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MACKASEY, JOHN A., commission merchant and labour leader; b. c. 1840; m. with two sons and one daughter who survived him; d. 7 Oct. 1919 in Halifax.

Although John A. Mackasey was a commission merchant, a lieutenant in the 63rd (Halifax Volunteer) Battalion of Rifles, a liquor licence inspector, a member of the Charitable Irish Society, and (his obituary proclaimed) “altogether . . . a splendid citizen, highly respected and esteemed,” his most significant contribution to Canadian history was as leader of the unskilled dock labourers of Halifax in their great strike in 1884.

Longshoremen were known to be among the poorest of the city’s poor in the 1860s and 1870s, many of them victims of a casual labour market which gave them no economic security. Under Mackasey’s gifted leadership, and at a time when sailing vessels were yielding to steam in the port of Halifax, the Labourers’ Union (often also called the Longshore Laborers’ Association and the Long Shore Laborers’ Union) was founded on 13 April 1882, bringing casual and permanent dock workers together in a well-organized body. Open to males aged 16 to 60, “provided that they be in good health and of moral character,” the union established a fund from which its members could receive assistance (based on monthly dues) and urged the necessity of a “uniform price for labour, per day and by the hour,” for discharging and loading vessels and other work. After three months the association had 325 members, an eight-man executive (of which Mackasey was president), and a twelve-man council. By 1883 Halifax’s first mass union had 518 members and worked to give them a sense of solidarity and pride.

Mackasey’s motives in being involved seem to have been a complex blend of concern for his fellow Irish Catholics, temperance enthusiasm, and disdain for the manner in which the “great merchants” of Halifax had mismanaged their economic and social relations. As a commission merchant on Water Street, who represented many of the fishing vessels from Gloucester, Mass., when they called at Halifax, Mackasey became an early critic of the impact of the National Policy on the staples trades of the Maritimes. He also had a finely honed critique of the merchant class, who had, he argued, ignored the commercial opportunities at their doorstep. When they objected to the workers’ demands, Mackasey could counter their arguments point by point with data drawn from the North Atlantic shipping world.

The great test of Mackasey’s labour organization came in 1884. The labourers demanded increased wages, an end to reduced wages in the event of poor weather, and shorter hours; implicit in their program was the end of the casual labour system. Mackasey informed the merchants that “the whole laboring class of the city” was behind the demands, and implemented new methods of mass unionism – including badges to identify members, marked L.U. for Labourers’ Union, with the member’s number as recorded in the union’s rolls. Initially successful, this largest of many Halifax strikes in the 19th century took the merchant community by storm. Mackasey proved an effective leader. When the merchants alleged that Halifax labourers earned more than their counterparts in Portland, Maine, Mackasey telegraphed a Portland merchant and proved the allegation false; when the merchants alleged that they provided labourers with work drying fish as a benevolent gesture, Mackasey detailed the profit margins involved in curing; when merchants argued that the labourers’ living standards had unproved remarkably, Mackasey simply led reporters through the hovels and attics housing the longshoremen’s families. He used his contacts with the Gloucester fishing fleet to ship out some strikers for the Greenland fishery at $190 a trip, making sure to tell the merchants that, given the great demand for fishermen, they stood to lose the services of the labourers for the season. The longshoremen’s desire for a better life, he said sardonically, “had been taught them by the merchants themselves.” “The merchants of twenty years ago, mostly lived over their stores. Now they live in palaces on the banks of the North West Arm.” Mayor James Crosskill Mackintosh, a noted financier and investor, was not alone in reading into the workers’ program “a great deal of latent communism.”

Although the strike was ultimately unsuccessful, and the union defeated, it was long remembered as the 19th-century high point of workers’ struggles in the city. The Labourers’ Union survived until 1899 but it did not strike again. Mackasey retained an interest in the labour movement; however, after the mid 1880s much of his energy was devoted to the temperance crusade and the enforcement of liquor licensing. At his death he had been largely forgotten by a new generation of workers and activists in the city. The year 1884 was a false dawn for the longshore workers of Halifax, who lived with the negative consequences of the casual labour market down to World War II.

Ian McKay

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.9534. NA, MG 26, A: 143667–92. PANS, MG 100, 173, no.3; RG 7, 366, no.24. Acadian Recorder, 8, 14 April, 9 June, 13 July, 21 Aug. 1882; 7, 19 April 1883; 8 Oct. 1919. Citizen and Evening Chronicle (Halifax), 1 Nov. 1882, 10 May 1884. Morning Herald (Halifax), 7, 10 May 1884. Can., Royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada, Report (5v. in 6, Ottawa, 1889), Evidence – Nova Scotia, 110–12. Ian McKay, “Class struggle and merchant capital: craftsmen and labourers on the Halifax waterfront, 1850–190[2],” in The character of class struggle: essays in Canadian working-class history, 1850–1985, ed. B. D. Palmer (Toronto, 1986), 17–36. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1883: 127; Statutes, 1883, c.77.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ian McKay, “MACKASEY, JOHN A,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackasey_john_a_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackasey_john_a_14E.html
Author of Article: Ian McKay
Title of Article: MACKASEY, JOHN A
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: July 30, 2014