Workers who have a union
have the fundamental
right to do two things:
the right to elect any
one of their members
to any office that they
like; second, the right
to reject any wage
contract put up to them
to vote on.”
—-Nova Scotia Miner,
The years after 1925 saw the betrayal of the principles of militant trade unionism by the workers’ elected leaders and the transformation of the once militant UMW into an agent of business and company unionism.
To do this, the union leaders had to break down the traditions of grassroots control. The president, John Macleod, forbade the union locals to support the Maritime Labour Herald financially. Just as Besco considered the workers’ newspaper a major threat, so did the union leaders. Although it still had close to 5,000 paying readers in 1925 the paper could not survive the crushing blow. Macleod also tightened control over union dues so that he could withhold money from locals which didn’t toe the line. Another tactic of business unionism was to juggle the results of votes, contriving ways to exclude the opinions of the more militant locals.
Why did the miners’ leaders betray their trust? They placed their own personal interests above those of the workers who elected them. To go from the pits to a comfortable, well-paid job, to hobnob with leaders of business and government, to be placed in a position of great power and influence, can prove a corrupting experience. When Macleod was turfed out of the presidency in 1927, he did not go back to the pits as a miner. No, he showed how much he had changed by taking a job as a Dominion Coal Company official and working his way up through through the ranks to become president of the local Conservative Party Association.
The new union was much more than a giant “dues-collecting machine”. It was fast becoming a useful tool of the employers. “A new spirit has been injected into the minefields,” a business paper boasted, negotiations had become “harmonious” affairs. The new union president Dan Morrison, cooed back: “Conditions in and around the collieries are prosperous.”
Yes, 1929 was a prosperous year -- for Besco, that is. It was the most profitable year the corporation had seen since the big boom of the war years. For the union president it was prosperous too. With two jobs (Morrison was also “labour” mayor of Glace Bay), he was earning more than $3400 a year. But for the workers, conditions were far from prosperous. Few men worked more than three days a week, and in the winter months less. Wages were always falling in terms of real worth.
The union failed to win any increases from the coal operators. Instead, after hush-hush negotiations and an appearance of great sweat and effort, the union leaders would serve up a slightly revised version of the previous contract. Union policy passed at conventions was treated merely as “advice” by the leaders, rather than as instructions on what they were to fight for.
‘You cannot permanently bring peace to the workers
under capitalism. To retain the confidence and maintain
the interests of the workers, you have to lead them
from struggle to struggle. But if you get out of line
with the other sections of the working class army, your
head is lopped off. Faced by this dilemma, you can
understand why so many trade union officials who start
as militants end as bureaucrats, bleeding instead of
leading the workers. They are thinking of their own
skins, their own sinecures.”
Here’s a straightforward example of the “new spirit of the union. At the No. 12 mine in New Waterford two new men were brought in to replace two longtime miners. Denouncing the new recruits as scabs, all the men at No. 12 walked out, closing the mine for two days. The scabs were expelled from the union by the local and fined $100. Then, the district executive stepped into the affair and reversed the decisions the men had taken. Under the 1930 contract which these leaders in the process of negotiating it was made illegal stop work over any “labour trouble.” Yet the power to stop working is the only hold the worker has over the employer. Their leaders had signed it away.
In 1932 the full implications of the new kind of unionism were brought home. Because of depressed economic conditions, the mineowners were suggesting that workers place their necks on the chopping block. Wages would be cut ten per cent all around, and one out of four men would be “reallocated”, as they delicately put it, to unemployment. The union leaders argued for accepting these terms, but in a referendum vote the miners angrily turned it down. They would not consent this scheme of making the workers bear the brunt of economic depression. A rank and file movement against the mine closings was able to save about half the jobs the leaders didn’t think were worth fighting for. But as for the wage cut, the workers would have to take it. Exploiting the division between the workers and their leaders, Dosco went ahead and implemented it.