WATSON, JOSEPH HENRY, boilermaker, labour organizer, and civil servant; b. c. 1854 in England; married and had at least six children; d. 22 May 1908 in Vancouver.
Joseph Watson was a boilermaker who arrived in Vancouver in 1885. In July 1895 he was a delegate of the American Railway Union to the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council. He became a charter-member of the Vancouver lodge of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers and Iron Ship Builders of America in March 1898, serving as its first president and as recording and financial secretary. From 22 July 1898 to 6 Jan. 1899 he was president of the trades and labour council and he subsequently held other council positions. He also worked diligently as an organizer for both the American Federation of Labor and the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, establishing nearly 40 new unions, most of them on the lower mainland of British Columbia. Among them were the New Westminster and Vancouver fishermen’s unions [see Frank Rogers], which became involved in major strikes in 1900 and 1901.
Like Christopher Foley and some other labour leaders, Watson held views that appealed to many within the ranks of skilled workers at the end of the 19th century. These embraced late-Victorian notions of manliness, independence, and respectability which emphasized the dignity of labour and an essential equality between employer and employee. His politics were consequently moderate, best described by the contemporary label Liberal-Labour.
The successful reform strategies adopted by New Zealand’s Liberal government in the 1890s impressed Watson, particularly the novel system of compulsory arbitration of labour disputes. He argued that such innovations could be implemented in Canada as well. He was one of the Vancouver delegates at the founding convention of the British Columbia Liberal Association, which met in New Westminster in early October 1897. (The following year, with the help of Liberal-Labour mp George Ritchie Maxwell, he obtained employment with the Department of Customs office in Vancouver, and he would remain there until his death.) In the federal election of 7 Nov. 1900 he supported Ralph Smith*, who shared his views and who ran on a Liberal-Labour platform.
Despite his Liberal leanings, Watson also advocated independent labour representation. He had attended a convention in the spring of 1900, where his name was put forward as a possible labour candidate in the upcoming provincial election. After balloting, however, the gathering selected two other men, Joseph Dixon and Francis Williams, to run in Vancouver City. In 1902 he attended the Kamloops Convention, where a coalition of various unions and political groups launched a reform-minded party, the Provincial Progressives. An unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the new organization, Watson was elected to its executive committee.
In 1902 also, Watson attended the meeting in Berlin (Kitchener), Ont., of the TLC, at which time he was acting as the congress’s special organizer for British Columbia. He spoke out strongly against the growing Americanization of Canada’s unions. “If we are to do anything for the Trade Union movement in Canada, we must do it at once,” he maintained, “or else all our organizations will become American organizations, which I, for one, do not wish to see.” The argument evidently did not fall on receptive ground, since this meeting moved organized labour much closer to the AFL.
Over the next year Watson’s distance from other unionists in Vancouver became well known, particularly during a strike of railway workers in the spring of 1903 [see Rogers]. With its socialist leadership and its membership in the radical American Labor Union, the striking United Brotherhood of Railway Employees symbolized much that Watson rejected. Like many other craft unionists, he disliked the ALU because it advocated breaking with the conservative AFL and had embarked on a campaign of dual unionism, that is, establishing new unions in areas within the jurisdiction of existing ones. Moreover he did not favour sympathetic strikes, and he worked hard to prevent any of his own boilermakers from supporting the railway workers’ walk-out. Testifying at the royal commission on industrial disputes in the province of British Columbia in June, he acknowledged his growing unpopularity: “I don’t suppose any other man in this town had more abuse simply because I wanted the men to act the man and live up to their agreement. I am one of those fellows that believes if a man makes an agreement with an employer he has a right to live up to the letter of that agreement, and has a right to expect the employer to do the same.” The Vancouver Trades and Labor Council, which Watson had once headed but which by this time was controlled by socialist-led unions, wrote to both the TLC and the AFL demanding that they stop using Watson as an organizer. For his part, Watson blamed the socialists for the tension in Vancouver’s labour movement, and he waged a war of words against them in the city’s newspapers.
Elsewhere the reformist collaboration implied in the term Liberal-Labour had proved successful, but in British Columbia a more uncompromising brand of labour representation had emerged following a series of bitter strikes in 1901–3. Watson’s role after 1903 was consequently a marginal one, although when he died five years later city newspapers remembered him as a pioneer leader of the union movement in Vancouver.
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