WARREN, GEORGE STEPHENS (baptized Georges-Étienne), cigar maker, trade union leader, and labour organizer; b. 25 Oct. 1846 in Montreal, son of Étienne Warren and Basilise (?) Boisseau; m. there first 19 April 1873 Élizabeth Chartier, and they had at least eight children; m. there secondly Rose-Anna Cusson; d. there 30 Nov. 1928.
George Stephens Warren was a descendant, through his father, of a Scottish officer who had settled in Nova Scotia; he also had French Canadian roots through his mother and grandmother. His paternal grandparents had established themselves in La Malbaie, but his father, before his first marriage in 1828, had taken up residence in Montreal, where he was a baker by trade. The Warren family spent a few years in Quebec City in the 1850s and then returned to Montreal. When still an adolescent, George fell while sliding on the ice and fractured a leg, which had to be amputated. His disability would not prevent him, however, from being an active man; a popular speaker, he would gesticulate with his crutches to lend emphasis to his words.
Once he had recovered, Warren became an apprentice in a cigar factory, a growing industry in Montreal. In 1866 he went to complete his training in Saratoga (Schuylerville), N.Y. The manufacture of cigars involved skilful rolling of leaf tobacco. It was in the nearby city of Schenectady that Warren was introduced to trade unionism when he joined the Cigar Makers’ International Union of America. A few months later he attracted attention and even became a member of the union’s executive. Back in Montreal in 1870, he was immediately appointed secretary of the local cigar makers’ union, which was affiliated with the CMIUA. This local union disappeared in the turmoil of the severe recession of 1873, but it was re-established the following year and Warren became its president at that time. In 1876 it was dissolved again, its members being unable to find work because of the widespread crisis in the cigar industry. The 1880s proved far more favourable to the growth of trade unionism and in 1880 Warren participated in reorganizing the cigar makers’ union; it immediately requested an affiliation charter with the CMIUA, in which it constituted Local 58. He was the local’s president in 1886 and 1887, and he even held office as third vice-president of the union’s international executive in 1888 and 1889.
The fact that Warren belonged to an international trade union had not prevented him from being an activist within the Knights of Labor, an organization gaining more and more of a foothold in Quebec during the 1880s. Of American origin, it wanted to be open to all workers, not just to those who practised a trade. Quebec’s first organizer of the Knights of Labor, Warren in 1883 had taken part in founding Ville-Marie Assembly 3484, which was reserved for francophones [see Olivier-David Benoît*]. He is thought to have established at least 23 assemblies in Quebec. In the 1890s he continued to belong to the assembly while being a member of the CMIUA. As early as 1883, Warren had also attempted to establish an organization that would bring the Montreal unions together and represent them in their dealings with municipal government. His hopes materialized in 1886 with the creation of the Central Trades and Labor Council of Montreal, which brought together the city’s unions and Knights of Labor assemblies.
In 1888 Warren was called to testify before the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital regarding transformations in the Montreal cigar industry. He pointed out that cigar makers’ salaries had been reduced by almost 50 per cent since the 1870s because of the employment of children in factories. Using moulds invented at the end of the 1860s, these children were able to make 5,500 cigars per day, far more than could a tradesman who meticulously rolled each one of them. He suggested that there be a law like the one in Ontario to limit the number of apprentices according to the number of cigar makers employed in a factory.
While president of his union, Warren had an idea that was to have great appeal: to celebrate Labour Day on the first Monday of September 1886, following the example of what increasingly was being done in American cities after the initial parades held in Toronto and New York in 1882. Eight of the unions in the city responded to his invitation, including the cigar makers’ union, whose 350 members participated, carrying a banner with the slogan “Religion et patrie.” About 2,000 workers in all, grouped by trade and accompanied by two brass bands, marched through the downtown streets before the crowds lining the route. After the parade, the members’ families were transported by boat to Elmwood Grove Park for a picnic, games, and sports competitions. Warren and a few other union leaders took advantage of the occasion to give speeches, encouraging the workers to maintain union solidarity and to vote for the labour candidates in the next elections. The celebration spread across Canada, and the federal government made it a public holiday in 1894. The parade in Montreal became very large-scale at the beginning of the 20th century, but it would disappear in 1953.
Warren represented Ville-Marie Assembly at the meetings of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada in 1890, 1893, and 1894. In 1890 he was elected to its provincial legislative committee, which was responsible for submitting union workers’ grievances concerning labour legislation to the Quebec government. In this forum and in his public pronouncements, he placed particular emphasis on two issues: the banning of child labour and free, public school education.
It is not known what position Warren took in the conflict that pitted the Knights of Labor against the international unions at the end of the 19th century, but in March 1899 he agreed to work for the American Federation of Labor, which oversaw the international unions. Its president, Samuel Gompers, commissioned him to work as organizer for the district of Montreal. Employed in this position until 1901, he succeeded in setting up unions in Montreal, Quebec City, Saint-Hyacinthe, and Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. In 1903 he championed international unions on the same podium as Joseph-Alphonse Rodier*, Joseph Ainey*, and Alphonse Verville. He subsequently had a more unobtrusive role and he died in 1928 at the age of 82.
According to accounts of the time, George Stephens Warren was an engaging figure by virtue of his enthusiasm and colourful style. A gifted speaker in both French and English and a passionate union activist, he stands among those who through dynamism and devotion laid the foundations of trade unionism in Montreal.
ANQ-M, CE601-S15, 19 avril 1873; S51, 26 oct. 1846. Montreal Daily Star, 21 Nov. 1883; 7 Sept., December 1886; 31 Aug. 1889. Montreal Herald, 1 Sept. 1894. La Patrie, 18 févr. 1903, 6 déc. 1919. La Presse, 6 sept. 1886; 30 nov., 4 déc. 1928; 6 déc. 1930. Le Repos du travailleur (Montréal), 1 sept. 1890. Can., Royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada, Report (5v. in 6, Ottawa, 1889), Quebec, pt.1: 55–60. Charlemagne Rodier, “Le Conseil des métiers et du travail,” in Golden jubilee of the Montreal Trades and Labor Council, 1897–1947 . . . , ed. M.-E. Francq ([Montreal?, 1947?]), 13. Jacques Rouillard, “La fête du Travail à Montréal, expression de la solidarité ouvrière (1886–1964),” RCHTQ [Regroupement des Chercheurs-Chercheuses en Hist. des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Québec], Bull. (Montréal), 22 (1996), no.2: 9–14; Les syndicats nationaux au Québec, de 1900 à 1930 (Québec, 1979), 33–36, 57, 94, 111.
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Cite This Article
Jacques Rouillard, “WARREN, GEORGE STEPHENS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/warren_george_stephens_15E.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:||Jacques Rouillard|
|Title of Article:||WARREN, GEORGE STEPHENS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2005|
|Year of revision:||2005|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|