By ROB JOHNSON
As I stood across the street from the Temperance Hotel on August 12, 2013 I tried to visualize what it must have been like 100 years ago that would change Ladysmith forever. In my minds eye, I could see hundreds of men and women, shouting out insults at the strike breakers while children threw rocks at the hotel. I could sense the desperation of both the strikers in the street and of the strike breakers, holed up in the hotel fearing for their lives. I could see the few Ladysmith police and the imported “special police” patrolling the street, trying to keep the scene from exploding into violence. I could see the mass of strikers and their families heading up the hill with torches in hand, seeking out the homes of those who were still working. I could hear rocks crashing through windows of the houses that they found and attacked. I could hear explosions of the bombs that were detonated both at the Temperance Hotel and at Mr. McKinnon’s home.
How did this labour disagreement reach such a violent level? Why? Who allowed it to get to this level? The answer to these questions is as varied as there were affected parties. If you were a striker it was management’s fault, if you were a mine owner or a working miner, it was the fault of the union and its rabble rousers’ fault. The truth lay somewhere in between.
According to a 1913 Royal Commission Report “Coal Mining Disputes on Vancouver Island” the strike was not a question of wage or condition of employment or any other grievance that could not reasonably have been settled by negotiation between the parties. The report goes on to say “The allegations to the unsafeness of the mines are at least grossly exaggerated… in 1911 the rate of fatal (accidents) of 0.91 per 1,000 as compared to industry average of 2.32 per 1,000”, was an indication that even though the mines on the Island were a dangerous place to work, they were not as bad as most of the mines in Canada. By nature, all coal mines are dangerous places to work, and the men knew that. What was on the minds of many of the men and most of the women was the memory of the relatively recent accident that killed 32 miners from Ladysmith, a few years before. As to the issue of wages, according to Stats Canada the average wage for an unskilled worker in 1910 was $1.33 per day. The Royal Commission goes on to say “the more skilled part of the work (in the Island mines) ordinarily earns good wages from $3.50 up to $5 and $6 and even as high as $7 or $7.50 per day”. When it came to working hours, the miners on Vancouver Island worked a 7.5 hour day in the mine while their American counterparts were still working an 8 hour day. The author of the report goes on to say that “an unusually large portion of the men, especially in Nanaimo, have good homes of their own and, as a class they are well to do. Nanaimo is, beyond comparison, the finest mining town I have ever been in”.
So what was it the Union wanted that led them to strike? The report goes on to say that the main issue was one of “discrimination”. Not discrimination as to race or sex, but discrimination of those who wanted to form a Union. This account was according to an essay written by Professor John Norris of the History Department at UBC in 1980. What the United Mine Workers of America wanted was to achieve the goal of creating “competitive equality” between the Island mines and those of Washington State, and in the eastern states. He says the union believed that “The non-unionized Vancouver Island Fields must unionize to deprive its operators of the unfair advantages they had over (the) operators of the unionized fields in the United States”. He goes on to say “It was a complicated goal to have to explain to the mine workers and to the public, especially since its… laid the union open to the charge of being agents of the American coal operators, helping them to destroy Canadian undertakings”. This position appears to be supported by comments in the Union’s very own newsletter, The Mine Workers Journal. In the March 1913 issue it states, “ Vancouver Island coal is of the finest quality bituminous coal yet discovered on the American continent. .Already this rich source is being mined by many ….in preparation of the opening of the Panama Canal…so that it is not beyond reasonable conjecture to expect ….them from bidding for markets on the Atlantic seaboard… for the reason the superior quality of this coal will always bar competition from its own zone.” The journal also states that some of the union mines in the state of Washington could not sell their product to key American markets because of this difference in quality and transportation costs.
The union wanted to have a say in protecting their existing union workers by balancing the flow and sale of coal. In fact, at the beginning of the strike the Vancouver Island miners who went out on strike were told that the mines of Washington State would go out in support. Washington State mines actually went into full production from their pre-strike production level of half production. This was done in an attempt to capture the markets that Canadian Collieries had been supplying before the strike.
The view of the labour movement in Canada regarding the strike and its causes was quite different from those expressed in the Royal Commission. In an article written by George Pettigrew, an Executive of the United Mine Workers of America and one of the leaders of the strike, in the October issue of the BC Labour Newspaper the “Vanguard”, he said that the government and the companies worked together “to make trouble in some of the districts as an excuse to get the Militia forces introduced to allow the companies to force the workers to go back to work. So, in July 1913 some strike breakers used a knife on strikers and a little disturbance followed”. . This resulted in the Mayor of Ladysmith requesting additional special police to help maintain law and order. He also went on to say “ On August 12th a meeting of 1600 strikers was held in Nanaimo and during the meeting the hall was surrounded by the newly called up Militia, every man being fitted with a gun and fixed bayonet, ball cartridge in the rifle, and several rounds in the belt. A machine gun was placed at the back door. He goes on to say “The gallant Colonel of the regiment entered the meeting and ordered the men to disperse single file; if they left the meeting faster than single file he would order his men to fire, and if the hall was not cleared in three minutes he would use the machine gun at the back door to help them through the front door.” In Lynne Bowen’s book “Boss Whistle” it says that when the soldiers peeked through cracks in the building they saw miners with knives and guns, and that was when the officer in charge ordered the men out of the building, where they were searched for weapons, with none being found.
While the paper called the “Socialist History Project” published a paper entitled ” The 1913 Vancouver Island Miners Strike”, written by Jack Kavanagh. In it he says that that on May 1, 1913, a meeting at the Princess Theatre was held and about 900 miners were present. On the question of going back to work only 85 voted to do so. The Royal Commission reports on the same meeting and says owing to the great crowd and disorder it was not found to be practical to take a vote at the meeting and it was decided to take the vote the following day at the courthouse. When the meeting was held the next day, “about 478 men out of 2000 that were employed at Nanaimo voted with only 33 voting against going back to work”, according to the Socialist History Project. Whereas the Royal Commission reporting on the very same meeting said “intimidation and insults to which those attempting to go vote were subjected (to resulted) in only 478 out of a total of about 2,000 men voting;( the results were) 432 of those 478 being in favour of going to work”.
The Royal Commission report goes on to say “ Notwithstanding the overall majority of those who voted, the joint committee, in view of the smallness of the vote, decided it was not wise to go to work, and issued a statement accordingly asking the men to await developments. The Socialist History Project also states that “within a week after the strike being called 95 % of the men who were in the union on May 1st had joined the union. Dr Norris in his essay says “By widening the strike the Union increased its membership for the time being, most of the new strikers enthusiastically joining the Union, only partly in hopes of securing strike benefit”; because the District president of the UMW Foster had issued a circular that was read to the meeting on May 1, stating that the men involved in the strike, both union and non union would receive financial support of the International as long as the strike lasted. So if they want any money during the strike they would be better off if they joined the union even though the union said they would pay strike pay to union and non union men. The men at that same meeting were told by an officer that if the union in Washington State found that they were shipping coal to market that the men of the Vancouver Island had supplied, they would lay down their tools, and prevent that from happening.
At the meeting the men were not allowed to vote if they wanted to go out on strike or not. The International Union had already decided to shut down all the mines on the Island even though they had working agreements with the non struck mines. Their position was as one union leader said “the man who goes to work to-morrow is a scab. We’ll know to-morrow whether the men of Nanaimo are scabs or white men”.
This comment about being a scab or a white man shows the prejudice towards the Asians that worked in the mines at the time. The miners for years had made requests to the province to restrict Asians from working underground as many white miners considered them to be a danger to all who worked underground because they often could not read or write English. Yet in many cases the white miners had no problem with other white workers such as Italian or Croatian and Austrian who also could not read or write English. When the strike first started in Cumberland in September 1912, it was reported in the Socialist History Project that the Asians employed in the mines had quit work with the rest of the miners, even though the union had been pushing to restrict the amount and type of work the Asians could do. Their paper goes on to say on to say that “about September 24th some 10 or 12 special police arrived in Cumberland, and surrounded the Chinese and Japanese workers’ homes. Previous to the special police’s arrival, the white miners had free access to the Asian quarter, but this was stopped when the police arrived. The paper states “It may be a coincidence, though undoubtedly a strange one, that a few days after the police had surrounded the Chinese quarters, the Chinese evinced a desire to return to work.” The Project goes on to say “It is alleged, and on good grounds, that the police together with Mr. Coulson, manager of the company, went to each of the Chinamen and threatened them with deportation unless they returned to work.”
In 1911, Cumberland had the highest ratio of Asian to white workers approximately 50/50, both above and underground. In comparison, the Canadian Collieries Mine at Extension owned by the same owners only had 8 Asians underground compared to 710 whites. Other major Nanaimo mines had no Asians working underground. By1913, Cumberland was producing more coal with 20% fewer men than the prestrike level of 1911. This was because of the number of Asians that went back to work, along with an increasing number of white miners and the fact that the mine had earlier installed the latest in mining technology (mechanical coal cutters). The failure of the strike at Cumberland was decisive, although the production at Extension was disrupted dropping by almost 85% with only 20% of the level of workers from that were employed in 1911. According to Dr. Norris, the lack of success in trying to shut down the Cumberland mine forced the union in to increasingly militant action. He says the union wanted to “eventually raise the riots against the special police and strike breakers, thereby ensuring intervention by the government”. He goes on to say” The union leadership counselled against violence, but harassment of individual strike breakers was reaching near riot proportions- a sure sign that that increasing numbers were returning to work. It was clear from the experience in Cumberland that once this had happened, the drift back to work would be a flood and the strike would be broken”. He goes on to say “importation of specials must be resisted and the return to work discouraged”. “It is not known who made the decision to organize riots against both specials and strike breakers, but the implementation of it was undertaken by a group of international level union organizers, brought in by the union from the United States to provide picket captains and muscle where this was (to be) needed. The most important member of the group was Joe Angelo. He was originally employed to deal with the Italian strike breakers. Canadian strike leaders apparently had only a minor part in the organizing the strike and the eventual rioting. The rank and file (of the strikers) followed along without much question. The rioters were highly selective in their targets. Occidental resident strike breakers had their houses damaged or destroyed and were subject to personal and in some cases serious violence. Imported strike breakers and Chinese were driven into the woods and their homes looted, but not destroyed. In Extension “the houses to be burned or looted were carefully pointed out by Angelo to his followers early on the morning of August 13th before the riots started”. Angelo was later arrested for Inciting a Riot and sentenced to four years and deportation back to the United States. Later that day a mysterious young man on a motorcycle spread a false rumour that six strikers had been killed by strike breakers at Extension that morning. This resulted in a crowd of 700 to1,500 strike breakers and hanger-on converging on Extension that evening. Shots were exchanged and pro and anti unionists ran amok throughout the night. With all this activity, the only additional damage was some minor damage to some electric motors and coal cars at the pit head, but 41 homes and stores were destroyed, almost all of them designated targets. The next night some of the rioters returned and burnt down the mine manager’s home.
Dr. Norris, concludes that “It is entirely possible that the union leaders viewed the riots as a means of resolving their impasse, the union leaders also misread some important circumstance in the basis of their America experience. Their attitude towards the special police was that they regarded them as simply the minions of some local sheriff, not temporary provincial policemen enforcing a national criminal code. Certainly they showed remarkable ignorance of the local law in their statement that “martial law had been proclaimed” ….and that the judges trying the rioters “ought to be impeached”.
Dr. Norris sums it all up by saying “the union was pushed into making desperate decisions that widened, prolonged and eventually defeated the struggle of the miners for union recognition and security”.
If anyone wishes to review any of the quoted essays they can be found on the internet;
In addition excellent sources of information are the books:
- When Coal was King John R Hinde 2003
- Boss Whistle Lynne Bowen1982
- Ginger…Life and Death of Albert Goodwin Susan Mayse 1990