Born in Toronto in 1902, Fred Dowling was a star semi-pro baseball player as a young man. No one could have then guessed that the crowd-pleasing second baseman would become one of the giants of the Canadian industrial union movement. In 1935, with baseball behind him, Fred moved to Chicago and found work in the hide cellar of giant meatpacker Armour Corp. where, as he said years later, “I learned what it's like to work in hell.” The conditions in the packinghouses and the human misery of the Great Depression turned Fred into a lifelong advocate for trade unions and democratic socialism.
Back in Toronto in 1937, Fred became involved with the CCF and the fledgling Canadian CIO union movement. As a $25/week CIO staff member, he worked on the United Auto Workers' epic organizing campaign at General Motors in Oshawa and several successful United Rubberworkers campaigns. In 1941, he was assigned to the near-dormant Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee and quickly spurred meat plant organizing from coast to coast. When the United Packinghouse Workers of America was founded in Chicago in 1943, Fred Dowling was unanimously elected Canadian Director, a position he held until his retirement in 1972, even after the UPWA merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America in 1968.
During World War II, Dowling brilliantly maneuvered the Federal government and the "Big Three" Canadian meatpacking companies – Canada Packers, Swift Canadian and Burns Meats – into establishing a National Master Agreement system that gave unprecedented bargaining power to the union. When the federal government turned jurisdiction for labour relations back to the provinces following the war, Fred engineered a dramatic nation-wide packinghouse strike in 1947 that secured the master agreement system and turned the young union into one of the most militant in Canadian labour history. His organizing skills then turned to other sectors of the food processing industry: canning, poultry, dairy and others. In the late 1960s, Dowling launched what would become the massively successful organizing of the Atlantic fishery industry.
Fred Dowling devoted a great deal of his time and passion to the CCF and was a friend and close advisor to J.M. Coldwell, Tommy Douglas, Stanley Knowles and David Lewis. He was a key figure in the founding of the New Democratic Party in 1961 and was elected its first labour vice-president.
In his last interview a few weeks before his death in 1982, Fred Dowling summed up his advice to those who would carry on the work of him and other union pioneers: “As long as there is one worker who is exploited or mistreated, our work is not complete.”