Sociology Index


The concept, One Big Union, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century amongst working class trade unionists. The idea was that all workers should be organised in one union: one big union.

Initiatives for One Big Union occurred across the world. Most notable was the attempt of the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as "the Wobblies") to organise One Big Union in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has advocated the general strike as a favorite method for workers to gain control of industries.

One Big Union Movement highlights the early conflicts within the trade union movement over how unions should be structured. There was disagreement over whether unions should be based on craft groups, the dominant model in 1919, or should be based on entire industries (industrial unions).

The One Big Union movement supported the 'entire industries' model over the 'craft groups' model and was successful in getting thousands of workers to join. One Big Union movement inspired a generation of radicals with their revolutionary spirit.

The One Big Union movement in Canada grew out of the discontent of the Western unions with the Trades and Labor Congress of the Dominion, On March 13, 1919, a conference was called at Calgary, Canada. 

The 237 delegates who attended immediately voted to sever connections with the old body and the A. F. of L. and to form a new industrial organization to be known as the One Big Union. - M. D. Savage: Industrial Unionism in America.

The One Big Union stressed class organization rather than industrial organization. 

In pursuance of this class policy it did not condemn political action, but rather declared that the only hope for the workers was "in the economic and political solidarity of the working class, One Big Union and One Workers' Party." The 0. B. U. Bulletin, Dec. 20, 1919

The Socialist Party of Canada and many active members of the SPC helped form the One Big Union movement in Canada and the US in 1917.  

The challenge of the one big union movement in Canada, 1919-1921
by Peter Warrian, One Big Union History and Labor unions Canada History.

Searching for workers' solidarity: the one big union and the Victoria General Strike of 1919. - Isitt, Benjamin
"ONE BIG UNION IS THE IDEAL to be aimed at, the final aim being the workers as a class arrayed against the common enemy," Victoria Trades and Labor Council (VTLC) delegates unanimously declared in February 1919. (1) Inspired by sympathetic strikes in Seattle and Vancouver, and angered by unemployment and employers' refusal to pay wages commensurate with the rising cost of living, Victoria workers turned to militant industrial unionism. Among the city's 5000 shipyard workers, this militancy was particularly pronounced. "The workers as a class were never feeling their class position more," VTLC president Eugene Woodward told the Mathers Commission on Industrial Relations when hearings opened in Victoria. (2) However by June 1919, with cities across Canada paralyzed by sympathetic strikes, Victoria's response was muted. Supporters of the breakaway One Big Union (OBU) were unable to wrest control from labour leaders loyal to American Federation of Labor (AFL)-affiliated international unions. Victoria workers wavered in response to the Winnipeg General Strike. When the Metal Trades Council finally initiated a walkout on 23 June 1919, the strike paralysed local shipyards, machine shops, and the waterfront, but lacked the participation of influential groups of workers: streetcar workers, postal workers, electrical workers, civic employees, and retail clerks. This study explores the One Big Union and 1919 Canadian labour revolt from the standpoint of Victoria's working class, illuminating a contested example of industrial solidarity.

Historians have assessed the character of the Winnipeg General Strike and debated the rise and fall of the One Big Union. (3) They have examined local sympathetic strikes and regional, national, and international contours of labour revolt. (4) No study, however, has focused on the experience of Victoria workers during and after the war, with only Phillips, Turner, Kealey, and Seager and Roth mentioning the Victoria General Strike. (5) Fragmentation is often viewed in regional, ethnic, and gender terms, rather than as a local manifestation, but as Heron points out: "the radicals' success depended on the strength of the local unions in their respective industries and on the established power of the international craft union leadership in the local labour movement." (6) Locating these local sources of solidarity requires reaching beyond what Hak called "the small band of articulate socialist theorists in Vancouver"--suggesting a more nuanced regional historiography. (7) Enduring racism and sexism among Anglo-Saxon workers impeded efforts toward genuine working-class unity; even in the radical One Big Union, which claimed to "not make either age, sex, color, race or creed a barrier to membership," a masculinist conception of social class persisted. (8) Socialism and militant trade-unionism are integral to BC'S labour tradition, but much can be learned from contested expressions of working-class activism, where divisions within workers' ranks inhibited wider expressions of solidarity.

In Victoria, contested leadership defined the local response to the Winnipeg General Strike. Against the backdrop of the One Big Union's rapid growth and sympathetic strikes from Vancouver to Amherst, Victoria workers voiced sympathy with Winnipeg labour while questioning whether to strike. The product was a general strike that was not general in character, a large-scale walkout by the city's industrial workforce that lacked the sanction of Victoria's central labour council. Revealing the impact of local conditions on working-class militancy, the unresolved tension between the One Big Union's industrial unionism and a more conservative craft unionism translated into the limited extent of the strike.