[R-G] History of coal mining in Cape Breton
aaron at istop.com
aaron at istop.com
Thu Oct 7 21:59:59 MDT 2004
Today, many, especially youg people, forget how important unions are for
us the workers. As a result, We continue to see quantitative loses of unions
that has created a qualitative degeneration in living standard of the working
I know many out there who are reading this do realize the importance of
unions,however I believe Cape Breton's working class history is full of
comitted comunists working to better the lives of Cape Bretoners and this can
give inspiration to young people who are trying
to unionize today. I did not write this,but found it on some site. Hope you
yftr, Aaron Doncaster
Unions (Provincial Workman's Association)
The precursor of the United Mine Workers' Union in Cape Breton was the
Provincial Workman's Association (P.W.A.), sometimes referred to as the
Provincial Miner's Association (P.M.A.). With its beginnings in Springhill in
1879, the union was an association which evolved when the men united in an
effort to regain an original wage that had been doubly cut. The men walked
out and refused to go back to work until their wage was restored. Within a
week it was restored and this successful walkout spurred them on to form this
association, and so, in 1881, the Provincial Workman's Association was
incorporated into an act of the Nova Scotia Legislature.
In 1881, Robert Drummond toured Cape Breton as an agent of the P.W.A.
and it was obvious that the miners here were in need of an association
because wages were low, hours long and company store prices high. In spite of
a hostile attitude towards unions, the miners were becoming more and more
enthusiastic and soon four lodges were organized, including Drummond Lodge
(South Mines), Equity (Caledonia), and Island and Unity Lodges (Bridgeport).
By December 1881, over 50 percent of the island's mines had joined. Shortly
after, the number of lodges increased to eight. People were still afraid to
disobey the Company, and so it was often hard to find meeting places.
The P.W.A. was organized under a Grand-Council consisting of delegates
from the various lodges and met semi-annually. These delegates, responsible
to the membership, elected the Grand Officers. The Grand Secretary was the
chief officer and received a salary for his work. This position was held by
Robert Drummond and John Moffatt for a period of nineteen years and the
position of Grand Master was held for many years by S.B. MacNeil.
There were also three sub-councils: Cape Breton, Pictou and Cumberland.
The Cape Breton sub-council was the first formed because of the fact that
Cape Breton was separated from the rest of the association. The lodges would
collect money from their members which was used to aid other workers who were
The essential points of the P.W.A. were unity, equity and progress. It
wanted to make the mining population a respected segment of the community.
According to R.A. Drummond the objectives were:
1) not to wage a war of Labour against Capital;
2) to carry on work to mutual advantage of both employee and employer;
3) not to drive trade by oppressive measures from the locality;
4) to secure fair remuneration for labour by legitimate means;
5) to help in the removal of any cause which hinders advancement,
mentally, socially or morally.
The P.W.A. used three notable tactics to accomplish its aims: strikes,
lobbying and politics. Strikes were used as a last resort when all else
The history of the P.W.A. can be divided into two periods. The first
period (1879-1898) was largely devoted to a reform of the conditions under
which the miners lived but strikes were held in disfavour. However, they did
In 1882, there was a strike at Lingan, one of four sanctioned by the
P.W.A. occurring in Cape Breton; the remainder were on the mainland. In this
strike the men lost a great deal but gained union recognition. The P.W.A. was
officially formed in Cape Breton on July 6, 1882, and the strike was settled
In the 1880s, the P.W.A. considered amalgamation of all lodges; however,
Cape Breton members refused but agreed to send a representative to the Grand
Council to keep in touch.
The P.W.A. remained fairly active in politics well into the 1890s. In
1888, Robert Anderson (Grand Secretary) was elected to public office and the
Arbitration Act was passed which made the P.W.A. stronger and better known to
the public and various companies. Robert Drummond was elected to the
Legislative Council in 1891 and, in 1892, was assisted in obtaining an iron
and copper lease.
The second period of the P.W.A. (1898-1917) was devoted to increasing
the wages of the miners and improving their standard of living.
John Moffatt was now Grand Secretary (taking over from Robert Anderson)
and the organization experienced an increase in membership for several
1) regained confidence from former members;
2) increased production of coal;
3) the union seeking an increase in wages and trade agreements of two-
and three-year periods;
4) the extension of the Association into other areas which were not
necessarily coal mining.
In 1904, the weaknesses of the union were brought out when a strike
occurred at the Sydney steel plant. During the strike, the union did not have
enough money or membership to handle the situation; the company took in scabs
to work while the regular members were on strike. By 1907, the P.W.A. was
once again only a coal miners' union. Moves were now afoot to amalgamate the
P.W.A. with a new union from across the border, the United Mine Workers of
America (U.M.W.). A vote to amalgamate was lost in 1907, and another
favourable vote in 1908 was ruled invalid by the Grand Council.
In 1909, a number of P.W.A. lodges dissolved in Cape Breton, and
District 26 of the U.M.W. was formed. This caused the P.W.A. to take a more
aggressive stand, and the companies who would not recognize the U.M.W. joined
in the fight on the side of the P.W.A.
In 1909, U.M.W. men from Inverness and Glace Bay went on strike to gain
union recognition from the Company. The P.W.A. men worked during this time
and backed the company's decision to call in the militia. The strike was
settled in 1910.
The P.W.A. next joined the Canadian Federation of Labour (1909) to
strengthen its position against the U.M.W. and the Dominion Coal Company
under Moffatt. The P.W.A. was accused of being "company men," and the U.M.W.
passed resolutions opposing negotiations between the two.
In 1915, District 26 charter was revoked because of lack of members and,
in 1916, the United Mine Workers of Nova Scotia began campaigning in P.W.A.
lodges. In 1917 , the two groups united to form the Amalgamated Mine Workers
of Nova Scotia (A.M.A.) In 1918, the lodges of the P.W.A. were dissolved and
assets divided among colliery hospitals.
The P.W.A. had made some outstanding contributions to the coal fields of
Nova Scotia besides being the first union association to form in Cape Breton:
1) It secured legislation favourable to miners, such as the Arbitration
Act of 1888 passed by the Liberal Government.
2) Strikes and lockouts were reduced.
3) It won safety improvements in the Coal Mines Regulation Act. Between
1881 and 1909, the basic safety measures under which the collieries of the
Province operated became mandatory. Government inspectors had the right to
have miners' committees inspect mines became law in 1881. Also, the miners
had the right to appoint their own checkweighman, and to be present at a
coroner's inquest. In addition, schools of technical education were made
available. Year-by-year amendments to the Mines Regulation Act were prepared
and, in most cases, were granted.
United Mine Workers of America
As stated previously, District 26 of U.M.W. was formed in Cape Breton
(1909) when a number of the P.W.A. lodges dissolved. The president of
District 26 was Dan McDougall; Vice President, J.B. Moss; Secretary
Treasurer, J.B. McLachlan; and International Board Member, James D. McLennan.
The new union had a hard struggle because the P.W.A., the recognized
union, combined forces with the Dominion Coal Company to resist the new union
which was agitating for changes. The Dominion Coal Company opposed the U.M.W.
because it was a foreign union based in the United States and might be
overprotective of American markets. Secondly, the U.M.W. might demand that
Nova Scotian miners be paid the same wages as American miners. Lastly, they
feared that the U.M.W. might call a general strike which would include Nova
One of the main advantages that the U.M.W. had over the P.W.A. for the
miners was that it had the monetary resources available for a strike fund.
On July 6, 1909, when attempts to meet with the operators of the
Dominion Coal Company proved unsuccessful, a strike resulted. A circular
distributed in Montréal asked men not to come to Cape Breton to break the
strike. The Company claimed the circular was written by McDougall and he was
charged with libel. During this strike, the U.M.W. members were not working,
but those who still followed the P.W.A. remained working. The striking miners
received no media support as the struggle progressed, and fences with
electrified barbed wire were erected around the collieries by the company.
Some disturbances were now occurring at the collieries between the
U.M.W. men and non-strikers. General Manager Duggan appealed to Glace Bay
Mayor, John C. Douglas for military protection; however, Douglas felt the
civil authorities were able to cope with the situation. General Manager
Duggan then went to Judge Finlayson who signed a formal requisition for
military aid on July 7, 1909.
The Deputy Minister of Labour, F.A. Ackland, was sent to Cape Breton to
report on the strike and commented on the policy of the Dominion Coal Company
of evicting strikers from the houses owned by the Company as a means of
inducing men to return to work. On July 8, 1909, approximately 500 men from
the Royal Artillery and Royal Canadian Regiment arrived in Cape Breton.
On July 31, 1909, a protest march of approximately 1,500 miners gathered
in Glace Bay and set out towards the nearby town of Dominion. As they
approached the town, a machine gun nest was spotted and the leaders ordered
the men to return to Glace Bay.
As the months passed by, the men and their families found it harder to
survive on handouts. The U.M.W. relief was distributed once a week, 2 dollars
for each man, 1 dollar for a wife and 50 cents per child. Also, the Company
hired strike breakers from Belgium, Montréal, Scotland, Wales, Newfoundland,
and even some from Cape Breton. These men were housed in specially built
barracks and constantly feared attack by angry strikers.
The strikers were condemned in the press, from the pulpit, and the
supporters they did have were looked upon as radicals. By November, only 500
men remained on strike and by April 28, 1910, the strike of eight months had
Technically, the strike was a failure. The United Mine Workers had
failed to win recognition, it was monetarily defeated and between 1911-1915
membership dropped (reportedly only 30 staunch supporters remained), and its
charter was taken away by the International.
The U.M.W. was to rise again when the P.W.A. failed in obtaining fair
wages for its members. In March 1917, the P.W.A. and the U.M.W. applied for a
conciliation board because of difficulties in matters of wages, working
conditions and discrimination. The Commission saw the causes of dispute at
Glace Bay as being:
1) rivalry between two unions and
2) unsatisfactory wages.
In 1917, the two unions, on recommendation of the commission, joined and
formed the Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia (A.M.W.N.S.). The
President was Silby Barrett (Newfoundland); Vice President, Robert Baxter;
and Secretary-Treasurer James Bryson McLachlan.
In the 1920s, the Dominion Coal Company assets of Whitney were sold and
a new company, the British Empire Steel Corporation (Besco), began operations
under the leadership of Montréal entrepreneur, Roy M. Wolvin. By 1921, Wolvin
announced there would be a 33.3 percent wage reduction effective January 1,
1922. E.P. Merril (General Manager) wrote to J.B. McLachlan (Secretary-
Treasurer, District 26) concerning the wage cut: "Business conditions compel
us to very reluctantly ask for a reduction in wages." The U.M.W. quickly
sought an injunction against the wage cut. This injunction was subsequently
successfully appealed by Besco.
The so-called Gillen Commission was set up in 1922 to resolve the
problem. It consisted of Mr. V.E. Gillen (Chairman) , Col. W.E. Thompson
(Besco) and Mayor James Ling of New Waterford (acting as representative of
the union). The case for the U.M.W. was presented by Robert Baxter and J.B.
McLachlan. Baxter pointed out that the average production per man in Glace
Bay was 3 tons, worth approximately 18 dollars, and the men were paid 6
When no decision could be made, Col. Thompson (Besco) recommended a
reduction in wages of 30 percent, one third less than his previous offer.
Baxter signed, but McLachlan refused vigorously. On March 14, 1922, a pit
head vote was taken and the agreement was defeated by a seven to one ratio.
This prompted the executive of the union to hold a slowdown strike.
Cape Breton miners were already in very poor financial shape. It was
estimated (Dominion Bureaus of Statistics) that it cost a miner and his
family 90 percent of his earnings to pay rent and feed his family and datal
employees paid more for rent and food than they received in weekly earnings.
Soon the Company Stores received orders that, until the strike ended, no
credit was to be given to employees. Bob Baxter, Silby Barrett and W.P.
Delaney warned against a strike stating that the International would not
support them. The men paid no attention and reduced production by one third.
This slowdown tactic has been attributed to James Bryson McLachlan.
United Mine Workers of America
On August 16, 1922, the U.M.W. held an election of officers. Elected
were: President, "Red" Dan Livingstone; Vice President, A.S. McIntyre;
Secretary-Treasurer, James Bryson McLachlan; and International Board Member,
Another board was formed consisting of Dr. D'Ary Scott (Chairman); John
E. Moore (Besco) and I.D. McDougall (Union) This board recommended a 15-cent-
Unlike the strike of 1909, this strike was very peaceful with the miners
remaining in their homes. Despite this, in an attempt to destroy the unity
that the miners had achieved, the Company asked that the militia be brought
in. The press reported that 1,200 of His Majesty's Cavalry had been
dispatched to Cape Breton and machine gun nests were set up around No. 2
Dan Livingstone and J.B. McLachlan were asked by Premier George Murray
and Roy Wolvin (Roy the Wolf) to accompany them to Montréal for further
negotiations. Some headway was made, some of the troops were withdrawn and
maintenance men were allowed to enter the mines to prevent flooding and two
mediators were appointed: G.S. Harrington and Dr. Clarence MacKinnon. A new
agreement came about, the datal men received an increase as previously
offered but the contract men were brought up to the Glace Bay rates by an
increase of 52 cents per day. The eight-month strike was over and the men
returned to work with an 18 percent wage cut from the 1921 rates. When
commenting on the agreement, President Livingstone stated:
The wage schedule was accepted under the muzzles of rifles, machine guns
and the gleaming bayonets with further threatened invasion of troops and
warships standing to. The miners, facing hunger, their Dominion and
Provincial governments lined up with Besco, the men were forced to accept the
Besco was to be faced with even more problems, when at the end of June
1923 the Sydney steel workers went on strike to gain union recognition.
Premier E.H. Armstrong requested that, once again, the Provincial Police
force be augmented to deal with the problem of the striking steel workers in
Sydney. On July 1, 1923, a group of police attacked some people in the
Whitney Pier area for no apparent reason. The police used their feet, hands,
iron bars and horses to intimidate the crowd, which consisted mainly of women
and children. The provincial police were soon joined by federal troops. In
July 1923, Cape Breton miners went on a political strike, angered by the
lavish use of armed force in the industrial area.
For their part in promoting the sympathetic strike the miners' president
Dan Livingstone and secretary treasurer J.B. McLachlan were arrested and
jailed. Shortly afterward, the international union under the leadership of
John L. Lewis deposed the entire union executive and took away the district's
autonomy. No strike fund was received from the International, and A.S.
McIntyre was left in charge. No miners would return to work until Livingstone
and McLachlan were released and all charges against them dropped. McLachlan
was later convicted for 'serious libel'; the basic legal decision in
McLachlan's case was that "although what he had said might be true, his words
were calculated to stir up unrest and therefore he was guilty as charged."
McLachlan and Livingstone were released on bail, but Silby Barrett, more
conservative than the latter two, was appointed president of District 26 and
followed orders from Lewis at the international. The men were ordered back to
work by July 28th. It should be noted that Glace Bay Mayor Dan "Willie"
Morrison was completely supportive of the strike.
With no relief, police patrolling, and McLachlan and Livingstone in jail
on trumped up charges, the spirit of the miners' was extinguished. Movement
back to the pits was slow but sure, with staunch supporters remaining out
longer. By 1924, the autonomy of District 26 was restored, but Barrett had to
revoke the charters of several lodges for refusing to back his leadership. He
later quit his office and John L. Lewis appointed an American, William
Houston, to take Barrett's place. He ran the office until August 24, 1924.
In January 1924, the miners' contract expired. The union wanted a new
contract comparable to 1921 rates, but a notice of a 20 percent reduction in
wages was posted for all miners, in addition to a large increase in the price
of house coal. So although no strike was sanctioned by the International, the
miners walked out.
Barrett took over the leadership of the strike, negotiating an agreement
with the company and issuing relief to miners and families. An agreement was
reached which raised wages for the men, but the miners' only effective
weapon, the removal of maintenance men during strikes, was prohibited in the
new contract. Also, they could no longer support the Labour Herald with union
funds. This agreement was voted down by the members 5,617 to 3,145.
Barrett was asked to resign by the International, which also requested
repayment of relief benefits which were spent illegally. The strike was later
settled in April 1924.
By 1925, coal markets were growing soft because American coal was
underselling Cape Breton coal in the Montréal markets. To offset this, Besco
initiated a 10 percent wage reduction to the miners. Attempts at negotiations
failed and on March 6, 1925, a strike was called. The Company then refused
the men any credit in the Company Stores. The struggle was a hard and bitter
one, and the separation of the two classes was widening. Vice President J.E.
McLurg (Besco) made the statement:
"We hold all the cards ... they (the miners) will have to come to
us ... "they can't stand the gaff." This became a catch phrase for the miners
and made the workers even more determined than ever to prove to McLurg and
others that they could indeed, "stand the gaff."
Hard pressed merchants continued to give credit, fishermen contributed
their catch, the British Canadian Co-operatives donated 500 dollars. In
Boston expatriate Maritimers formed a Cape Breton Relief Committee. This
time, sympathy and support seemed to be on the side of the miners and their
families. The Company and their government friends would soon see the result
of this support.
The town of New Waterford was especially hard hit by the strike. The
town's water supply and electrical needs all came from New Waterford Lake, a
few miles from the town and Besco police had control of this location. Besco
police terrorized the people of New Waterford by charging through the town on
horseback. On June 11 approximately 3,000 infuriated men and boys gathered at
New Waterford and made their way towards the power plant. They were met at
the site by approximately 100 armed police and the so-called Battle of
Waterford Lake took place. Police were hauled off horseback and beaten, while
others jumped in New Waterford Lake and swam to the other side. The police
began to fire their revolvers and three of the miners were shot. Gilbert
Watson was shot in the stomach, Michael O'Handley was shot and trampled by
horses and William Davis was fatally wounded in the heart. The miners
overtook the police and marched them back to town to jail. Later, they were
hurried to Sydney for safety. The men were driven to this action because
their supply of water and power to their homes and schools was cut off. Soon
after, however, the affair was pushed aside and forgotten.
A provincial election that year saw the defeat of Armstrong's Liberal
government. The Conservatives under E.N. Rhodes met with Besco President, Roy
Wolvin and J.E. McLurg on July 16. The police force was subsequently
withdrawn, the wage scale was reduced to the 1922 level (a reduction of
between 6 percent to 8 percent), the Corporation received a rebate of 1/5 of
the coal royalties paid to the province for a 6 month period. On August 5 the
miners voted 3,913 to 2,780 to accept the Rhodes Proposal.
The strike had lasted for 155 days and J.B. McLachlan rationalized the
suffering this way:
"Under capitalism the working class has but two courses to follow: crawl - or
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