Capitalism is a system where people are divided into two classes -- those who live by working, and those who live by owning. Under capitalism the property owners are more important than the people who create the wealth. This is because they control the state, the army, the newspapers and the schools, as well as the industries and factories. Through these institutions they make the rules for the working people to follow. If the workers produce more goods than can be sold at a profit, many of them will be fired or laid off. If the owning class decides it wants more income from its properties, then the workers’ wages will be cut. This is what happened in Cape Breton in 1922.
Once the dangerous 1921 election was safely over, Besco could move from its defensive position to the attack. During 1921 Besco had been forced by government pressure to jack up the miners’ wages to meet the soaring cost of living. Now Besco set out to recover lost ground and abolish the “1921 rates.“
-Why did Besco decide
it had to cut wages?
--Because it needed more
--More money for what?
--To pay more dividends
to the owning class.
Within two weeks after the election, just in time for Christmas, Besco issued its ultimatum —-wages would be cut by 37½ per cent. This meant that for every dollar a miner had earned in 1921, he would be earning 62½ cents in 1922. It was a fine Christmas greeting for the workers.
What would this cut mean to the workers and their families? In terms of cash it meant this: a family would be expected to live on about $700 a year, provided the miners worked four or more shifts a week. After paying for clothes, rent, water, fuel and other needs, a family would have $250 left for food. For a five person family -- and many were much larger -- this added up to four cents per person per meal. According to the statisticians in Ottawa, a family of five required an income of $2200 a year to survive at a reasonable level. The cutback meant hunger and near starvation, it meant children would wear potato sacks and have neither coats nor shoes to wear to school...
And what would the wage cut mean to Besco? It meant a good chance of topping the $9.6 million profit for 1921. And continuing to pay healthy dividends on their inflated stock values to the coupon clipping class.
Remember our old friend Justice Mellish? The old company lawyer? In his capacity as a judge he granted the corporation permission to put the wage cut into effect. Besco thanked him and went ahead. Shortly afterwards a government “conciliation” board also agreed to the cut.
But the workers didn’t. More than 10,000 miners cast votes against the cut, while a meagre 486 men were willing to take it. “War is on,” declared J.B. McLachlan, “A class war.” McLachlan argued that the workers should adopt a bold and imaginative tactic -- the slowdown strike. Production in the mines would be cut back to the level where Besco’s profits would vanish; only enough coal would mined to pay the miners wages. This strategy exposed the very roots of capitalism - - - the robbery of part of the workers’ labour power. The minister of labour in Ottawa declared the slow-down “un-British, un-Canadian and cowardly.” Both he and Prime Minister Mackenzie King were publicly voted enemies of the Canadian people’ at a union meeting.
In June the miners gathered in convention to map their strategy. They would not accept any wage cut at all. A strike deadline was set for August 14. That the miners understood clearly the importance of their fight against the mineowners is shown by this resolution they adopted:
“We proclaim openly to all the world that we
are out for a complete overthrow of the ca-
pitalist system and of the capitalist, pea-
ceably if we may; forceably if we must; and
we call on all workers, soldiers and minor
law officers in Canada to join us in libe-
“In the 1909 strike the Dominion Coal Co. Put a live wire around
Their stockade at No. 2 mine. One old man and two boys were killed by
accidentally coming into contact with the live wire.
“In the 1922 strike the Company were preparing to, put
a live wire around the stockade at No. 2 mine. But the
strike was 100 per cent strong and the workers refused
to furnish the necessary electricity to kill men and boys.
In the first strike capital was in control. In the second strike labour was in control.”
--Maritime Labour Herald
Sept. 14, 1922
On August 13, the day before the strike was to start, Besco lost its nerve. That Sunday afternoon the corporation summoned the union leaders to an eleventh hour conference. If the union leaders would call off the strike, Besco promised to cut wages only 21 percent.
While the union leaders were closeted with Besco, the rank and file were meeting in a Glace Bay theatre. In anticipation of a tough strike, the miners planned to buy a schooner to bring in potatoes from PEI and fish for cod to supply their families.
Fresh from their long meeting with Besco, the union leaders tried Sunday night to call off the showdown. But they couldn’t do it. The men wouldn’t listen to their leaders. On the Monday morning 5,000 angry miners assembled at the Glace Bay ballpark. McLachlan was forced to admit that the union’s executive did not have the power to call off a strike for less than the demands the men themselves had set,-- no cuts at all. The strike was back on. By midnight Monday 12,000 men were on strike -- the entire work force. The local paper reported: “The executive found that the rank and file had taken charge, and that the officials had but to obey the men whom they serve.”
As in 1909 the mineowners resorted to armed force to back up their position. Barbed wire, machine gun nests and searchlights went up around the pits. More than 1,000 soldiers and 1,000 “special police” were despatched from Halifax. A squadron of British battleships with marines entered the Glace Bay harbour. The town councils in the mining towns refused flatly to pay the cost of sending in troops they considered unnecessary. The miners’ union, the veterans’ association and the town police cooperated in keeping law and order -- subduing rowdy “specials” and keeping company liquor out of town.
The 1922 strike was a 100 per cent strike. This means there was great solidarity among the workers, but it also refers to a special tactic they adopted. Every last worker left the mines, including pumpmen and firemen. Since most of the Cape Breton coal seams run out under the ocean floor; continuous pumping is required to keep the mines in good working order. When the miners refused to scab on themselves by keeping maintenance men on the job, they added a powerful weapon to their grim determination. If the mineowners wanted to minimize the damage to their mines, they would have to settle quickly. To the workers the hunger of their families and their struggle for a decent life style were more important than the private property of Besco.
“If a half—drowned pump
is put up aqaiflst a
half-starved baby, there
are those people who
will exclaim ‘the poor
In 1922 the people of Cape Breton pitted their empty stomachs and empty pockets against the millions of the British Empire Steel and Coal Company. Locked out of many mines by shutdowns and with a huge wage cut hanging over the heads of those who were allowed to work, starvation stared many families in the face.
In the midst of this privation the company stores became the centres for showdowns. The first raid ona company store that year took place at New Aberdeen, when the father of nine hungry children came to ask credit. When the No.9 mine re-opened, the company could take it out of his pay, as it had always done. He was refused credit.
“This miner thereupon ordered the manager
aside,” reported the Maritime Labour Herald,
“and helped himself. He asked the manager to
to weigh the butter he took and take note of
the other stuff. The manager refused. The
other miners present followed the example of
the miner. They took ~hat they needed. There
was no disorder. Only food was taken.”
The miner, Frank Maclntyre, and four others were arrested for stealing. One of the men had taken only a bag of flour to give his family a meal of pancakes. Under the laws of capitalism the claims of private property take priority over the rights of hungry stomachs. Thirteen men were sentenced to two years in jail each for stealing food. They were only a handful of the hundreds who took part in raids on the company stores.
During that same month in 1922 three children under one year of age died because they had no milk.
By the beginning of September the strike was over. The miners voted 8,000 to 3,000 to accept a wage cut of 18 per cent, a much softer blow than the original 37½ per cent Besco sought to impose. A major factor in the vote was the fact that the international headquarters of the UMW failed to come through with strikefunds.
The strike was not won, but it was not lost either. The miners had tested their solidarity, won some concessions, and learned that if they stuck together they caused considerable fear among the owning class. It was not a quiet surrender, but a defiant one. Dan Livingstone, the newly-elected District 26 president, declared:
“The wage schedule was accepted by the miners
under the muzzles of rifles, machine guns,
and gleaming bayonets, with further threate-
ned invasion of troops, and marines with war-
ships standing to.The miners, facing hunger,
their dominion and provincial governments
lined up with Besco, were forced to accept