LESSEL, ARTHUR C., carpenter and trade union leader; b. 1840 or 1841, probably in Halifax, son of James Lessel, a bookkeeper, and Catherine—; m. twice with four children (secondly on 1 June 1887 to Caroline Smith, née Dauphine, in St Margarets Bay, N.S.); d. 29 Oct. 1895 in Halifax.
In testimony before the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada in 1888, Arthur C. Lessel stated that he had worked as a carpenter for 30 years and that he had been apprenticed in the trade. Like many of the leaders of the union movement in late-19th-century Halifax, Lessel was both a self-employed artisan with a small carpentry shop and a worker. During his lifetime he achieved a reputation as a labour intellectual. After his death an “elderly mechanic” who had known him would describe him in the Acadian Recorder as a “deep thinker and a close reasoner,” noting that he had been a “theorist of this kind from boyhood up.”
Lessel’s most important contribution to the labour movement, however, was as an organizer and activist. He was the principal founder of Local 83 of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, which was established in Halifax in 1885, and one of the ablest and most articulate defenders of the city’s mechanics (skilled workers) in the following decade. The artisans were attempting to defend the status of their crafts, which were threatened not only by the long hours and low wages frequently demanded by employers but also by the incursions of the unorganized and unskilled. Lessel sought to strengthen the position of the Halifax carpenters by improving their organization and by excluding from the union those who did not measure up to the standards of the craft. “We are indeed very particular as to the men we take in,” he told the royal commission in 1888. “We desire to take none but skilled workmen, but in a community like this we cannot get all skilled men, yet we do the best we can.”
Lessel’s ideals, which he would partially realize as president of Local 83 in the late 1880s, were disciplined and effective union organization (including a closed shop, strict enforcement of trade rules, and exclusion of the unskilled from the craft) and government controls over craft apprenticeship. The local was instrumental in providing assistance to sick members and death benefits for widows and children, improving wages and working conditions, and regulating many trade matters through the use of shop stewards and strictly enforced union rules. Its major accomplishment under Lessel’s presidency was undoubtedly the short, but successful, strike in 1889 for the nine-hour day with no reduction in pay.
An advocate of craft unionism on the model of the American Federation of Labor, Lessel distanced himself and the influential carpenters’ local from the Amalgamated Trades Union, a Halifax labour organization that attempted to coordinate the activities of its member unions. Instead he supported the more conventional, craft-union approach of the Halifax Trades and Labour Council, founded in 1889. The strike that year had intensified the growing division between masters and journeymen in the trade, and as a result the traditional craft unionism championed by Lessel was forced to change. The concentration and consolidation of capital in the construction industry, typified by the emergence of general building contractors, mechanization, and the increased use of unskilled workers, brought many of Lessel’s ideals to grief, but the local he founded has survived to this day. Its 19th-century minute-books vividly convey a lost world of skilled craftsmen whose sense of respectability was so acutely developed that they debated for many hours such questions as whether to wear light or dark gloves in the annual Labour Day parades. On 17 Sept. 1895 the union sternly condemned those who had not participated in the festival, including “bro. A C Lessel,” who had offered his illness as an excuse. He died the following month.
In February 1896 the article in the Acadian Recorder acknowledged Lessel’s contribution to the union movement in Halifax. “To him may be attributed the nucleus of the labor organizations which were set on foot and flourished in this community, and which, despite occasional illustrations to the contrary, are admitted by workingmen generally to have been fraught with good to them.”
Camp Hill Cemetery (Halifax), Reg. of burials, 1 Nov. 1895. PANS, MG 20, 1634–37. Can., Royal commission on labour and capital, Report, Evidence – Nova Scotia, 38. Carpenter (Washington), 1885–93. Acadian Recorder, 1889, 30 Oct. 1895, 8 Feb. 1896. Evening Mail (Halifax), 30 Oct. 1895. Eugene Forsey, Trade unions in Canada, 1812–1902 (Toronto, 1982). Ian McKay, The craft transformed: an essay on the carpenters of Halifax, 1885–1985 (Halifax, 1985).