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The Nova Scotia Coal Strikes of 1922 to 1925
The Nova Scotia coal strikes of 1922 to 1925 are a pivotal episode in the history of the Canadian labour movement. They were remarkable for the tenacity of the miners, particularly in Cape Breton, who drew on shared work, ethnic and community backgrounds and “stood the gaff” during confrontations with the British Empire Steel Corporation (Besco) in spite of pressure from provincial and company police and the military. The miners’ perseverance inspired pride and a distinct sense of identity in Cape Breton, but it also attracted national attention, leading both the federal and provincial governments to consider more conciliatory labour policies. Policy changes in Nova Scotia thus formed the basis of a new legal framework for labour relations that would later be emulated elsewhere in Canada. These strikes were also significant for the fate of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in Nova Scotia. By successfully defending itself against Besco, the union consolidated its position as one of the earliest and most influential industrial unions in Canada.
The UMWA and Besco came from very different backgrounds. Based in the United States, the UMWA, which had waged a battle for recognition for more than a dozen years, represented about 12,000 miners in Nova Scotia who lived in desperate economic conditions in company-dominated towns. Besco was the newcomer. Formed in 1920-21, it controlled all of the steel mills and most of the coal mines in the province, but it faced a challenging future, having promised investors unrealistic profits during a time of declining demand for coal. Under the leadership of Montreal financier Roy Wolvin (“Roy the Wolf” to miners), the company was determined to reduce the wages of miners, limit their ability to strike and break the union.
Public officials in Nova Scotia and Ottawa watched the looming conflict with alarm. While they sought to minimize disruptions to coal production by mediating between the two sides when practicable, provincial and county officials were also ready to use force to discourage strikers and protect company property. Government officials, regardless of jurisdiction, tended to be more sympathetic to employers than employees, except for the leaders of the coal towns who identified closely with the people of their communities.
Besco made repeated attempts during these years to reduce wages and limit the right of miners to strike. The miners responded by gravitating to the leadership of the fiery J.B. McLachlan who adopted confrontational tactics. When McLachlan supported a sympathetic strike by miners in support of Besco’s steel workers in 1923, county and provincial officials arranged for troops and provincial police to intervene and the attorney general had him charged with seditious libel. Responding to an outcry against the use of troops, Mackenzie King later introduced federal legislation limiting the situations in which troops could be used for civil purposes.
Besco went for the jugular in 1925. Taking advantage of unemployment and deprivation in the coal towns, the company announced a 20 percent wage reduction and cut off credit at the company stores during the winter in order to crush opposition. The miners replied with a “100 percent” strike, which eventually resulted in violence when company police fired on strikers, killing one. In reprisal, company stores were looted and company buildings set ablaze, resulting in provincial officials once again calling in the military and the provincial police.
The crisis paved the way for a new provincial policy. After negotiating an end to the strike, the province began to encourage labour peace by recognizing the right of miners to unionize for certain limited ends, such as wage gains, while putting limits on radical labour action. This approach was eventually expanded to include most wage earners in Nova Scotia in 1937 and later stood as a model for legislation by other provinces and the federal government in the 1940s.
While Besco was weakened by the strikes and ultimately collapsed, the UMWA survived with a solid financial base derived from dues deducted from miners’ pay checks. The union’s acceptance by the provincial government and by later coal companies marked the successful conclusion of its struggle for union recognition.
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