August 2018 - Lougheed House

Calgary’s nascent labour movement: carving out a union in the era of sandstone construction.

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by Adam Sarjeant, Admissions Assistant

This Summer, Lougheed House presents Formed by Sand, an exhibition of artifacts and contemporary art exploring Calgary’s relationship to sandstone, oil, and its geological history. Calgary has been referred to as “The Sandstone City” for its many locally quarried sandstone buildings; but sandstone construction was, and still is, impossible without the skilled craftspeople who create it. That’s why this month, the Lougheed House Blog explores the relationship between sandstone and Calgary’s early labour movements.

  1. 1900-1: The CTLC and the Birth of the Calgary Labour Movement

Despite a significant – and growing – population of skilled tradespeople, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that Alberta’s labourers began to self-organize. The Sandstone industry in particular had been booming for well over a decade. This was in part the case due to drastic changes necessitated by the fire of 1886, after which fire-resistant materials such as sandstone were not simply in vogue, but in some cases legally required.[1] Stonemasons, stonecutters, carpenters, railworkers and other skilled craftspeople formed the brunt of Calgary’s economy. Why, then, did it take so long for Calgarians to unionize? Mobility may have been a factor. It was not uncommon for labourers to follow new prospects, such as cheap land or new railway development, rather than situating themselves in a location long enough to organize. Another may simply have been the political strength of business interests in Alberta. Calgary’s first union, Local 9787 of the Knights of Labour, was successfully “busted” in 1890 by a coalition of mining companies.[2] Regardless of the reasons for this delay, Calgary’s labour situation exploded overnight in the first years of the 20th century.

Circa 1913, Calgary stoneworker Hugh Macdonald at work. Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

In 1900-1, the Calgary Trades and Labour Council (CTLC) was established by a coalition of unions associated with the newly constructed railway, allegedly for the purpose of organizing Labour Day celebrations – though this may have simply been a ploy to make the organization appear less threatening. The CTLC quickly began organizing local chapters of various trade unions, finding fertile ground in Calgary’s exploding construction industries. In 1900, total trade membership was reported at 300 persons; by 1905, it was 1500, or 12.5% of Calgary’s entire population. With the growth in unionization came a flurry of labour action: in 1903, unions struck six times, and between 1900 and 1914, the peak of Calgary’s Labour movement, 46 separate strike actions took place.[3]

  1. Skilled Labour and the “Sandstone City”

At its heart, construction – and sandstone construction in particular – is a labour-intensive industry. Taking a piece of stone from quarry to construction requires numerous tradespersons, all of them skilled specialists. For Calgary’s labour historians, the most important of these many trades were the stonecutters (skilled tradespeople cut stone into bricks) and stonemasons (or “bricklayers;” labourers who arranged and secured the cut bricks).

During the very same time (1900-15) when the unions were exploding, the market for skilled sandstone tradespeople was on a gradual decline. Mechanization of the stonecutting/masonry process was an early casualty of 20th industrial capitalism, and these two twin trades were quickly being replaced through the use of crude machinery. By 1915, the number of stoneworkers in the US had declined by half. The result in Calgary was a keen awareness among skilled stoneworkers of their shared vulnerability, but also of a desperate need to secure a competitive advantage. Two unions represented the two aforementioned professions: the JSU (Journeyman Stonecutters Union) for the stonecutters, and the BSMIU (Bricklayers and Stone Mason’s International Union) for the masons.

For both unions, their competitiveness, seemingly a natural adaptation to an inclement market, was their downfall. The line between mason and stonecutter was often muddy, and from the beginning the two unions contributed to this issue in the hopes of providing a competitive advantage to their own membership. The results were almost precisely opposite to their avowed purpose as unions: rather than securing labourers against the undercutting power of the market and their employers, the BSMIU and JSU created a hyper-competitive market of their own, each side engaging in desperate price-cutting to secure work for their own members. Eventually, it was the BSMIU which secured the decisive advantage in this conflict, by expanding its mandate to include “all cutting, and grinding of all kinds of brick, and all cutting, setting of… artificial stone.” The definition of “artificial stone” was key; in many cases, Calgary’s sandstone would have to be for fortified, and thus, the BSMIU claimed, its cutting fell under their jurisdiction. This left the JSU with no grounds on which it was not forced to compete. In 1912, both unions struck – essentially, against the poor conditions created by their own refusal to cooperate. The lengthy strike drained the now significantly smaller JSU’s resources to the breaking point. In 1914, the BSMIU formally absorbed the JSU, which would surely have been small reward for a deteriorating stonecutting industry.[4]

  1. Misconceptions about Early Labour History

The JSU and BSMIU’s interrelated history is a study in the forces which govern the often tenuous politics of labour. Specifically, they undermine two pernicious misconceptions about the history of labour politics: the first, that unions are entirely market-dependant, which is to say that union action is only possible in a booming market, and is essentially parasitic; and the second, that unionization is a fundamentally socialist or communist enterprise, representing an attempt to “seize the means of production” from a bourgeois business class. The first misconception runs contrary to Alberta’s labour history as a whole, as well as the stonecutters’ unions – it was precisely during a massive fall in the demand for labour (from 1900-15) caused by growing mechanization that Alberta’s labour movement first blossomed.

As for the other point, the history of the JSU and BSMIU demonstrates that the unions themselves were market participants, both in good times and bad – a lesson the stonecutters knew all too well. Labour negotiation is reliant on the preservation of demand, and in this way unions might be seen as the “opposite side of the coin” of capitalist enterprise. On the rare occasions that the Socialist Party of Calgary (SPC) and Worker’s Party of Calgary (WPC) did indeed engage with Calgary’s labour movement, their perspectives rarely aligned. This was in spite of the fact that from 1900-15, many Calgarians regarded the SPC as an ascendant power in Calgary’s politics; the typically Conservative paper The Eye Opener in 1908 ran a column which said of the party: “…it may be stated as a matter of fact that there is more true honesty of purpose within their ranks than there is in either of the two big parties. If not carried away by the extravagant exuberances of some of their leaders they may be the Big Party themselves one day.”[5] In spite of this, the CTLC often explicitly distanced itself from the party, denying it many forms of support it offered as a matter if course to other parties.[6]

[1] Facility Management, “The Great Fire of 1886 and Its Effect on Future Building,” The City of Calgary, December 20, 2016, accessed July 07, 2018,

[2] David Bright, The Limits of Labour: Class Formation and the Labour Movement in Calgary, 1883-1929, pp. 76-9 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).

[3] Ibid, pp. 80-1, 90-1.

[4] Ibid, pp. 87-9

[5] B. C. Edawrds, “It Is Time For A Change!” The Eye Opener (Calgary), October 3, 1908, 6th ed., sec. 33, accessed July 12, 2018,

[6] Bright, ibid, p. 105.

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