“Steel is the backbone of Sydney. The long rows of ugly chimneys
belching forth torrents of smoke and fire bear witness to the fact (of
which the papers are so proud) that Sydney is a town of steel. Under this
small forest of chimneys toil the slaves 0f steel - - chained, by grim necessity,
to the chariot of a brutal, relentless corporation.
Yes. Slaves. ‘Tis a strong word - - but then the facts are strong and demand
strong words. Sydney is a town of steel slaves. Just That!”
-- Maritime Labour Herald
February 3, 1923
Little more can be said about conditions at the steel plant. The men worked shifts os 11 and 13 hours a day, seven days a week, with a 24 hour swing shift from 7 a.m. Monday every second week. The steelworker was paid $2.85 for each gruelling day’s labour. This was even less than the mineworkers received, for when Besco tried to slash the miners’ wages37 ½ percent in 1922, they got away with a 45 percent cut in the steelworkers’ pay. This was the opening staggering blow in Besco’s attempt to smash the spreading idea of trade unionism among the steelworkers.
1923 was a year of great union militancy in Cape Breton. The miners were still smarting over their failure to win a victory over Besco the previous year, and the steelworkers were preparing to fight the basic fight - - for the right to a union of their own choice.
At the end of 1922 Besco offered its men a company union. A company union is an organization set up by the company for the workers. Naturally, it has no powers. The workers voted the offer down. They preferred to stick with their own idea - - a real trade union. Since 1917 militant workers had been organizing (in spite of constant spying and harassment by company police) a local of Amalgamated Iron, Steel and Tin Workers. Open to all employees at the steel works, this industrial union would unite all of the men there into a single force. Instead of having blacklists in one union, carpenters in another and moulders in the third, they would all belong to a single union.
As part of their escalating organizing campaign, the union members - - about 400 of the 2700 employees belonged to the union at this stage - - posted huge signs about the steel palnt calling for wage raises, recognition of the union and proclaiming: “Every day in every way, we are getting stronger and stronger.” These signs were greeted enthusiastically by the men, but were found distasteful by the plant management. An order was put out forbidding posters anyplace on company property. Besco itself continued to post its posters - - signs encouraging the men to take flowers home with them.
In Canada in 1923,681,490
workers produced $3.5 bil
lion worth of goods. For
this ,Canadian workers
were paid only $700 mi—
The workers got one dol-
lar in salaries and wa-.
ges for every five dol-
lars they produced.
There was a brief scuffle in February, several months before the big showdown between the workers and the corporation. When a union’ activist was fired and blacklisted , the men walked out en masse, refusing to let anyone into the plant. With their backs to the wall, Besco promised immediate recognition of the union if the men would come back to work.
Besco was lying. The company would never recognize the union, for, said Besco,”trade unionism is wrong in principle.” it took a lot of gall for a monopoly the size of Besco to preach the evils of “organizing.” Stiffly, the, workers were warned that Besco would allow no changes in hours or wages. This turned out to be false again. Two weeks later Besco’s hard heart softened and an across the board wage hike of ten percent was benevolently announced.
Meanwhile Besco went carefully about its preparation for a violent showdown. They convinced the premier of the province to beef up his provincial police to fight “Bolshevism” at the steel plant. The authorities recruited several hundred unemployed men off the streets of Halifax, armed them and shipped them to Sydney. Besco organized its own private police force under the command of a character by the name Of D.A.Noble. Noble also worked as an RCMP special agent and an army intelligence officer. Noble’s goon ‘squad consisted of 400 men armed with 20-pound steel bars. The provincial police force, an unruly collection of waterfront toughs, drunkards and criminals, numbered more than 1,000 men. Feeling secure with’ this assemblage of armed might, Besco took the offensive, launching a systematic campaign of blacklisting and the replacement of fired men with scabs. Laughing and defiant, Besco was soon to taken by surprise.
On June 28, at 3 a.m. the night shift began to walk out of the plant. Noble’s goons, stationed inside the steel works, began to drag men physically back to their jobs and a pitched battle was fought. The struggle centred on the blast furnaces and the coke ovens. For two days, as the strike spread to include more than 80 percent of the steelworkers, a small battalion of workers defended the ovens and refused to surrender them. Outside the plant the striking night shift was greeted by men from the day shift arriving to form picket lines. The plant was tied up tight by mass picketing. The Riot Act was read several times during these two days, and on one occasion troops fired into the air over the heads of a crowd of strike supporters.
For Besco the steel plant, was in enemy hands, its lifeline, the coke ovens, was held by rebellious workers. The rights of private property had to be asserted. On the morning of June 30 a trainload of 250 infantry arrived from Halifax. The provincial police were thrown Into battle and managed to overpower the men at the coke ovens. Private property was preserved, but the crisis was deepening.
In the early evening of the next day, Sunday July 1, 1923, there occurred one of the most vicious incidents in the entire history of Cape Breton - - an unprovoked attack by mounted police on a peaceful group of citizens. The wild charge took place on Victoria Road, Whitney Pier. Swinging whips and baseball, bats, the police beat and trampled men and women sparing neither the old nor the young, chasing them down and whipping them. Many were followed into their own homes. One man was followed to the second floor of a building by a mounted policeman. Most of the people on the street were returning from evening church services.
Here’s how J. B. McLachlan, at this time Secretary-Treasurer of the miners’ union, described the incident in a report sent to the union’s locals:
“On Sunday night last the provincial police,
in the most brutal manner, rode down the
people of Whitney Pier, who were out on
the street, most of whom were coming from
church. Neither age, sex, nor physical disa-
bility were proof against these brutes. One
old woman over 70 years of age was beaten
into insensibility and may die. A boy of nine
years old was trampled under the horses’
hooves and had his kreast bone crushed in. A
wolan, being beaten over the head with a po-
lice club, gave premature birth to a child.
The child is dead and the woman’s life is
despaired of. Men and women were beaten up
inside their own homes.”
And here is how a government Royal Commission, later set up to investigate the “unrest” among the steelworkers, recorded the incident:
“On Sunday evening July 1, between eight and nine
and nine O’clock a riotous condition prevai-
led outside gate No.4 and in the adjacent
streets. The provincial police were called
upon to suppress the riot and to disperse
the unlawful assembly. They did that. After
that there was no more rioting.”
Later in the month J.B. McLachlan was arrested for writing his description of the incident even though several Sydney policemen said publicly that the attack was pre-arranged by the provincial police.
The strike spread, Besco and its allies had tried crudest form of intimidation but they had not broken the will of the Steelworkers. The police riot of July 1 propelled the strike onto a higher level. It became a general political strike. “No miner or mineworker can remain at work while this government turns Sydney into a jungle,” declared McLachlan. And the miners agreed. On July 3 they closed down the mines to show their Solidarity with the striking steelworkers and to demand the withdrawal of troops and police from Cape Breton. This gesture of solidarity turned the strike into more than a wage struggle; it had become a political struggle as well.
Besco and the government launched a second offensive to answer the miners’ action. First, troop strength was boosted to more than 2,000 men. Secondly, warrants were issued for the arrest of the two men Besco and the Liberals hated most -- Dan Livingstone the president of District 26, and J.B. McLachlan, the union’s secretary-treasurer. They figured that if they could get rid of the leaders of the miners, resistance would collapse. At the same time raids were carried out on the homes of people who had “participated in the “riot” of July 1. The idea was to fix responsibility for the outrage on innocent citizens. In Western Canada, meanwhile, miners went on strike to support the demands of their Cape Breton brothers.
If Besco thought these tactics could break the miners they reckoned poorly the deep roots of the miners’ solidarity. But this was not all. There was a secret element in Besco’s strategy.
The surprise was the intervention of John L. Lewis, the international president of the UMW. Lewis issued a simple order to the men of D1strict 26 saying that the contract they had signed with Bésco in 1922 had to be observed and that nothing could take priority over a signed contract. Lewis was ignored.
Lewis’ idea of trade unionism was quite different from that of the ordinary workers. The main object of trade unionism according to Lewis, was to make peace between the owning and working classes. If working and living conditions happened to be improved this way; that was fine. But the main purpose was to make a deal, to establish a stable, business-like relationship between the exploiter exploited. This kind of unionism which is known as business unionism is preferred by employers above all other forms of unionism except company unionism. Naturally, Lewis could have no sympathy for the idea of a general political strike such as was taking place in Cape Breton in the summer of 1923.
The other characteristic of business unionism is that it is fundamentally undemocratic. Decisions are not madeby the rank and file of the membership, but by all-powerful leaders. Once Lewis found himself in the presidency of the UMW (he was not elected to the job) he did not relinquish the post for 40 years. Surrounding himself with personal supporters, he set up a virtual one-man dictatorship and ruthlessly suppressed criticism and dissent.
And so, John L. Lewis pulled the rug out from under the feet of the people of Cape Breton. On July 18 he revoked the district’s hard-won charter and declared the executive offices of the district vacant. He appointed a provisional president, Cape Bretoner Silby Barrett. Lewis delighted the mineowners by publicly denouncing the strike as “indefensible and morally reprehensible.”
To the miners of Cape Breton this was an outrage. To them, their union was the organized fighting force of the working people. They would use it to defend themselves and their lives against intimidation, blacklisting, beatings and starvation, against the company and against the government. A defiant mass meeting that same day left no doubts. When to go back to work - and when to go off - was the worker’s own decision. It could not be dictated by any “leader.”
McLachlan, now released on bail from prison, was cheered wildly as he hurled defiance at the government, press, army, Besco and the international headquarters of the union. As far as capital was concerned, said McLachlan, the miners had committed a great crime by becoming solidly organized.
While workers’ meetings all over the district voiced defiance of Lewis, his supporters in Cape Breton were also making headway. Using the courts, Barrett managed to take over the union offices. With the cooperation of Besco, the flow of union dues to the local unions was diverted to Barrett. A back-to-work campaign was launched by Barrett. Using the daily press, he created the impression that this was a widespread grassroots movement. In these ways Lewis and his local supporters broke the miners solidarity. By August they had succeeded. Without enough funds to support a lengthy strike, the miners went back to work.
He crushing of the miners speeded the defeat of the steelworkers as well. With police and troops outnumbering them two to one, the steelworkers voted to go back to work. Neither of their main demands – union recognition and wage increases -- had been won. It would be more than 12 years before the steelworkers again fought to win these goals.
Casting a sorrowful eye over developments in Cape Breton, Canada’s business newspaper lamented: “The situation is not even one of armed neutrality. It is that of a conquered territory held down by the sword.” Besco moved swiftly to make sure that no more labour trouble would disturb its conquered territory. Most of the steelworkers who had so ungratefully gone out on strike were never allowed back to work. This included men who had slaved more than 20 years in the plant. Secondly, the company union scheme, previously rejected by the workers, was introduced at once, but without a vote among the workers this time.
Advice was also given to Besco by a royal commission set up by Liberal Prime Mintster Mackenzie King. (When working for the Rockefellers in the U.S. King had helped originate company union schemes.)
The investigators highly favoured the idea of a “general plant council.” It would preserve “personal sympathy and the human touch” while still increasing production and efficiency. Whether such a goal could ever be achieved under exploitative and undemocratic conditions was never considered. That would have involved questioning the ownership and goals of the corporation. It would have involved pointing out that the plant should be turned over completely to the Canadian people and managed and operated by its workers.
The royal commission also urged Besco to follow a second American example - - to switch from the longstanding two-shift plan to a three-shift system of eight hour spells. “The 12-hour day is inhuman,” the commissioners admitted in their only words of sympathy for the workers. Although such a plan would cut into Besco’s profits, the commission pointed out that Besco’s profits were quite substantial.
The question the commissioners didn’t dare to ask the question the workers themselves had asked. If conditions were inhuman, why shouldn’t men fight back? Men work to live, they don’t live to work. To show that this right was more important than the capitalist’s profit, the working people had to revolt.
‘Fore he went and broke the laws
Jim McLachlan was the cause
Of all sin, distress, and crime
That occurred in modern time,
Now they can’t blame it on him -—
Merry Christmas to you, Jim
It was an unwritten law that McLachlan had broken. So they had to fish about among the various written laws available to find one that would match JB’s “crime.”
Four days after the events of July 1 warrants were obtained for the arrest of Livingstone and McLachlan on charges of “unlawfully publishing false tales.” The police drove up to union headquarters in Glace Bay and asked the two men to step outside. They were jumped by a small army of police who handcuffed, gagged and shackled them and then took them to Halifax. Bail was refuised and no charges were laid. Eventually the two men appeared in court and were charged with “publishing misleading information and importing communistic literature into Glace Bay.” By August, after the strike was broken the charges were revised to “seditious libel” and the charge against Livingstone was dropped.
--What laws did Jim
--He broke the unwritten
--What unwritten law?
--The law that it is a
crime to tell the truth
about capitalism and to
organize your fellow
workers to fight back.
It turned out that the specific crime for which McLachlan was to be tried was his truthful description of the events of July 1. How JB’s brief report to the union locals could be described as “seditious libel” takes a lot of imagination. But then we have to remember that the government and the corporations were out to “get” the man they considered responsible for all the “trouble” in Cape Breton. It was a rare honour to be charged with “seditious libel.” The charge had not been used since the days when Joseph Howe did battle against the merchant aristocracy of his time.
When the trial began in October the courts decided it had to be held in Halifax. A Sydney jury, familiar with the real facts of the July 1 riot, would be likely to support McLachlan instead of branding him a criminal. The judge in the case was our old friend Justice Mellish, the onetime corporation lawyer, still serving his masters’ interests.
The trial turned into a hysterical witch-hunt. The province’s attorney-general came down to the courtroom personally to make a fool of himself by arguing:
“The issue is not whether the statement
(McLachlan’s) published is true or false.
There are many things which are true, but
cannot be published. It is not a question
of the truth of the statement, but a question
of whether it was said with the intention of
creating dissatisfaction and disturbance.”
This line of reasoning reveals part of the secret logic of capitalism. It is all right to have free speech as long as you don’t say anything that upsets anyone. Mellish sentenced McLachlan to two years in Dorchester Penitentiary. Under pressure from Farmer and Labour MP’s in Ottawa the Prime Minister ordered the release of JB in the spring. But those five months in prison had taken their toll. It was there that McLachlan contracted the bronchial disease he was to die of 13 years later.
The only difference bet-
ween jail and a job is
that here I am separa-
ted from my wife and fa-
mily. Under capitalism.
all the workers are in
jail all the time. And
lots of them haven’t
got the security of
shelter and food that
is offerred in a