“Instead of the government taking
over industry when the war broke out,
industry took over the government.”
There were a number of differences between the First World War and the Second World War. The main one was that the war which began in 1939 was more than a mad scramble among imperialist powers; it was a war against fascism and the brutal principles it stood for. It was a war against the effects of monopoly capitalism in Germany.
But on the home front, this war was not much different from the first. In fact, it was the war that really broke the back of the Great Depression and restored “prosperity.” Knowing that the war would provide capitalists with unlimited opportunities to make money, the government tried to put a ceiling of five per cent on profits during wartime. But they quickly found that under these conditions few capitalists were willing to participate in the war effort. The ceiling had to be raised to a more “normal” 25 per cent.
The war years saw the first strike of the newly organized steelworkers. Although business was booming at the steel plant, the workers were earning only the chance to pour their sweat and labour into the production of more and more steel. Conditions had changed little from the “slavery” of the 1920’s. To get a share of the profits they were creating, the workers would have to strike. In January 1943 the men at the steel plant walked off the job and, joined by fellow steelworkers at the Ontario plants, won their wage demands. (Actually, the men in Nova Scotia were short-changed by 5 cents an hour on the new national rate.)
One of the demands the steelworkers had struck for was a guarantee of jobs for soldiers returning from the war. Canada, the workers argued, could not honestly fight for the principles of freedom and democracy abroad unless some changes were made at home. But when the war ended the country was plunged into an economic crisis.
The aftermath of World War 2 wrought many contradictions for the labour movement across Canada. On the one hand it had substantially increased its membership during and immediately following the war. But the other side of the coin saw massive unemployment, particularly in the Maritimes. The steel works of Sydney and Trenton and the dockyards of Halifax and Saint John were less useful to the war profiteers who, with the blood and sweat of Maritimers fully in their grasp, left for Upper Canada.
During the war outmoded equipment and substandard plants in the Maritimes were used to the utmost. But now they were considered unprofitable and not worth restoring. Although Dosco was receiving a $3.00 a ton subsidy from the government a later investigation showed that the monopolies preferred to invest their money in industries in Upper Canada rather than keep their local operations in proper shape. According to Dosco boss Arthur Cross this was just part of “running a business in a business way”.
In 1946, the Dosco ‘business’ closed its steelworks at Trenton. The shutdown of the Trenton plant was one of the first big setbacks the economy of the Maritimes was to see in these years. By May of 1946 unemployment in Cape Breton reached 4,100, 1,600 of whom were veterans. A year later unemployment on the Island had soared to 10,000. In 1947~ over 1600 Cape Bretoners were shipped off or deported to Montreal and other centres to look for work. Many drifted back and by 1948 Sydney unemployment rates were the highest of any industrial centre in Canada -- 15.8% of the work force.
The post-war period was a turbulent time likened very much to the 1920’s. But there had been several changes in the structure of trade unionism since then. The steelworkers were no longer weak. United in an international union with their fellow workers in Canada and the U.S., they could mount massive pressures to win concessions from the steel monopolies. In the spring of 1946, flaunting government intervention and the threat of severe penalties the 14,000 men of the United Steelworkers brought the entire steel industry to a halt. The strike lasted ten weeks joined in solidarity by the miners and union policemen of Cape Breton.
In November of the same year the miners had begun negotiations for raises up to $2.50 per hour. The negotiation committee had been given a mandate to strike if the demands were not met by the company. But history repeated itself. The international stepped in again stating that the demands were too high and pressured the figure down to $1.40. However the company was still unwilling to agree to the raises and in January of 1947 the miners went out on strike for the first time in over twenty years.
The ball began rolling. Support messages poured in from around the province and across the country. In early spring the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour organized a demonstration in support of the UMW at the legislature in Halifax. It was the hope of organizers to see Premier Angus L. MacDonald and demand that the government intervene to ensure that miners would receive a fair wage. Miners and steelworkers from Cape Breton, workers from Halifax and around the province, and officials from the trade union movement all gathered for the march. The large demonstration of militant workers produced the meeting with Angus L. but it was hardly a success. After a lengthy discussion, Angus L. finally jumped up and said that “this is not Red Square where the workers gather to tell the government and business how to run the economy”. It had been fruitless and one tired worker expressed the sentiments of all when he replied to the premier. “I’ve learned one thing today. I’ve always been told that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, but now you tell me that the workers control the economy. That sounds like democracy to me.”
Although enthusiasm ran high among the workers their leadership was weak and indecisive. After an initial $50,000 in strike funds the International cut District 26 off and in May of 1947 the miners were forced to sign a wage agreement tied to production goals. The men would get an extra 40 cents a day if certain increases in production were achieved within six months. This was the kind of agreement that hides the real difference between the capitalist and the worker that one is an owner and the other a producer of wealth. By tying wages to production -goals workers were forced to increase production and therefore the profits of the company in order to increase their own wages. They came to have a vested interest in the increased productivity of the company. A smokescreen had been established to cover the basic contradiction of capitalism from the workers’ eyes. Never in a hundred years would the militant workers of the 1920’s - - the men who had fought against the entire system of wage slavery -- have signed an agreement to guarantee profits to the mine-owners.
As a result of the strike Dosco blacklisted some 800 of the 13,000 miners. The corporation did not want any repetition of the militancy of the earlier years and so got rid of the potential troublemakers. The union did nothing to stop these purges. In fact in just a few short years the union would become one of the main instruments for rooting out workers with radical ideas. At the same time the Glace Bay Gazette was forced to fold for a lack of money leaving the Sydney Post-Record with a monopoly in “interpreting” the news in Cape Breton.
That spring of 1947 saw the unfolding of a drama that continues to be played out today. It was the first attempt to organize fishermen into trade unions. The Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU) had been struck by the plight of the Nova Scotia fishermen and proceeded to set up and organize the Canadian Fishermen’s Union (CFU). But as is the case today the fishermen ran into the combined opposition of the companies, the courts and the Liberal government of Angus L. MacDonald.
The CFU had applied for certification on trawler vessels and was granted union status by the Labour Relations Board of Nova Scotia. But the companies challenged the certification in the courts and were successful in having it overturned. The fishermen went on strike to defend their union. Like a broken record the provincial government Intervened once again on the side of the companies. Because the fishermen were paid a percentage of the “catch” they were classified as part owners in the business, that is, as businessmen. According to the government if the fishermen were to band together they would become a monopoly corporation and the poor fish companies would surely suffer. Thus legislation was passed during the strike excluding fishermen from the Nova Scotia Trade Union Act and classed them instead as “co-adventurers” without the right to bargain collectively.
The fishermen had been dealt a heavy and lasting blow. The companies managed to get the boats, manned by strikers, back out to sea and effectively crushed the strike. Fishermen who had participated in the strike were blacklisted from the industry. Under the new legislation any further organization was prevented. It would be twenty years before fishermen would band together to fight again.