Under capitalism the
working class has
but two courses to
During these years a strong feeling was growing that the miners should replace the UMW with a new union, as the UMW had itself replaced the PWA years ago. The opposition culminated in 1932 in the formation of a rival union --the Amalgamated Mineworkers of Nova Scotia. It started with an initial 3400 members and a pithead vote went overwhelmingly for the new union, but instead of restoring militancy and solidarity among workers, the new union divided them. The UMW refused to throw in the towel and allied itself even more closely with the corporation, which helped its partner through selective layoffs and harassment of men.
The way a basis for the new union was laid within the structure of the old is valuable to recall. “Militant committees” of workers were set up at every mine by men who wanted to restore the fighting traditions of the past. The plan was that these rank and file committees would eventually be the basis of Pit and Shop Committees. The Pit and Shop Committees would form the structural basis for the new unionism. The workers would elect their best fighters to these bodies which would control all the operations of the union. These committees would elect the district council and the executive officers would be responsible directly to the district council. This structure would ensure the greatest possible rank and file control of the union.
The constitution of the AMW is model of what a fighting union responsible to its membership could be like. All officers of the union were to be working miners: they would be compensated only for time lost on union business. The final decision-making power was firmly held by the workers- -the pithead referendum was the deciding authority on every issue. All mine employees except superintendents were to be eligible to join the union. The union’s locals would keep their autonomy. The Nova Scotia Miner, a newspaper which succeeded the Maritime Labour Herald in 1929, was to be the union’s official organ and would get four per cent of all union dues collected.
Among the policies approved by the 1932 convention were commitments to fight for unemployment insurance for Canadian workers (this was at a time when half the Canadian work force was jobless), to participate in any general strike called by Canadian trade unionists, and to fight for a six hour day.
The miners were only too aware of the drawbacks this “dual unionism” created. When rival unions compete within a given sector of the working class, they divide the workers’ strength. The owning class can sit comfortably back and enjoy the fracas. If the workers spend all their time fighting each other, they will have no time left to organize against their real oppressors.
Although by 1934, the AMW, with more than 6,000 members outnumbered the UMW’s membership, it was never recognized by Dosco and never took part in negotiations. Essentially it was a huge “pressure group” of men outside the “real” union. Realizing this tragic situation was unlikely to change, rank and file workers began to work for the reunification of the two unions. Without the participation of the leadership of either, a workers’ unity committee hammered out the basis for reunification.
The new District 26 included these safeguards: there was to be continuous reporting by the leaders to the workers, especially during negotiations; the pithead referendum would be the final deciding voice of the workers; the district would be autonomous within international union (to this day Cape Bretoners are one of two groups within the UMW to have this right). Finally, a priority was to be put on political militancy.
With the return of the most militant and aware workers to the mainstream of the UMW, discontent with the leadership spread. Dan Morrison, the man who had once carried the red flag in Glace Bay on May Day, still headed the union executive.
During contract negotiations in 1940-41 the leaders favoured a settlement handed down by a government comission. Immediately they faced a rank and file revolt. A general strike took place in three of the districts sub-districts and names were gathered on a petition to remove the executive. Shortly, the men resolved to go back to work on a “strike on the job” basis – cutting down production to eliminate profits.
Once again, John L. Lewis stepped into the picture. Lewis again appointed Silby Barrett provisional head of the district, just as in 1923. Barrett ordered men back to full production, Thirteen men were expelled from the UMW and the flow of money was cut off to defiant locals. Still, the tide of discontent could not be stemmed by the union officials alone. Dosco itself landed the final punches by locking out more than 1500 men and promising more reprisals against union militants. The union promised new negotiations and new elections, neither of which actually came about until the end of 1942.
In October 1942 a solid left wing slate swept the district. The district’s autonomy was regained, and such democratic checks on the leadership as pithead referendums and rank and file participation in negotiations were restored. Realizing the importance of putting forth the stand of the working class in a forceful and effective way, the mineworkers union bought the floundering Glace Bay Gazette. For eight years Glace Bay Gazette, once a ruling c1ass mouthpiece, transformed into one of the only daily newspapers Canadian workers have ever owned and operated.