Friday, 28 December 2007


The most horrifying aspect of the post-war era was the open warfare that was declared upon the militant left-wing unions of the time. Any actions by workers or unions that even suggested left-wing political action were immediately branded as “communist”. Although there had been battles within the trade union movement during the war particularly over which political party to support, it only reached fever pitch in the late forties and early fifties. Many of the international unions in alliance with the national trade union leadership began systematically raiding militant unions by setting up second or “dual” unions to deplete the membership of the “communist” unions. Those they could not raid had their membership in either the Trades and Labour Congress or the Canadian Congress of Labour (which have since joined together to form the Canadian Labour Congress or CLC) revoked.

It was the Cold War brought home. Once the tide of Fascism had been turned back with the aid and strength of the Russians, world capitalism and more particularly U.S. capitalism decided that it had to become the “defender of the free world”. Communism had to be opposed and contained. What it really meant was that capitalism had to be free to exploit workers around the world and rake the profits to the homeland. It was American imperialism on the run. To do this though, it needed to divert the attention of the workers and gain the support of a large part of the population. What better way to do this than by splitting the trade union movement through a witch-hunt at home. The mass hysteria that followed laid waste to the labour movement for many years to come and thousands of militant, active, and honest trade unionists were barred from fighting for the causes of their fellow workers.

By the end of 1949 the vicious claws of the cold war had reached in and ripped apart the labour movement in Cape Breton. Late in 1948 deep sea shipping companies across the country decided to impose a $20 to $50 a month wage cut upon the members of the militant Canadian Seaman’s Union. This was no ordinary wage conflict but rather a joint attack on the CSU by the companies, the federal government, and in the end the national labour congresses who finally succumbed to pressures from international unions to rid itself of “communists”. With the threat of a wage cut and abolition of the hiring hail the CSU voted to strike. The companies then terminated their recognition of the CSU, although it was the legally certified bargaining agent, and signed contracts with Hal Banks’ U.S.-based Seafarer’s International Union (SIU), though it had practically no membership in Canada at that time.

It was clear that the CSU was to be forced out of operation. On March 31, 1949, 6,500 members of the CSU went out on strike the companies hired STU goons protected by government troops to break through the picket lines. In the forefront of the union-busting was Dosco. When the Dosco ships in Sydney were strike-bound the company imported SIU crews to man the ships. Although the miners supported the CSU the steelworker’s executive, led by Edward Corbett, gave headlong support to the Dosco-government fight against “Bolshevism”. Nevertheless workers from the Phalen and Caledonia locals were among the strikers patrolling the entrances to the plant. But on May 23, 1949 Corbett appeared on the Dosco docks to order his union men to unload the ship. Although hesitant, the steelworkers unloaded the ship breaking the pickets and in the end the strike of the CSU.

On June 3 after the strike had been broken the CSU wrote “Only unified action by the two unions (Steel and UMW) would have been sufficient to bring Dosco’s strikebreaking to a halt. Because of this action by the steelworkers’ executive we wish to inform you that Dosco has won a victory of no small size.” A pattern of violence and chaos on the waterfront followed. Though the SIU, with the aid of the government and the companies, was able to bludgeon its way to victory the gangster tactics of Hal Banks would come back to haunt the ship-owners, cabinet ministers, and trade union officials who brought him to power. The purpose had been served. The trade union movement was split and American capitalism roamed freely both at home and abroad.

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