Unhappy withy the lack of fighting spirit in what was supposed to be their union, the miners began to look for an organization which would really be a defender of their interests. To J.B. McLachlan, J.D. McLennan, Dan McDougall and other strongwilled young miners, the answer seemed to be a union like the United Mine Workers of America, the coal miners’ union which was making great gains in the U.S. coalfields.
The movement for a new union began formally in 1907. The aim of the rank and file miners who started signing up their fellow workers was to have the PWA dissolve itself and join the United Mine Workers. In 1908 this goal was approved in a referendum among the Cape Breton miners. They rejected the idea of “improving” the old PWA.
Instead of bowing to the will of their membership, the PWA leaders schemed to stay in power and keep their comfortable jobs. At their convention that fall, the doors were simply locked to arriving miners’ delegates.
It was clear that the new union would have to organize entirely outside of the PWA. After an intensive membership campaign, District 26 of the UMWA was formed in March 1909. Seven thousand of the more than 10,000 miners had joined.
What were the aims of the new union? The new union would confront the mineowners directly to seek for the miners a “fair and equitable share of the wealth they produce.” The union would fight for higher wages, for an eight-hour day, for payment of the miners in cash rather than in credit, and for adequate health and safety provisions in the mines. This was-not a radical programme - - except by the standards previously set by the PWA.
While District 26 was getting on its feet, the coal operators were meeting secretly to plot their strategy -- smash the new union and keep the PWA alive. You can easily understand why the mineowners would make this choice. The PWA meant every worker for himself; the UMW meant all the workers together, fighting back.
How would the new union be smashed? Domco began with several forms of intimidation, threats and reprisals. The most active union men found themselves laid off, while others were warned they would lose their jobs too unless they deserted their union. A force Of 625 special police was recruited, armed with iron bars, and paid for by Domco. Barbed wire went up around the mines.
Domco was determined to have a showdown with it’s unruly workers. It began on July 6, when Domco refused under any conditions to meet with the miners’ chosen union.
That morning Domco’s operations were seriously çrippled by the first strike in the history of the coalmines. Only two mines managed to operate that day, and production was cut to one-third of normal. Afraid that their 625 “special police” wouldn’t be enough, Domco wired to Halifax for 500 regular combat troops. Explosive confrontations developed at the mine gates, where “loyal” PWA men coming off work were jeered at by angry crowds of striking workers and their families. The mayor of Glace Bay refused to disperse these crowds, and Domco’s top superintendent had to do it himself by leading a charge of mounted “specials” into a crowd of several thousand townspeople.
The strike was over a single issue - - whether the company or workers would choose which union the company would deal with. This is a struggle which has still not been completely won in Nova Scotia. A basic principle of trade unionism is that the workers must be able to choose and control their union. If they can’t do this, their union is probably not worth very much.
With the miners on strike, Domco decided to wait them out. Production would be lost for a while, but in the end, Domco was sure the miners would have to give in.
To try to break the will of the miners Domco used one of the oldest weapons available to capitalists -the scab. Unemployed men were shipped in from all over the province, put in encampments behind barbed wire, and treated royally -- astronomically high wages, fine meals, plenty of liquor -- in return for helping to break the strike. The PWA men who kept working were also scabs, but they got none of this special treatment.
Other company tactics included evicting strikers from their company-owned homes and cutting off food and fuel supplies through the company stores. During the first three months of the strike Domco was able to inch production in the mines back up to 3/4 of normal. With great pain, the strikers were learning that unless there is 100 per cent solidarity among the workers, the company will find a way to divide them.
Domco could afford to wait, the striking families couldn’t, but they did anyway. Through the winter of 1909-10 they persisted grimly in a battle they were losing. Living in tents pitched in snowfilled fields, many families survived on a basic diet of bean soup and bread.
In the spring it had to be admitted that the strike had been smashed by the powerful combination of the coal operators, the armed forces and a company union. The mineowners promised there would be no reprisals against men who had fought for the right to organize an effective union, but nevertheless hundreds of unionists found themselves blacklisted for life. Some left the country; some changed their trade. Others, like J.B. McLachlan, who would never again be allowed to work in the coalfields he had entered at the age of seven, stayed to fight again.
In 1909 the miners of Cape Breton tried to organize themselves into a trade union. It was the first blow in a battle against an entire way of life, an entire system.
It was far from the last.