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O’BRIEN, MICHAEL J., shipwright and labour leader; b. 1837 or 1838 in Killarney (Republic of Ireland); m. with two sons who survived him; d. 14 July 1912 in Halifax.

Michael J. O’Brien was the dominant figure in the Shipwrights’ and Caulkers’ Association of Halifax and Dartmouth, serving for 30 years as the secretary and organizer of the area’s most stable and enduring 19th-century craft union. He was proud of being a highly skilled worker, one who had mastered all the arts of land-based carpentry, but had also learned to adapt them to the building and repair of sailing vessels.

O’Brien’s union, founded in 1863, confronted two serious challenges in the 19th century. The first, which it shared with all labour unions, was control over the labour market. As early as 1867, the union’s rules emphasized a strict apprenticeship system and further regulations governing the initiation of new recruits. Subsequently the union outraged mercantile opinion in Halifax by forbidding master shipwrights to work alongside their journeymen. Its restrictive practices led to demands for the repeal of the 1864 legislation legalizing trade unionism and to the organization by Ebenezer Moseley* of a rival, employer-controlled union. Neither strategy succeeded, and as late as 1886 the caulkers’ branch of the trade (organized separately from 1882 to 1908 in the Caulkers’ Association of Halifax and Dartmouth) was regulating the labour market by paying off rival craft workers from the countryside – whom the union referred to as “common, unskilled labour” – spending more than its total assets to do so. It was a vivid indication of the lengths to which an urban craft union would go to protect jobs.

The second challenge faced by the union was that of controlling the evolution of work. Its founding documents suggest it wanted to control both new work (shipbuilding) and old work (ship repair), but this vision prompted strong resistance from the naval dockyard; settling for jurisdiction over ship repair alone, the union exercised a firm control detailed in a rule book that, unusually, spelled out working practices and militant tactics explicitly. Thanks to its power in the workplace, the association was able to sustain a high level of wages, and from 1872 also worked the nine-hour day. On the other hand, there was little it could do against the global forces that were making wooden vessels obsolete in the major oceanic trades; the association’s responses, such as finding work for its members as far away as Honolulu, were imaginative but obviously dwarfed by the scope of the technological change confronting it.

Politics entered this craft world occasionally but in general the tenor of the association was conveyed by the testimony Michael O’Brien gave at the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in 1888, in which he spoke with great satisfaction of the material benefits the union had won for its members and of his own prosperity. Half of the shipwrights were said to own their own homes; O’Brien himself, estimating his pay at $800 a year over a period of seven years, had acquired six houses, five of which he rented out to working-class families. (At his death he owned seven, and his estate was worth $9,425.) Obviously O’Brien’s employment had provided him with a level of material security far greater than that enjoyed by most workers in Halifax. He did not identify with the poorly paid longshoremen, and the shipwrights and caulkers did not support the dock strike of 1884 [see John A. Mackasey]. “He was one of the most thrifty residents of Halifax, [of] steady and industrious habits, a good and sincere friend and foremost in all works that tended to the welfare of the city,” said one obituary; others recalled his leading role in the Union Engine Company, the Young Men’s Literary Association, and the St Vincent de Paul Society. His will left bequests both to the Halifax Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor and to the St Vincent de Paul Society. His bequests to his sons suggested the connections of craft and respectability: to one he left “all my tools, implements of trade and materials wheresoever the same,” and to the other he left his grandfather clock. A man tightly and warmly bound to the community and craft to which he had committed his life, Michael O’Brien was a proud aristocrat of labour to the day he died.

Ian McKay

Dartmouth Heritage Museum (Dartmouth, N.S.), H. I. Crandall papers. Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.7376. PANS, RG 5, P, 126, no.102. Private arch., Joan Lawrence (Dartmouth), Caulkers’ Assoc. of Halifax and Dartmouth, record-book (mfm. at Dalhousie Univ. Arch., Halifax, MS 9-48). Acadian Recorder, 27, 29 Jan. 1886; 15, 17 July 1912. Dartmouth Times: and East Halifax Advocate (Dartmouth), 16 Feb. 1884. Evening Express and Commercial Record (Halifax), 1 March 1865. Can., Royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada, Report (5v. in 6, Ottawa, 1889), Evidence – Nova Scotia, 107–10. Ian McKay, “Class struggle and merchant capital: craftsmen and labourers on the Halifax waterfront, 1850–190[2],” in The character of class struggle: essays in Canadian working-class history, 1850–1985, ed. B. D. Palmer (Toronto, 1986), 17–36. Supplementary rules of the Shipwrights’ and Caulkers’ Association ([Halifax, 1867]). Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, Souvenir booklet, twenty-fourth convention (Halifax, 1908).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ian McKay, “O’BRIEN, MICHAEL J,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_brien_michael_j_14E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_brien_michael_j_14E.html
Author of Article:   Ian McKay
Title of Article:   O’BRIEN, MICHAEL J
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   September 24, 2023