This Labour Day, let’s remember five forgotten stories of struggle

By Dan Darrah

Facing his death on the gallows in 1887, August Spies shouted, “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

Younge Street Subway by George Nanos
Younge Street Subway by George Nanos

Spies was a labour activist and newspaper editor in Chicago. He, along with seven other Chicago anarchists, were found guilty of a conspiracy to bomb a labour rally they hosted, at which seven police officers and four civilians were killed.

The rally was in response to the killing of striking workers the day before, fighting for an eight hour work day. This came to be known as the Haymarket affair, and marked the first “May Day” – the international observance day for workers.

Seminal gains like these made by the American labour movement from this time forward set precedents that paved the way for organized labour in Canada to organize and fight for fair wages, hours and working conditions, health benefits – which later became the lightning rod for the introduction of socialized health care – and union recognition.

Labour activists like Spies helped build the possibility for these initiatives into the bricks of the country north of the border.

But it’s not to say that these battles fought and won by figures like Spies simply guided into place the gains of Canadian labour enjoy today. At large, history has glossed over the battles of Canadian workers for the illustrious narratives that American stories provide. And they are illustrious.

But to say that those north of the border rode the coattails of the American Federation of Labour or sit-down strikers in Youngstown, Ohio, is to be ahistorical.

This status quo has done a disservice to the unique and telling battles of Canadian labour activists. In response, workers have documented their own histories. Retelling those stories ensures they don’t get lost in history. In the spirit of Labour Day – and to do justice to the history of the Canadian labour movement – the following beg to be retold.

Labour Day
While in some countries May Day is synonymous with Labour Day – Canada marks them separately. The first Monday of September commemorates the workers of the Toronto Typographical Union who struck for a 58-hour work week, and the corresponding 27 Toronto Trade Assembly (TTA) unions who conducted sympathy strikes in support.

After police arrested 24 striking members of the unions under antiquated labour laws, workers travelled to Ottawa and demanded that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald repeal the legislation – implementing the Trade Union Act – legalizing union recognition and activity.

After the strike, 54-hour work weeks were implemented around the country. Historian James Marsh penned the workers as the “pioneers of the 54-hour work week in North America.”

Battle of Ballantyne Pier
By 1935, the union representing longshoremen and port workers in Vancouver had become heavily influenced by communist organizers from the Workers’ Unity League (WUL). The union, the Vancouver and District Waterfront Workers’ Association, was originally a “business union” set up by the employers.

Vancouver, 1935 - At the Union Steamship Co dock, all ships were at port due to the strike.
Vancouver, 1935 – At the Union Steamship Co dock, all ships were at port due to the strike.

Due to little union recognition, subsistence work conditions and low wages that marred the everyday lives of the longshoremen, the now WUL-dominated union began to push towards strike action against the Shipping Federation of British Columbia, an association representing the employers.

Negotiations were arranged but eventually fell by the wayside, leading to a strike. Historians generally characterized the strike more as a “lockout” by the employers as scab labour was employed to break down the union. 1000-odd Ballantyne Pier workers then marched to their port to speak with the temporary workers about their labour circumventing a strike.

Waiting for the picketers at the pier was a conglomerate of BC Provincial Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Vancouver police. Even after the strike being declared illegal, workers persisted. The brigade of police struck against the workers with tear gas and clubs – some fled the scene while others retaliated by throwing rocks – leading to 28 hospitalizations and 24 arrests.

The strike is viewed as a failure among academics, but lead to the eventual formation of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which continues to represent port workers to this day.

Oshawa Strike, 1937
Historian Irving Abella said that in two weeks of April 1937, there was a “spark” that lit industrial unionism in Canada. That spark was the 4000 workers of the Oshawa General Motors plant striking with a slate of demands: union recognition, improved wages, better working conditions, and an 8-hour work day.

When a GM supervisor claimed an incoming speed-up on the line would be “irreversible” despite record-high profits, the workers reached a breaking point and threatened to strike by Friday of that week. With the help of a United Auto Workers organizer from Detroit, UAW Local 222 was formed. The union became a center point for the city around this time – even the Mayor, Alex Hall, was an honorary member.

The strike was backed by the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), an organization that Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn vehemently opposed. He refused to let the CIO organize the 4000 struck workers, bringing in a volunteer police force referred to as “Hepburn’s Hussars” when RCMP officers were denied entrance into the town by Mayor Hall.

Hepburn even influenced the resignation of two cabinet ministers who disagreed with his actions.

The town – citizens and businesses alike – ardently supported the strike. One journalist commented, “never in all the history of the Canadian labour movement has a town been so completely captured by the sentiment of unionism.”

Though after two weeks, optimism waned. The union knew the strike needed to end – and to their benefit, GM and Hepburn were buckling as well. They returned to the bargaining table and ratified an agreement which included almost all of the workers’ demands, then took a vote to end the strike. 2205 workers voted in favour, 36 voted against.

This, Abella said, was a turning point in Canadian labour history – not only for the successful strike action of the Oshawa workers, but an example set across the country that workers had a way to win: through organizing.

Lauding the strike success for this explosive positive reinforcement for labour activists across the country, Abella said, “what Akron and Flint had inspired south of the border, Oshawa was to inspire north of it.”

Despite the CIO’s involvement, he then asserted that the victory came solely from the Canadian organizers. “What the Oshawa strikers achieved,” he said, “they achieved on their own.”

Reeser Siding Strike of 1963
The year of 1963 in small-town Reesor Siding, Ontario, was marred by one of the bloodiest labour disputes in Canadian history.

Faced with a wage freeze and an incoming work week extension to seven days to meet a company quota, 1500 members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America struck. This enraged not just the company, but local farmers who depended on the company – Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company – to buy their pulp wood.

When farmers refused to halt their operations to aid the strikers and increase their bargaining positions, the strikers retaliated by destroying the lumber and rendering it useless.

Later, an incoming shipment of pulp to the town was planned to be disrupted by the woodworkers. A battalion consisting of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and the farmers awaited the disruption, leading to the shooting of 11 union members and the eventual death of three.

As explained in the insightful look at the conflict in the Kapuskasing Times, the death of the three workers precipitated provincial arbitration, leading to a “considerable” increase in working conditions for bush workers across the region. The gains rested on the backbone of a newfound solidarity – and while Reesor Siding has since devolved into a ghost town – a statue commemorating the struggle erected by the union still stands today.

William Davis Day
“Things are getting better every day they stay out. Let them stay out two months or six months, it matters not. Eventually they will have to come to us. They can’t stand the gaff.”

J.E. McLurg, vice president of mining and steel company Besco, stood with gumption as 12,000 miners in New Waterford began a strike in 1925 after the expiration of an old contract.

William Davis' memorial
William Davis’ memorial

The company retaliated by turning off electricity and water services, which they owned, as well as cutting company credit for food at Besco stores. Leading many to near starvation, they sought to force workers back to the mines.

After various bids, McLurg denied the workers arbitration. He remarked, “We hold the cards.”

Workers made attempts to turn the services back on – while most attempts were previously nulled by temporary workers installed by Besco, company police intervened on June 11.

The armed police on horseback charged at the workers, shooting three. The only fatality, William Davis, was a union member shot through the heart, dead within seconds.

The strike was settled after Canadian soldiers were deployed to halt the violence and a new premier was elected, negotiating a temporary settlement.

Besco fell apart after the strike action, unable to climb out of company debt and paralyzed by a mobilized and militant workforce, to be later revamped as the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation.

Davis’ death lead to a provincial public holiday – Davis Day – on which workers declared they would not work in memory of the dispute and in solidarity to those who died working in mines across the province. Celebrations continue to mark June 11th as a time to reflect on solidarity – you can watch a video of the 2015 ceremony here.

No phrase could better sum up the strikers’ philosophy than the one emblazoned on the monument for William Davis in New Waterford: “Standing the gaff.”

Recommended reading:
On Strike: Six Key Labour Labour Struggles in Canada (1919-1949) by Irving Abella

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2 thoughts on “This Labour Day, let’s remember five forgotten stories of struggle

  1. Pingback: This Labour Day, let’s remember five forgotten stories of struggle | Critical Perspectives

  2. Pingback: Killing to Protect Property: Police and Vigilantes in the Reesor Siding Strike Massacre of 1963 | killercopscanada

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