FOSTER, JOHN THOMAS, machinist, union leader, and managing editor; b. 22 Oct. 1874 in Montreal, son of George Foster and Louisa Biscoe (probably his adoptive mother); m. there 12 Sept. 1896 Florence Bryant (d. 7 April 1926), and they had three sons and three daughters; d. there 2 April 1934 and was buried on 5 April in the city’s Mount-Royal cemetery.
Nothing in John Thomas Foster’s very modest origins suggested that he might become, like Gustave Francq*, a dominant figure in the international trade-union movement in Montreal in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, he had hardly any schooling. Because of his tenacity and his passion for reading, he had, however, gradually acquired a solid fund of knowledge. Moreover, having lived for a long time in a French-speaking Montreal neighbourhood – the Faubourg Québec – he expressed himself very well in French, “with a pronounced country accent that lent a special charm to his conversation,” as Le Monde ouvrier would remark on 7 April 1934.
At a very young age Foster worked as a messenger and newspaper vendor, and then as a machinist’s apprentice and machinist in various Montreal shops, including one owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. In 1899 he joined Victoria Lodge No.111 of the International Association of Machinists where he served as its secretary from 1909 to 1912. His diplomatic skills and instincts having been recognized by his fellow workers, he became the union’s business agent in 1913 and retained that post until 1922. Subsequently, he was secretary-treasurer of the CPR’s federated council of unions, an organization responsible for coordinating collective bargaining by the railway’s various unions in Montreal.
As his union’s representative on the Montreal Trades and Labor Council in 1909, Foster developed a liking for its deliberations, and served as its president from 1912 to 1934 (except for 1921). The executive committee of the MTLC chose him as a fraternal delegate to the congresses of the American Federation of Labor in 1913, 1916, 1920, and 1925. Because he was deeply involved in the union movement, he was elected vice-president of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada from 1922 to 1931 and he was called upon to represent it at the Trades Union Congress of Great Britain in 1921 and at the congress of the International Federation of Trade Unions in Stockholm in 1930. He was also a member of the Canadian delegation to the International Labour Organization in Geneva in 1921, 1927, and 1930. In addition, as a workers’ representative he sat on many other committees, councils, and commissions, and in 1931 he became, surprising as it might seem for someone with little formal education, the managing editor of the Canadian Congress Journal, the TLC’s monthly publication.
One function of the MTLC, whose meetings were attended by delegates from the city’s various international unions, was to represent the common interests of union members and workers in their dealings with the city council and other municipal bodies. Resolutions were also adopted to be dispatched to the federal and Quebec governments. Since there was no provincial federation of labour at the time, the Montreal organization was by far the largest forum in Quebec for subjects of interest to the working class. During Foster’s presidency, the unions affiliated to the MTLC had between 30,000 and 40,000 members, the great majority of whom were French-speaking and belonged to international unions.
Foster became a true champion of the guiding principles of international unionism, which originated in the United States and dominated the Montreal and Quebec union movement during the first half of the 20th century. Convinced of the worth of trade unionism, he firmly believed in the organization of workers by trade and the need for collective bargaining to improve their wages and working conditions. Although he did not rule out strikes, he preferred cooperation and conciliation between employers and union members. According to La Presse of 3 May 1929, he maintained that “experience has shown that violent measures have never produced good results for working people, but that measures based on a sound policy of conciliation have always succeeded, sooner or later, in improving conditions for workers.”
During the years when Foster was active, the international unions faced opposition from the Roman Catholic unions and from a more radical group, the One Big Union, which organized workers by industry and supported general sympathy strikes as a means of exerting pressure. As far as Foster was concerned, the first group operated within the framework of “a narrow nationalism,” while the second was a source of divisiveness among working people. In his opinion, these groups weakened the international unions that had been instrumental in improving wages and working conditions.
No one was more passionate than Foster when it came to pressing the MTLC’s demands, one of which pertained to municipal government and amendments to the city of Montreal’s charter. These demands included the election of councillors by all voters on a proportional basis, rather than by ward; the abolition of the electoral deposits required of candidates; and a provision for voters to dismiss councillors following a referendum. The Montreal Charter Commission set up by the Quebec government in February 1920 to revise the city’s charter, of which Foster and Gustave Francq were members, made recommendations along these lines in its report. But the project was rejected in a referendum held on 16 May 1921 after the Quebec government had added a reform proposal to the one put forward by the commission. In Foster’s view, this outcome represented a defeat for the labour movement.
During Foster’s term as president, the MTLC’s main demand of the provincial government related to instituting a law on workplace accidents, based on a government-administered fund, that would compensate all workers injured in accidents. As in Ontario, where a similar system had already been set up, employers would be required to contribute to the fund. Foster held a prominent place on committees formed to put pressure on the government. The result was the 1931 enactment of a law embodying the principles set out by the MTLC. In the field of education, he was an ardent supporter of free schooling, uniformity of textbooks, and compulsory school attendance up to the age of 16.
Lastly, at the MTLC Foster championed adoption of such social measures as old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, health insurance, and allowances for needy mothers. In these matters, he exerted his influence on the Quebec Social Insurance Commission established by the provincial government in 1930, of which he was one of the commissioners. This body did indeed recommend that the federal system of pensions for the elderly be adopted and a system of assistance to indigent mothers be established. It was also receptive over the longer term to the creation of a compulsory health-insurance program. Foster had personally persuaded three members of the commission to adopt the federal program of old-age pensions until a contributory pension system could be instituted.
Union activists who worked alongside John Thomas Foster recognized his exceptional leadership talent and his remarkable diplomatic instincts, two indispensable qualities for heading an organization with members from different linguistic and religious groups. He was a tireless defender of working people and of the international trade-union movement: “all his thoughts [and] concerns,” as one can still read in Le Monde ouvrier, “converged towards the same end: to hold the flag of trade unionism high and steady, to obtain for the working class what it was entitled to have – a larger share of happiness, a better standard of living, and a ray of sunshine for the underprivileged [and] the low-wage earners.”
John Thomas Foster is the author of, among other works, “Labor’s aims, ideals and activities broadcasted over radio,” Canadian Congress Journal (Ottawa), 8 (1929), no.3: 17–19. The reports of the MTLC meetings that appeared in La Patrie, La Presse, and the Montreal Daily Star between 1911 and 1934 provided much of the information contained in this biography.
BANQ-Q, E14, S1, 1960-01-033/1058, 525; 1960-01-033/1100, 280. Instit. généal. Drouin, “Fonds Drouin numérisé,” Anglican, Saint Luke (Montréal), 12 sept. 1896: www.imagesdrouinpepin.com (consulted 23 Feb. 2010). Le Devoir, 3 avril 1934. L’Illustration (Montréal), 4 avril 1934. “John T. Foster est mort,” Labor World (Montreal), 7 April 1934. Labor World, 1 Sept. 1928. Montreal Daily Star, 3 April 1934. La Presse, 3 avril 1934. Bernard Rose, “The passing of John T. Foster,” Labor World, 7 April 1934. “Among Canadian labor: sketches of well known figures in the labor movement in Canada,” Canadian Congress Journal, 10 (1931), no.4: 32–33. “John Thomas Foster: an appreciation,” Canadian Congress Journal, 13 (1934), no.4: 9. Jacques Rouillard, L’expérience syndicale au Québec: ses rapports à l’État, à la nation et à l’opinion publique (Montréal, 2009).