First Published:October Number 7, Autumn 1979
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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LIFE AND DEATH OF THE CANADIAN SEAMEN’S UNION. John Stanton, Steel Rail Educational Publishing, Toronto, 1978, $6.95
John Stanton, a lawyer who has devoted his whole life to defending unions in British Columbia, has made use of what he calls a “semi-retirement” to help workers in a different way. He’s written a history of a little-known class-struggle union, the Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU).
“My own connection with the CSU,” recalls Stanton, “began at Vancouver late in World War II and lasted until the organization disappeared in the early 1950’s. Defending seamen under prosecution by shipping companies, opposing injunctions issued against the union itself and helping unpaid Greek and Panamanian seamen to collect overdue wages were my main duties” (for the CSU-Ed.) (p. 1).
Formed in 1936 by a few dozen communist and militant seamen, the CSU, during its brief existence, was a continual thorn in the side of Canadian shipowners, especially those on the Great Lakes.
And with good reason. Before the union’s creation seamen were unorganized and worked in feudal conditions: 12-hour days, 7-day weeks, starvation pay, and no job security.
The CSU changed all this. Its growth was phenomenal. In September, 1939, three years after its founding, the CSU included 90% of Great Lakes’ seamen in its ranks (about 6000 men).
Its momentum continued after the war. A one-month strike in 1946 brought considerable gains; “included in the new agreement were a genuine eight-hour day, union security, a 20% wage increase, $0.75 per hour overtime, seniority rights, and a ten-day paid holiday each season. Nothing like this had been heard of before in the industry. Shipping on the Lakes was emerging into the twentieth century.” (p. 91)
Of course, this didn’t please the bosses at all, in particular those of the half-dozen companies who controlled Great Lakes navigation (and still control it, for example, Canada Steamship Lines).
They needed a weapon to undermine the seamen’s organization. They were presented with one, made-to-order: the Seamen’s International Union (SIU), an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the U.S. Founded in 1938, the SIU was an illegal, parallel union with almost no members.
After the war, the bosses, the AFL union bureaucrats and the governments united in a campaign that would finally crush the CSU. The SIU served as the spearhead of this attack. This yellow union was a ready source of scabs and thugs. Its leader was the infamous Hal Banks, a well-known figure in the American mafia. The SIU stopped at nothing: illegal manoeuvring, attempted sabotage and riots which were blamed on the CSU, bribes (which bought off the traitorious union president, Pat Sullivan, in 1947) and even the shooting of strikers in Halifax in 1949.
In April of that year a gang of armed SIU thugs were brought in from Montreal by special CN train under RCMP protection. They attacked a CSU picket line, killing eight sailors.
Stanton’s book covers more than just the history of the union. For example, he shows how after World War II the successive governments of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent sank the Canadian Merchant Marine.
Life and Death of the Canadian Seamen’s Union is both well documented and incisive. The book is a useful contribution to Canadian union history.
As the author himself puts it: “The CSU’s story is fascinating and tragic. It contains invaluable guidelines for anyone interested in seeing the trade union movement grow in membership, independence and political wisdom.” (p. 4)
Stanton emphasizes the role the Canadian Communist Party played in setting up and leading the union. This is noteworthy because the party’s work is generally ignored or denigrated by most union historians. On the other hand, Stanton views the Party’s work in the CSU as mainly negative. This is debatable. It is important to note that Stanton looks positively on the recent emergence of a Marxist-Leninist movement: “More important is the fact that a new Communist Party is being formed in Canada, so set up as to avoid the errors and pitfalls of its forerunners.” (p. 3)
Life and Death of the Canadian Seamen’s Union raises a fundamental issue, the struggle to Canadianize our unions. Stanton correctly emphasizes the fact that the CSU was in the front ranks of Canadian unions opposing American union penetration. American imperialism made important inroads into the country following the war. This was at the height of Washington’s “cold war” against the socialist camp, the communist parties and unions led by them.
For Stanton the struggle between the CSU and the SIU was above all a Canadian union’s struggle against takeover by American unions. From this he concludes that our immediate task today is the Canadianization of unions. He leads us to believe that Canadianization guarantees that unions will be democratic, militant and representative of their members, as was the CSU.
But on this point, Stanton’s logic is awry. The struggle to Canadianize our unions is both just and necessary, but in itself is insufficient to transform our unions into class-struggle unions. Our struggle for Canadian unions must be integrated into the struggle to turn the unions into effective weapons in the hands of the working class in its fight against the capitalists.
The strength of the CSU lay above all in its class-struggle orientation, not mainly and certainly not only because it was Canadian.
Is it true that because a union is Canadian it is necessarily a good defender of its members’ interests?
Stanton leads us to believe that it is. He ends his book by congratulating the CBRT (Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers), a Canadian union, for trying to supplant the SIU among the seamen. He is right; this is a positive move.
But more needs to be said. Remember that the top CBRT leaders have often distinguished themselves for their acts of class collaboration. For example, shortly after the 3,000 unionized workers at CP Express went on strike in July, 1979, CBRT president Don Nicholson wrote a letter to the federal labour minister asking him to put an end to this “unfortunate and useless strike.” “From our point of view,” the letter goes on, “this (the strike) is not a reflection of a responsible and clearsighted collective bargaining process.”
The CP Express strikers finally won their demands, in spite of and in opposition to the CBRT president.
What we need are Canadian class-struggle unions. The Program of the WCP clearly outlines this orientation: “Our strategic objective in the unions, is to turn them into class unions, to achieve the victory of the proletarian line... The fight against American domination of our unions is part of our fight for a class union movement.”
This weakness doesn’t at all negate the huge merits of the book and its author. Life and Death of the Canadian Seamen’s Union should be read by everyone interested in the history of our country’s labour movement.