The first formal organization of Cape Breton workers was not really a trade union. The Provincial Workmen’s Association was not much more than an “association.” It was no fighting force. Its longtime Grand Secretary, John Moffat, was greatly admired in government circles for being opposed to strikes and usually doing his utmost to prevent them.”
The main activity of the PWA was to request favours from the provincial government. Sometimes these favours related to working conditions. For instance, laws were passed limiting the use of child labour in the mines and regulating safety conditions, but they were never strictly enforced. Other times the favours were of a more personal nature. One of the PWA’s founders, Bob Drumond, gladhanded his way into a comfortable seat in the appointed upper house of the provincial assembly.
Trapped by the conditions of industrial feudalism we described, and working a 12-hour day for meagre pay, the Cape Breton miner turned to the PWA to help him fight back. The PWA turned a deaf ear. The workers’ only real weapon -- the strike -- would be kept under wraps.
When a sudden wage cut at the Sydney steel plant in 1904 took the workers by surprise, the PWA was catapulted into an unwelcome strike situation. All 1500 steelworkers left the plant and shut it down. The strike was swiftly and brutally crushed when the PWA’s buddies, the Liberal government, sent troops to help Domco reopen the plant with imported scabs.
Despite its failure as an effective tool for the workers, the PWA was still an important step forward. Originally a miners’ association set up at Springhill in 1879, the PWA spread the idea that working people should get together to fight for their rights all across the province. The PWA took in glassblowers, ironworkers, rail men, boot and shoe workers, steelworkers, quarry men, tramway men, longshoremen and even retail store clerks.