Work and Labour

It should be noted at the outset that most accounts of work and labour are incomplete, since most historical records anywhere do not give recognition to work that is outside the exchanges of the market. Most such work has traditionally been done by women. In what follows, some attempt has been made to acknowledge unpaid work, but the emphasis remains on work that is paid for, whether in money or goods. For most of Newfoundland and Labrador's history, most such work has been associated with fishing, at first the trans-Atlantic migratory cod-fishery and, from the early 19th century, fisheries based in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Fishery

Until well into the 20th century, cod fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador was pursued mainly by family enterprises. In theory, they could sell their fish to the highest bidder, but in practice they were bound by debt and credit to a merchant who took their fish in exchange for supplies. Men were almost exclusively the catchers, but the catch was split, salted, laid out to dry and tended while drying by the whole family, with women bearing some of the heaviest burden. Fishing families also provided a major part of their own subsistence by hunting and gathering wild food, gardening and keeping livestock. Men made and maintained boats, gear, houses and outbuildings; women maintained the household, made cloth and clothing and produced, prepared and preserved food.

Tending the Fish, n.d.
Tending the Fish, n.d.
Men were almost exclusively the catchers, but the fish was split, salted, laid out to dry and tended while drying by the whole family, with women bearing some of the heaviest burden.
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Coll - 200, 1.01.067), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

The seal fishery and the Labrador cod fishery expanded greatly during the 19th century on the Northeast Coast of the island, as did the Grand Banks fishery on the South Coast. Both provided employment and income, not only for fishermen who served aboard the vessels, but also for workers in ship-building and other maritime trades such as coopering or rope-making.

Such specialized trades developed only in a few larger centres, particularly in the capital city, St. John's, and it was among them that the first craft unions were organized. The city was also the main location of a relatively small number of clerical and "white collar" jobs in government, retail trade and a small service sector. A retail clerks' union, formed in 1868, was the first to permit women in its membership.

Although conditions in the various fisheries were cruelly hard, organized protest was unusual. Nonetheless, from early in the 19th century, fishermen (especially those who went to the seal hunt), did band together from time to time to demand better conditions and a greater share of profits.

By the latter part of the 19th century, the fisheries no longer provided enough employment for the growing work force. Many young men had to leave home to seek work abroad; young women in rural areas often went to work for other fishing families, where they performed fishery and domestic work for little more than room and board.

Diversifying the Economy

Efforts to diversify the economy generated wage work in mining, on the railway, and in forestry and the pulp and paper industry. These enterprises created steady jobs with fixed wages, quite unlike the seasonality and uncertainty of the fisheries. Such employment resulted in the development of different attitudes, ways of life, and family relationships. Most of the new jobs were for men, but many women left outport communities to work as domestic servants in the new industrial towns or the burgeoning centre of St. John's. With the new industries came trades and labour unions, some of them branches of unions based in the United States.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had always worked at a variety of tasks as the seasons changed. For some of them, the new industries provided not steady jobs but another source of temporary work; a chance to earn cash when other work was not available. These circumstances were very favourable to employers, who were able to draw upon a supply of cheap labour on a seasonal basis rather than having to maintain a year-round work force. This pattern became especially evident in the logging industry.

The new industries still did not provide enough jobs for the growing population and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians of both sexes continued to leave home to pursue a wide variety of employment on the mainland, especially in the "Boston States". One curious by-product of this exodus began around the turn of the 20th century, when some of these men became established in the ironwork trade in large and fast-growing American cities, working on the construction of skyscrapers and bridges. In cities like New York and Philadelphia they met expatriate women from back home, many working as domestic servants, and together they founded families who have maintained their ironworking and Newfoundland connections up to the present.

The Great Depression struck particularly hard in Newfoundland and Labrador; unemployment was shockingly high, fish prices low, and social services almost non-existent. The Second World War, and especially the arrival of the American military in 1941, brought a new era of prosperity, making a new range of well-paid jobs available in the building and maintenance of military bases and in other war-related work.

Base Headquarters Building, Fort Pepperrell, ca. 1950
Base Headquarters Building, Fort Pepperrell, ca. 1950
Fort Pepperrell was an important base for the United States Air Forces.
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Coll - 109, 3.01.10), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Some of this prosperity carried over into the post-war period, especially after confederation with Canada in 1949, when with Ottawa's assistance the new provincial government set out to "modernize" the economy. Newfoundland and Labrador ways of living and working were again dramatically altered by the industrialization of the fishery and the rapid construction of an infrastructure of power lines, schools, hospitals and roads.

With modernization came a rapid growth in professional, managerial, clerical and other "white collar" jobs in both the public and private sectors. On the eve of the 21st century, most employment in the province was of this kind, and some of the largest and most influential unions were in these areas, including unions of civil servants, teachers and health workers.

Work and Employment in Recent Years

For most of its first fifty years as a Canadian province, Newfoundland and Labrador had been characterized by the lowest per capita (per person) incomes and the highest rates of unemployment in the country. At the end of the 20th century, that was still true, and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians faced the uncertainties of globalization as well as those of their particular history and location. Following the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992, there was practically no wage work available in hundreds of outport communities, and younger people left the province at an unprecedented rate. At the same time, the provincial government spoke positively of a vibrant economy based on large resource-extraction projects and new opportunities in such areas as information technology and tourism. Only one thing seemed certain: as elsewhere in the world, patterns of work and employment in Newfoundland and Labrador would continue to change.

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