congress during 1956.


  1. ^ Monto, Tom, Protest and Progress, Three Labour Radicals in Early Edmonton, Crang Publishing, 2012 (available at Alhambra Books, Edmonton, p. 71
  2. ^ Rinehart, J.W. The Tyranny of Work: Canadian Social Problems Series, Academic Press Canada (1975), p. 41
  3. ^ Logan, Harold A. Trade Unions in Canada. Toronto: Macmillan Company (1948), p. 313.
  4. ^ Rinehart, op. cit., p. 48; Monto, Tom, Protest and Progress, Crang Publishing (available at Alhambra Books, Edmonton), p. 75

Further reading[edit]

  • Bercuson, David Jay (1990), "Syndicalism Sidetracked: Canada's One Big Union", in van der Linden, Marcel; Thorpe, Wayne (eds.), Revolutionary Syndicalism: an International Perspective, Aldershot: Scolar Press, pp. 221–236, ISBN 0-85967-815-6
  • Warrian, Peter (1971), "M.A. Thesis, University of Waterloo", The Challenge of the One Big Union Movement in Canada 1919-1921, University of Waterloo