MARCH, CHARLES, painter and trade-union leader; b. 19 Nov. 1849 in Toronto, son of Charles March, a painter, and Catharine Malone; m. Mary Jane —, and they had a son; d. 17 April 1908 in Montreal.
Charles March was apprenticed to Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman who had worked under March’s father and who later built up a large contracting firm for painting and decorating. He would remain in O’Connor’s employ for most of his life.
In the 1870s March emerged as a major union leader in Toronto. The local painters union joined the Toronto Trades Assembly in 1872; March was active in the assembly and also in the Canadian Labor Union. The local lasted through the depression of the 1870s but collapsed in 1881. Reorganized in March 1882, it fought a bitter strike against the master painters that same month and won both union recognition and a wage increase. It took a second strike one year later to maintain the rate against some cost-cutting masters. As the least skilled of the crafts that made up the building trades, painters faced a difficult task from the 1880s in defending their status against the attacks of contractors on apprenticeship and the importation of unskilled workers and in maintaining their wages when competition forced contractors to try to cut corners. To aid in these battles they turned to alliances with other craft-workers and to political action.
March became a delegate to the Toronto Trades and Labor Council in 1882 and was elected president in 1883 and 1884. An active member of its legislative committee, he worked with fellow Liberal-party supporters Daniel John O’Donoghue and Alfred F. Jury* to orchestrate consistent criticism of the federal Tory government of Sir John A. Macdonald*, especially on immigration policy. In addition, the legislative committee campaigned for factory and sanitary legislation and for changes in mechanics’ lien laws.
March and O’Donoghue, both Roman Catholics, shared many of the same views of trade unionism. Together with the agnostic Jury, they formed a Reform-oriented leadership that challenged the Tory hegemony over local labour institutions. Turning their backs on craft unionism, they embraced the all-inclusive organizational aims of the Knights of Labor, a proto-industrial union that had emerged in the United States. The three leaders were members of Excelsior Local Assembly 2305 of the order. Clever use of the legislative committee and of the Knights would give them considerable influence. Thus, when the TTLC sponsored a call for a new national union body to replace the now defunct Canadian Labor Union, the convention of 1883 invited the Knights as well as trade unions to participate. The successful integration of the Knights into the new Trades and Labor Congress of Canada established a precedent which allowed for membership of local assemblies in city centrals and in the fall of 1883 a number of Toronto assemblies, including Excelsior, joined the TTLC. March became the provincial organizer for the Knights later in 1883 and in that role chartered numerous locals during the order’s period of explosive growth in 1885–86.
As president of the TTLC, March chaired the first Trades and Labor Congress convention in Toronto in 1883. At its second convention, in 1886, he was elected president of the congress; he was re-elected the following year. In this position he initiated the move toward direct lobbying of government by the TLC; this activity became more intense after O’Donoghue lost control of the appointment of the Canadian Knights’ legislative committee to Alexander Whyte Wright*, who had Terence Vincent Powderly, the order’s leader in North America, appoint an ineffective and staunchly Conservative committee.
In 1886, at the height of labour’s political power in 19th-century Toronto, March served as one of the four arbitrators who worked out a settlement of the Toronto Daily Mail’s refusal to recognize the Toronto Typographical Union. That fall, at a joint nominating convention of the TTLC and District Assembly 125 of the Knights of Labor, he was chosen to run in Toronto in the provincial election in December. The city had been gerrymandered by Premier Oliver Mowat to form one electoral district, with three seats in the legislature. In a five-way race the Tory candidates, Edward Frederick Clarke, an editor and former printers-union leader, and Henry Edward Clarke, a trunk manufacturer, topped the polls. The third seat was won by Liberal candidate John Leys, and the labour nominees, March and John Roney, finished fourth and fifth. Nevertheless, March had polled 4,055 votes and trailed Leys by only 1,325 votes. The Toronto World’s description of candidate March suggested a colourful and popular personality: “a portly gentleman, with full face and sweeping black moustache,” when dressed up he looked “like the advance agent of a minstrel show.”
March remained active in both the TTLC and the TLC after the decline of the Knights in the late 1880s. He turned increasingly, however, to the work of his own international union, the International Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators, which had been formed in Baltimore, Md, in March 1887. Toronto painters joined as Local 3 in April. March became fourth vice-president of the international in 1901 at the Detroit convention and second vice-president in 1905 at Memphis, Tenn. He was responsible for servicing the Canadian locals, a responsibility that necessitated much travel. With little income if any from his union tasks, he continued to work as a painter, unlike some of his union allies who received patronage appointments. He was in Montreal in 1908 on union business when “the strain told upon him” and he suffered a fatal heart attack. A member of St Patrick’s Church in Toronto, he was buried there in St Michael’s Cemetery; his estate consisted of only $700 in cash. His death robbed Canadian painters of an important leader, and eulogies included praise for the moderation of his views.
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Constitutions and proc. (mfm. project of Univ. Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Mich.; copy in NA, MG 28, I 265). AO, RG 22, ser.305, no.21083. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, 1901, Toronto. St Michael’s Cathedral (Toronto), Reg. of baptisms, 1850–53, 9 Dec. 1852 (mfm. at Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto). St Michael’s Cemetery (Toronto), Burial records. Catholic Register, 23 April 1908. Globe, 18 April 1908. World (Toronto), 1 Dec. 1886, 18 April 1908. Directory, Toronto, 1850/51–1907. Eugene Forsey, Trade unions in Canada, 1812–1902 (Toronto, 1982). Michael Kazin, Barons of labor: the San Francisco building trades and union power in the progressive era (Urbana, Ill., and Chicago, 1987). G. S. Kealey, Toronto workers. G. S. Kealey and Palmer, Dreaming of what might be. Ont., Chief Election Officer, Hist. of electoral districts (1969), 467. Wayne Roberts, “Artisans, aristocrats and handymen: politics and trade unionism among Toronto skilled building trade workers, 1896–1914,” Labour, 1 (1976): 92–121; “Studies in the Toronto labour movement, 1896–1914” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1978). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, 1: 555.
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Cite This Article
Christina Burr and Gregory S. Kealey, “MARCH, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/march_charles_13E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Christina Burr and Gregory S. Kealey|
|Title of Article:||MARCH, CHARLES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|