McGRATH, JAMES (he often signed James J.), labourer, union leader, social reformer, and office holder; b. 26 Feb. 1861 in St John’s, son of Matthew McGrath and Susan Durney; m. there 20 Oct. 1883 Anne Morris; they had no children; d. there 2 Oct. 1934.
Jim McGrath likely lived his entire life on Casey’s Lane, the address of his parents, and earned his living as a waterfront labourer. Such men toiled irregularly for poor pay, competing with the fishermen and other outport people who came to St John’s looking for employment. In 1902–3 dock workers began to organize for better conditions, and in April 1904 the Longshoremen’s Protective Union (LSPU) – originally the Steamboat Laborers’ Union of St John’s, founded in May 1903 – was established. McGrath joined and became president, and under his leadership from 1905 to 1920 the LSPU became Newfoundland’s most prominent labour union. The increasing importance of St John’s port in the trade of the island, the concentration of labour on the docks, and the reluctance of employers to face strikes all helped the LSPU to build a strong organization during his presidency.
McGrath was a determined proponent of better wages, fairer hiring practices, and collective bargaining rights, and he believed that government ought to reform the worst excesses of capitalism. He was not, however, a leftist radical. He held conservative views about gender roles and was firmly committed to the family wage, arguing that every man had a right to an income that was “at least enough to feed and clothe himself, his wife and the children which God has pleased to send them.” His concern for working-class welfare led him to support the Newfoundland Industrial Workers’ Association (NIWA), a union organized in 1917 by employees of the Reid Newfoundland Company, most of whom worked in St John’s. While the LSPU never officially affiliated with the NIWA, McGrath frequently attended its meetings and publicly backed its efforts. In 1918 he offered to find work for any NIWA member who faced financial trouble during a strike against the company [see Philip Bennett*], and LSPU members refused to load Reid ships.
Inflation and profiteering during World War I fuelled McGrath’s concerns about working-class living conditions in St John’s, which had a limited government that lacked the authority to raise revenue for improvements such as public housing. In 1913 William Gilbert Gosling*, the president of the Newfoundland Board of Trade, had formed a citizens’ committee to study the city’s problems, and its report convinced the colonial legislature to appoint the 12-man Municipal Commission that administered St John’s from 1914 to 1916. McGrath served on this body and took a special interest in finding affordable, decent housing for labourers. When elective government was restored Gosling became mayor, but McGrath, who had run with him, failed to win a council seat. The LSPU leader continued to fight for better housing, and in 1919 he joined legislative councillors John Anderson*, a merchant, and Michael Patrick Gibbs*, a pro-labour lawyer and former mayor of St John’s, in persuading the NIWA to create the Dominion Co-operative Building Association. High construction costs, however, meant that only 30 of a projected 600 houses were built, and in 1924 the cooperative was dissolved.
McGrath’s commitment to the union movement and social reform grew at least partially out of his Roman Catholicism. Archbishop Michael Francis Howley* had opposed organizations such as the Fishermen’s Protective Union of Newfoundland established by William Ford Coaker, but his successor, Edward Patrick Roche*, supported trade unions in keeping with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum and, in 1915, he called on the government of Sir Edward Patrick Morris to create work during an industrial slump. McGrath was “a faithful member of his Church,” and occasionally his beliefs coloured his public pronouncements about the LSPU. In 1914, for example, he scoffed in a letter to the Evening Telegram that many employers who would not pay family wages supported charities aimed at the worst problems associated with working-class poverty. “The fact of giving to charitable purposes,” he thundered, “will be no answer in the hereafter to that which the Good Book tells us is a sin crying to Heaven for vengeance, namely defrauding the laborer of his hire.” In 1919 McGrath chaired a meeting at the Casino Theatre, during which he stated that he was ready to form a labour party to fight government corruption. He may have had a role in the subsequent Workingmen’s Party, which was organized by the NIWA and seems to have appealed for the support of Roman Catholic working people. The party fielded three candidates in the 1919 general election, all in St John’s West, but none were elected.
In 1920 McGrath retired as president of the LSPU and became a customs official in St John’s. He remained active as a social reformer, and in the early 1930s, as the Great Depression deepened in the city, he again became publicly prominent. In February 1932 the spectacle of poorly fed and inadequately clothed workers on relief projects prompted a committee of the unemployed, chaired by McGrath, to petition the government for better conditions and to organize marches against relief cuts. When Prime Minister Sir Richard Anderson Squires stubbornly refused to meet with hundreds of protesters outside the Court House on 11 February, they forced their way into the building and physically assaulted him. This led Squires to denounce McGrath and other leaders of the committee as “gangsters,” and in a letter to the press McGrath replied: “I place the entire responsibility for the outbreak on the shoulders of the Prime Minister. He could have prevented it, instead he invited it – he drove the desperate hungry to a point where they had no other course open.”
Public discontent about poverty and unemployment mounted and led to a riot at the Colonial Building on 5 April 1932 during a meeting of the House of Assembly. Squires called a general election later that month, and on 11 June Frederick Charles Munro Alderdice led the United Newfoundland Party to victory. The new government’s efforts to secure financial assistance from Britain and Canada led to the appointment of the Newfoundland royal commission, chaired by Lord Amulree. Its 1933 report recommended that the colony temporarily suspend responsible government in favour of a British-appointed commission until such time as its economic and public policy problems had been alleviated.
By the time that the Commission of Government took effect in 1934, McGrath had largely disappeared from public view. Continuing to be active in the church, he was a member of the Mount Carmel Cemetery committee and served a stint as its vice-chairman. While suffering from liver cancer, he fell from a ladder, and died on 2 Oct. 1934. He was laid to rest at Mount Carmel beside his wife.
Jim McGrath’s most important achievement was his leadership of the LSPU, which helped to make it one of the strongest unions in Newfoundland. A labour reformer rather than a labour radical, he played a major role in municipal politics well into the 1920s as he fought for improved conditions for working-class families in St John’s, particularly in the area of housing. Through his support of the NIWA and the Workingmen’s Party, McGrath was a mainstay of the moderate leftist political milieu in the city that has often been overlooked in the political history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
James McGrath’s birth year is given as 1857 in the Encyclopedia of Nfld (Smallwood et al.), 3 and DNLB (Cuff et al.), and his headstone in Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Cemetery (St John’s), Burial records, plot 66, sect.A, supports this date. The 1921 Census of Newfoundland (RPA, GN 2/39/A, dist. St John’s West: 161) states that he was born in March 1856. However, his baptismal record (RPA, Parish records collection, St John’s, Reg. of baptisms, box 5, 1859–1861), the original copy of which has been viewed by the author, confirms that James McGrath, son of Matthew McGrath and Susan Durney of Casey’s Lane, was born 26 Feb. 1861. The date of McGrath’s marriage to Anne Morris is indicated by RPA, Basilica of St John the Baptist Roman Catholic Parish records, St John’s, Reg. of marriages, box 9, 1882–88. A petition of relief signed by McGrath is held in RPA, GN 2/5/541 (Office of the Colonial Secretary fonds, Special files, Relief), Governor Middleton to Secretary of State, St John’s, 10 Feb. 1932.
The main sources on McGrath are the letters he wrote to various newspapers and their coverage of the activities of the Longshoremen’s Protective Union, Newfoundland Industrial Workers’ Assoc., Dominion Co-operative Building Assoc., and committee of the unemployed. See especially Evening Telegram (St John’s), 16 May, 10 June 1910; 12, 13, 16 May 1914; 5 July 1919; 8, 10, 18 Feb. 1932; and Daily News (St John’s), 3, 6, 13 July 1916; 29 March, 24 June, 12 July 1919; 20 April 1920; 9, 11 July 1921. There is an obituary for McGrath in the Daily News, 3 Oct. 1934.
McGrath’s union work has received attention in R. H. Cuff, “The quill and the hammer: the NIWA in St John’s, 1917–1925,” in Workingmen’s St John’s: aspects of social history in the early 1900s, ed. Melvin Baker et al. (St John’s, 1982), 45–62; Jessie Chisholm, “Organizing on the waterfront: the St John’s Longshoremen’s Protective Union (LSPU), 1890–1914,” Labour (St John’s), 26 (1990): 37–59; and P. [S.] McInnis, “All solid along the line: the Reid Newfoundland strike of 1918,” Labour, 26 (1990): 61–84. McGrath’s role in housing policy and reform has been treated in Melvin Baker, “Municipal politics and public housing in St John’s, 1911–1921,” in Workingmen’s St John’s: aspects of social history in the early 1900s, 29–43; and James Overton, “Riots, raids and relief, police, prisons and parsimony: the political economy of public order in Newfoundland,” in Violence and public anxiety: a Canadian case, ed. Elliott Leyton et al. (St John’s, 1992), 195–334.