Kingston’s own labour champion

One might say Cassie Ward Mee is the mother of Kingston’s first labour movement. In March of 1887, Mee delivered a speech on the “Mission of Labour” and the aims of a new organization, the Knights of Labor. Hundreds of people, including entire families, filled Kingston City Hall to hear Mee speak. Introduced by Mayor John Carson, the crowd expressed great approval and delivered a unanimous vote of thanks to their guest. Within months, the Knights could boast 1,500 members in Kingston.

Born in Kingston in 1848, Mee settled in Cortland, New York in 1882 with her husband Charles Mee. Amidst a long economic depression and powerful new corporations, Mee was among the millions who joined the Knights of Labor to defend the dignity of working people and the “noble and holy” role of labour in sustaining humanity. The Knights, Mee believed, existed to defend labour from “degradation” and the “evils” of ignorance and greed. These values were one reason why the Knights were among the first unions to open its doors to women and people of colour.

Mee’s speaking career as a Knight began in August 1885. Mee proved so effective, she was invited to address a crowd of ten thousand Knights in Boston Common in August 1886. Mee received plenty of applause throughout and earned praise as an eloquent speaker.

When Mee returned to Kingston in March 1887, her speech was so well-received, the Knights of Labor exploded in size to 1,500 members, with significant support in the building trades, Victoria Foundry, shipyards, docks, ironworkers, telegraph operators, and the new cotton mill. Strikes broke out at the Victoria Foundry and cotton mill, making the Knights of Labor a new force in Kingston.

Later in August, the Knights of Labor “Pic-Nic” drew 2,000 people. With alcohol strictly prohibited, attendees enjoyed sports and games such as baseball and a tug-of-war contest. The Knights also spearheaded literacy programs, lobbied for improved public education, and pooled resources to pay for doctors. The Knights even sought to launch the “People’s Political Party”, which may be Kingston’s first-ever labour party.

Repression in the United States and new unions sent the Knights into decline. There is little public record of Mee’s activities after the 1880s. Mee lived out the rest of her life in the United States, and passed away in Rochester, New York in 1912 at the age of 64. She was the mother of five children.

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