The greatest labour battles of the 1930’s and 1940’s were fought in the process of organizing the masses of previously unorganized workers -- especially in the basic industries -- into strong and militant industrial unions.
Usually the story is told in terms of John L. Lewis’ decision to form
the Congress of Industrial Organizations to oppose the traditional craft unionism of the American Federation of Labour. As part of its drive to organize industrial workers, the ClO set up its Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee in 1936. But by this time the steelworkers of Sydney had already organized themselves into a union, thus pioneering the drive to bring ClO-type unionism to Canada.
The steelworkers’ union at Sydney grew out of the workers’ frustrations in dealing with the company union set-up Besco had awarded them after the 1923 strike. It was in the “plant council” that a group of workers got together and decided to form a real union.
This, the steelworkers’ second union, was “organized on an industrial basis and completely under the domination of the rank and file.” It would fight for basic rights such as the eight hour day, time and one half for overtime work, seniority rights and other conditions we now consider essential. The union would also fight to get the workers back to the 1932 wage level.
Within two weeks of the formation of the Independent Steelworkers’ Union of Nova Scotia, Dosco was running scared. As membership in the new union climbed, Dosco tried to buy the workers off with wage increases - -ten per cent, then 7.5 per cent and then 7.5 per cent again. In the fall, Dosco granted a six-day work week, eliminating the notorious 24-hour swing shift on Sundays. Still, the union continued to attract members.
A vigorous recruiting drive, directed primarily by steelworker George MacEachern netted more than 2600 members. During the two year drive the ISWU became Lodge 1064 of the ClO’s Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee. Several years later the SWOC became the United Steel Workers of America.
In 1937 the right to the union check-off and collective bargaining were secured by forcing the Liberal government to enact the Nova Scotia Trade Union Act which guaranteed these rights to the union of the workers’ choice. Coincidentally, there was a provincial election two months later, and the Liberals reaped their reward for this “favour to labour” by sweeping the province.
One of the bad aspects of the SWOC was that organisers were appointed from above rather than from the rank and file. Although autonomy was ostensibly guaranteed to the Canadian locals in 1938, the practice of appointing organizers from above continued. This led to clashes with the elected leadership. When the SWOC appointed Forman Waye, an oldtime Cape Breton trade unionist, as organizer for Nova Scotia, local 1064 still took exception since this infringed the grassroots principles of democratic trade unionism.
But in spite of these problems, a fundamental victory had been won by the steelworkers of Cape Breton. The long years of struggle had culminated in the winning of a strong union. While Dosco made consistent profits at the steel plant -- $1.5 million in 1938 – they stood fast against giving the steelworkers any share. The basic rate at the steel plant remained 43½ cents an hour amounting to a weekly take home pay of less than $20 for 48 hours of work. With the cost of living jumping quickly ahead of these wages during the war, the stage was set for confrontation. This time the steelworkers were stronger and more united than ever before.