The history of unemployed workers’ unions in Canada dates back to 1930, when the Communist Party of Canada formed the National Unemployed Workers Association (NUWA).
Originally published in the Toronto Star, this photo captures members of the Toronto Union of Unemployed Workers marching in the city’s 1982 Labour Day Parade. The original photo in the Toronto Star was accompanied by the following caption:
Unions of Unemployed re-emerged out of Canada’s recession in the early 1980s, which brought high interest rates, inflation, and unemployment. By mid-1982, Canada was suffering from the worst recession it had experienced since before the Second World War. Unemployment was high, with 10.8% of people unemployed. The recession hit Hamilton, Ontario, particularly hard. Companies laid off thousands, and hundreds more lost their jobs permanently to plant closures.
Formed in 1982, Hamilton’s Union of Unemployed (HUU) was born with assistance from the Hamilton and District Labour Council, who supported an independent organizing drive to establish an activist union of the unemployed. The Union made housing one of its key priorities, campaigning for affordable housing and advocating for those fighting evictions. Their most successful eviction struggle resulted in evictees being reimbursed for relocation costs, first- and last-month’s rental fees, disconnection and reconnection fees, and moving expenses. The HUU also successfully campaigned for unemployed workers to pay reduced bus fares.
In 1983, Hamilton’s Union of Unemployed opened a storefront headquarters on Barton Street East, near the industrial sector. The HUU held a picnic for unemployed workers in the summer of 1984; a first attempt at a picnic the previous summer at Confederation Park was not as successful. Over a thousand people joined the picnic in 1984, ate food donated by local businesses (mostly hot dogs, corn on the cob, and sodas), and socialized. However, after this picnic, as the economy gradually began to recover, the HUU eventually dissolved.
Hamilton’s Union of Unemployed was one of at least three Unions of Unemployed in Ontario – other chapters were active in Toronto and London. London’s Union of the Unemployed formed in 1983 under John Clarke. Clarke went on to become an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).
The London Union worked with the Toronto Union of Unemployed Workers on the March Against Poverty to demand a 25% increase in social assistance. The province-wide march took place in 1990, and led to the formation of OCAP.
Aces behind the statistics. https://digitalarchive.tpl.ca/objects/372477
Fiona Kovacaj and Sarah Clark Morgan, “General Support,” Pinning Down the Union: The Button Project (Toronto, Ontario: Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources Library, University of Toronto, n.d.). Accessed 30 March 2023.
[Added by Hayley at Surface Impression:
Pinback button. Union of Unemployed Workers. From the collection of the Workers Arts & Heritage
Terry Fraser and Sam Hammond, “Organizing is a necessity: A political history of the Hamilton Unemployed Union,” People’s World, 24 August 2021. Accessed 30 March 2023. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/organizing-is-a-necessity-a-political-history-of-the-hamilton-unemployed-union/