The Christmas season of 1923 was a lean one for the miners of Cape Breton. One man was killed and two others seriously injured in an explosion at Dominion No.6. The miners were working short weeks --- as little as one shift a week. The steel plant had been shut down for weeks. Seven fellow workers were in jail for their part in the struggle of the summer months. The miners’ union had been taken from them was being ruled by an appointed dictator.
How did District 26 function under the direct rule of the international? In the first months of 1924 a contract had to be negotiated. Now the miners got a taste of what business unionism, John L. Lewis’ unionism, meant. The rank and file of the miners never laid eyes on the new contract until it had been signed, sealed and delivered to Besco.
In the new “Slave Pact”, as the miners labelled it, District 26 undertook never again to engage in a 100 per cent strike as in 1922, and to stop supporting the working people’s newspaper, the Maritime Labour Herald. Another item fixed responsibility for mine accidents on the workers themselves: everytime a worker was killed in the pits, every miner was to be fined 5O cents.
A slight wage increase was allowed, but this was takeaway with the other hand through a 50 per cent rise in the cost of house coal to the workers’ families. Under pressure Silby Barrett finally allowed the men to vote on the contract. In a two to one vote, they rejected the “Slave Pact.” The workers’ opinion was ignored.
What kind of trade unionism was this? The workers wanted an end to backrooms negotiating; they wanted everything out in the open, where they could see it. When they went out on strike, they had to know exactly why, and when they came back to work they had to know exactly what they had won or how badly they had been defeated. Undemocratic business unionism allowed them none of this.
A further step of the international was to prohibit the deposed union executive from ever again holding office in District 26. This lifetime blacklist included the most active, experienced and militant group of trade unionists in Cape Breton. It would have a great effect on the future shape of the UMW.
In May the grassroots resentment against the emasculation of the IJMW began to take a solid form. An “outlaw” convention with representatives from the district’s 1ocals formed a Committee of Action to fight for the restoration of the union’s autonomy, democratic procedures and fighting traditions. They managed to persuade the second provisional president, William Houston of Pennsylvania, to allow district elections in the fall. The return of autonomy after more than a year of suspension brought a militant slate of officers back into command.