The world is nicely arranged for them
Who live by the sweat of other men,
Live by the sweat of the poor and the weak,
Then marvel that men turn Bolshevik.
- Dawn Fraser
1925 was the bloodiest, hungriest and most bitter year Cape Bretoners ever saw. It started with an open declaration of war instead of a New Year’s greeting. In 1925, Besco decreed, the miners would have to work for 20 percent less ages than they had the year before.
It was a staggering blow to families already on the verge of starvation. For even when there was no strike being fought, Besco’s wage earners were still far from secure in their living conditions. The thousands of men were lucky to work one or two shifts a week. Hundreds were idle. Time and time again the miners would come home from the pits with without a cent of cash in their pockets – the many tentacles of Besco’s industrial feudalism had picked is earnings clean. Every week the worker was deeper in debt.
Besco’s harsh greeting got a tough response from the miners. Weak and wasted though they were, they were not going to let the British Vampire Steel and Coal Company, as it came to be known, sink it’s teeth into their necks once again. Even when the corporation backed down slightly, offering to cut wages ten percent instead of 20, there was no change in the workers attitude. They stood firm.
“Less than a 100 percent strike,” insisted the Maritime Labour Herald, “means well fed horses for Besco, starvation for miners’ babies, protection for Besco property while stripping the backs of the miners’ families - - and a lost strike.” To protect their wages - - already 40 percent lower than other coal miners in Canada - - there would have to be a 100 percent effort.
“I used to go up to the
pay office for my father,
for his pay sheet. There
was a little piece on
the bottom that you just
teared off. This was the
“Well there was nothing
on them, never anything,
never any money coming
to my father. It was all
taken up in the company
store, the pluck-me as
we called it then.”
Relishing the way they had smashed the steelworkers two years earlier, Besço pulled off its gloves to go after the miners. Scabs were signed on to do maintenance work in the event of a 100 per cent strike. The work schedule was cut back even more sharply, especially at the pits where the most militant workers’ locals were based. Then mines began to shut down. By March, 11 mines had been closed and the workers locked out. The final step was the cutting off of credit at the company stores. On the even of the strike thousands of Cape Breton families had little more than a crust of hard bread between them and starvation. On March 6, their patience worn thin, the miners declared they wereon strike.
This suited Besco fine. The general manager, McClurg declared enthusiastically:
“We hold the cards. Let them stay out two
months or six months. It matters not. Even-
tually they will come to us. They can’t
stand the gaff.”
For more than five months, the miners and their families -- some 50,000 Cape Bretoners -- did stand the gaff. Denied relief from government sources, the miner received donations from organized labour all across the country and from the U.S. Unexpected sources of support included the Quaker Oats Company, which despatched several freight cars of oats and flour, and the Miners’ Union in the Soviet Union, which donated $5,000. The international headquarters of the UMW were not that kind - - relief payments were cut off after one month.
“Carrying the bag” – taking a potato sack up to the union hall or the church basement to get relief -- became a regular part of the miners’ way of life. The food was never enough. Families would supplement their meals by eating snails on the ocean shore to add to their thin soup made of potato peelings. At New Waterford adventurous boys would climb out on a cliff face to pick away at an outcropping of coal. Usually they were watched by company police who confiscated their fuel and fined them.
While the miners starved, the company stores, stocked full with the necessities of life, stood close at hand but out of reach. They were a deliberate taunt to the hungry families, reminding them of the dreadful effect of the laws of property.
“Besco sneers at the hunger of the miners,” reasoned the workers. “All right, let the miners show just the same respect for Besco’s rights. Any weapon the miners can lay their hands on ought to be used to win this fight.”
And so, the hated pluck-mes were raided. One miner recalls:
“They rolled down ~half-barrelS of flour and
cases of bacon arid quarters of beef and this
stuff and that stuff. The rumour was going
around that all the houses were going to be
searched and raided and the stuff taken from
them and dire consequences meted out. The
miners and the families didn’t care. They
were desperate. Let them come —— they’re not
taking. They’ll take my neck, but they~re nt
not going to take that barrel of flour that’s
in there. And they wouldn’t have taken it,
they couldn’t have taken it.”
For the first several months the strike was comparatively quiet. Both sides waited in grim determination. For a corporation like Besco, to weather a long strike is rather simple. As long as there is no serious threat to the company’s property, the only, price to pay is lost markets. And if the markets were slow, as they were now, the company thought its time was being well spent -- smashing the workers.
One reason for the quietness of the strike so far was that the provincial government had refused Besco’s routine call for troops. An election was approaching that summer and the government was not anxious to risk such an unpopular move. But in the place of government troops, there was still the company’s own private police force.
Since the beginning of the strike, the miners had been holding the New Waterford power plant, several miles from the town at Waterford Lake. This was to keep its output at a low level - - high enough to supply the town with water and power, but low enough to prevent Besco from reopening any of its mines. On June 4 the company police seized the plant from the workers and cut off water and power to the town and the local hospital. Besco refused to restore service and the townspeople had to set up an emergency bucket brigade to get water to the hospital.
On June 10 the miners surrounded the power plant and argued with the scabs inside, appealing to them to quit. Most of the scabs were convinced and left; the miners were back in possession of the plant. That night, however, Besco police drove the strikers out again, and recaptured the plant. All this back and forth struggle was the prelude to the major confrontation of the year.
On the morning of June 11 a mounted force of police charged up Plummer Ave. in New Waterford, trampling and riding down townspeople, using whips, clubs and chains to beat them. As in the infamous charge of 1923, it was a wholesale police riot.
But this time there was an immediate spontaneous outburst to match this unprovoked violence. Shortly, a crowd of more than 3,000 workers assembled and headed out of town towards Waterford Lake, four miles away. Alerted, the company police met them on the road as they approached the plant.
Nearly 100 armed, mounted and according to some witnesses, drunken, company police confronted the angry crowd. While most of the people held back, several hundred miners headed through the barbed wire fences towards the plant. Firing their guns, the police charged into the line of workers. In the battle that followed the police were thoroughly routed by the unarmed miners who hurled stones and rocks, pulled the police from their horses and beat them with handy sticks and branches.
In the police gunfire one man, Bill Davis, was shot dead. Two other miners, bleeding on the ground, were believed dead as well, although they later recovered. As the police scattered into the woods, the workers advanced on the power plant, broke in and completely wrecked it. Then they headed after the fleeing police. Some 30 bruised and battered company cops were rounded up and marched back into town. As they stumbled up Plummer Ave., the scene of their outrage that morning they received kicks and blows from a gauntlet of townspeople. The sad group was locked up in the town jail to be tried for murder. Later in the day a squad of Besco cars arrived at the jail and rescued their men and put them aboard a special train for Sydney.
Learning a couple of lessons from the day’s event the New Waterford town council dismissed several town policemen for letting their prisoners escape. A special workers’ militia, composed of 70 trade unionists, was also set up. Mayor P.C. Muise blamed Besco directly for the death of Bill Davis. A coroner’s jury agreed and Joseph MacLeod, a company policeman, was charged with capital murder. He was never convicted.
That night the struggle entered a new phase. The miners’ grim persistence erupted in a gale of rage. All over the mining district that night and during the rest of the month there was increased looting of company stores. Thousands of dollars worth of food was distributed to the hungry communities. Fires were lit at emptied stores and other Besco buildings burned to the ground as well. The corporation suffered more than half a million dollars worth of damage to its property and installations during this period.
There was no delay now in the arrival of troops from Halifax. New Waterford alone was allotted more than 1500 troops. Once again Cape Breton was under an iron heel. As the troops poured in, Besco made a settlement offer. The ten per cent cut would stand and there would be further conditions: the check-off of union dues would end, no men considered “disorderly” during the strike would be rehired, no “reds” or “radicals” would ever be allowed to negotiate with Besco on the workers’ behalf.
Besco’s real goals became clear now. The UMW was to be turned into a harmless “company” union. The offer was an insult and was unanimously rejected by the locals. In New Waterford the proposals were publicly burned.
There were two aspects to the workers’ activities during the strike. Both of them matured during this new phase. We have seen the purely defensive and destructive aspect -- how the enraged workers robbed food, flooded mines (the use of scabs minimized the effectiveness of this) and destroyed company property.
The second aspect which matured at this time was the question of what positive action the miners could take to win their struggle. This was the question that was churning in people’s minds. An understanding was maturing that this was much more than a battle over wages. The workers were learning that, as one miner put it, they were engaged in “the real raw class struggle,” a struggle which could only be won by a complete transformation of society.
This understanding came slowly. It took years to mature. On May Day, the international day of solidarity of the workers, several thousand people marched in the streets of Glace Bay. The parade was led by the town mayor, Dan Morrison, bearing aloft a red flag. “Workers of the world unite,” the banners proclaimed, “Down with capitalism.”
It was highly unlikely that tens of thousands of workers whose families were on the verge of starvation could outlast a mighty corporation in a waiting game. It was also unlikely that the corporation would take pity and initiate a radical transformation of society. What positive action could the workers take?
“There was strong talk among the miners of
occupying the mines,” recalls one veteran.
“Occupying the communities. Putting pickets
here and there to disallow anybody in au-
thority to pass over. And to hoist coal from
the mines, and to bank it, and to sell it.
To market it in Nova Scotia and the tradi-
tional markets , Quebec and Massachussetts.
And to finance it by occupying the banks.
“It was talked of in the local unions. There
were some against it, quite a lot for it.
But it was definitely on the agenda in those
days.. .If the strike had continued much longer
there would have been a very clear cut orga—
nized effort to occupy the communities.
“And they could have done it. The armed forces
could hardly have ousted such a move.. . Since
then mines have been occupied —- in Belgium,
in France, in Germany, Scotland, Wales. We
around here were perhaps one of the first to
move in that direction, to talk about it.”
Such radical action would completely change the rules of the system and the “live and let live” attitude of business unionism. The workers would have taken a first step towards seizing ownership and control of the economy for themselves. These actions were never carried out, but the workers were seriously thinking about them. Some important lessons were being learned.
The complexion of the strike was changed again by the crushing defeat of the Liberal Party in that summer’s provincial election. Bowing to public pressure, the premier forced Besco to back off from its all-or-nothing demands. In return for government subsidies, Besco would reopen the mines on these terms: a six to eight percent wage cut would take place and there would be no blacklist of any of the strikers.
By a narrow referendum vote the miners accepted the deal. Wasted by hunger and over-run by troops, they reasoned that, under capitalism, they could get no better deal. 0n August 10 the strike was over. In the new year the miners saw their modest gain wiped out by a government commission which allowed Besco the full ten per cent wage cut. In 1926 the miners were working for only 3/4 of the wages they had earned five years earlier.