It all began in 1912, when the 1911 convention of the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) District 18 resolved to launch a provincial labour organization. They invited Alberta's trade unions and the recently formed United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) to send delegates to a founding convention of the Alberta Federation of Labour in Lethbridge on July 14 and 15, 1912.
According to the story in the Lethbridge Herald, the 34 delegates at that convention resolved to support each other, because they knew that they could rely on nobody else. District 18 Vice-President John O. Jones of Hillcrest became the president of the new organization. Sadly, efforts at farm-labour unity collapsed under the weight of the contradictory objectives of the two parties, and the farmers did not follow through. However, the unity they forged at the convention helped the UFA to win the 1921 provincial election, after which it passed some of the most progressive labour legislation in Alberta's history.
From the beginning, the AFL was divided between 'moderate' and 'radical' unionists. Moderates tended to come from the skilled craft unions affiliated to the American Federation of Labor and Canada's Trades & Labour Congress (TLC), whereas the radicals tended to come from ranks of the unskilled and semi-skilled.
Though a major force in the early days, miners were not always in the AFL. When they formed the One Big Union (OBU) in 1919 in Calgary, 95 per cent voted to leave the UMWA, and remained outside until 1923, only to be taken out again by the new communist-led Mine Workers Union of Canada (MWUC) in 1925. They rejoined in 1935, only to be expelled in 1939, on orders from the U.S.
Largely shunned by the mainstream of the conservative AFL, miners joined with the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) and the Civil Service Association of Alberta (CSA) to establish the Industrial Federation of Labour (IFL) in 1949 - just as McCarthyism was taking hold.
The IFL gained an ally when Neil Reimer came to Alberta in 1951 to organize with the Oil Workers' International Union (later the Oil Chemical & Atomic Workers; then the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers' Union). By 1955, the IFL claimed over 8,000 members including workers in mines, steel plants, packinghouses, energy and on the railway.
From the beginning, labour centrals have brought union leaders and activists together to debate policies and take collective action, transforming groups of workers seeking specific gains into a labour movement capable of fighting for the welfare of all. Gains in the early years included Workmen's Compensation; construction safety; a prohibition on child labour, a tenant's franchise, a fair wage policy, abolition of property qualifications for civic office, etc.
Through all these years, the industrialbased Canadian Congress of Labour and the IFL remained faithful supporters of the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), while the TLC and its provincial body the AFL remained nonpartisan, reluctant to denounce Social Credit policies, even when these restricted members' right to organize and strike.
Unity came in 1956, when the Trades and Labour Congress and the Canadian Congress of Labour merged to become the Canadian Labour Congress. The AFL and IFL followed suit, and craft unionist Charlie Gilbert was elected first president of the new body.
By 1957, the new Federation had grown to about 34,000 members, and had begun to challenge the Social Credit regime. When it moved to formalize its relationship with the CCF in 1959, the CSA withdrew its affiliation, and after the 1959 election, a victorious Social Credit government punished the AFL by passing negative changes to Alberta's Labour Act.
The 1960s saw a rise in the fortunes of organized labour with growing political influence of the New Democratic Party and unionization of the public sector. A bitter strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) in 1965 led to the passage of the Public Service Staff Relations Act (PSSRA), opening the door to collective bargaining for all government workers. In 1963, a council of municipal unions became part of a new national union, unifying municipal, school board and hospital employees into the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
Edmonton Journal, Friday August 30 2012