Thirty Years – 1922-1952
The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada

CHAPTER TWO: A Decade of Great Struggles

THE 1920's WAS A period of great militant working-class struggles and, simultaneously, of cunningly engineered anti-working-class schemes by which top trade union leaders sought to transform the unions into part of the "efficiency" machinery of the capitalist class. The Winnipeg General Strike had opened up a period of widespread trade union struggles for wage increases, union recognition and for the right of the workers to establish unions of their own choice. The short-lived, immediate post-war period came to a sudden end with the collapse of the inflationary speculative boom at the end of 1920. The year 1921 was one of crisis. The effect of the crisis was aggravated for the working class by the veritable orgy of mergers and over-capitalization that characterized the operations of finance-capital during that period. The illustrations quoted below are typical.

"Bearing in mind the very close relationship between the banks and the industries of the country, it is interesting to note that during 1922-23-24, 5 of the 18 chartered banks in the Dominion suffered such severe losses through the writing down of investment values as to compel suspension or absorption; while the Union Bank, the fifth largest in Canada, caused a considerable, flurry by transferring over four and a half million dollars from its reserve to cover losses of the same kind, and finally had to be absorbed by the Royal Bank."

"The Amalgamated Asbestos Corp. Ltd. started out with an original capital of $3,550,000. They watered this by $14,450,000 which brought the total paper value of their stock to $18,000,000. That meant that dividends had to be raised for this $14,450,000 in addition to dividends on the actual capital invested."

"Ames Holden-McCready Co. Ltd., at the time of their reorganization, had a capitalization of $3,500,000. $8,000,000 of water was poured into the original stock boosting their paper capitalization up to $11,500,000."

"The Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., when organized by the merger of a number of smaller companies, had a total capital of $16,200,000. They turned the water hose into their stock bucket, and poured in $16,800,000 worth of paper, boosting their paper capitalization up to the enormous level Of $33,000,000."(1)

In the pulp and paper, mining, automobile, and general manufacturing industries, the story was the same. A deep crisis of over-capitalization and sharp contraction of markets beset the entire capitalist system and threatened its beneficiaries with breakdown. Canadian capitalists "dealt" with the crisis by ruthless attacks on the living standards of the working class. They sought to secure the same volume of profits from a lower level of economic activity by more intense exploitation of those workers who were fortunate enough to have jobs, and a highly organized drive against the trade unions. Sparked by an international conference of bankers held in Brussels, Belgium, the manufacturers' associations of the United States and Canada launched a systematic and violent "open-shop" drive. Their proclaimed aim was to "reduce the cost of production." The workers were militant, and resisted; but the reactionary top officialdom of the unions refused to organize united labor opposition to the bosses' open-shop and wage-cutting campaign. Instead they sought to utilize the bosses' offensive to their own advantage. Under the deceitful slogan "clean out the Reds," they launched a vicious campaign within the unions to consolidate their own grip upon them. They expelled militant workers right and left while changing union policies to conciliate the bosses. Under the lying pretence that they were pursuing "the higher strategy of labor," they transformed the unions from organizations for working-class struggle into machinery for anti-working-class collaboration with the bosses–in some industries they made the unions the official agencies through which the bosses enforced man-killing speed-up. The results were disastrous for the workers. The workers in turn lost faith in the international unions and deserted them in disgust. By the end of 1925, their membership in Canada had been reduced to less than a quarter of a million.

As noted earlier, trade union organization was limited, in the main, to the "sheltered trades." The exceptions were coal miners and railway workers. The mass industries–textiles, packing, logging and sawmill workers, furniture workers, general manufacturing, etc.–were unorganized. All the workers suffered ruthless wage cuts and speed-up during that period, including the well-organized railway shopmen and the militant coal miners. Between 1920 and 1926 wages were cut by an average of twenty-two per cent.

The bosses did not achieve their ends without bitter struggle however. In industry after industry the workers fought back against wage cuts. The strikes of the longshoremen in British Columbia, longshoremen and shoe-workers in Quebec, miners in Nova Scotia, Alberta, and British Columbia, metal trades workers, printing trades workers and others in the Toronto area, stopped the wage-cutting offensive far short of the employers' objectives.

Because they were the best organized and the most militant, the resistance of the coal miners to the wage-cutting campaign exemplified the best of those struggles. In Alberta, for example, the miners struck for seven months, from May 1, 1924, against the demand of the Western Colliery Managers' Association for a twenty-two per cent wage cut. The miners finally accepted a ten per cent wage cut, returning to work at the end of the year. Within two months of their return to work Philip Murray, on behalf of the general executive board of the U.M.W.A., signed the "Tri-State(2) Agreement" at Jacksonville, Florida, abolishing the national wage-scale and opening the way for wage reductions in the mining industry all over the United States and Canada. The Western Colliery Managers' Association demanded equivalent wage reductions, in the Alberta mines. With the tacit agreement of the U.M.W.A. leadership they posted up notices at the pit-heads announcing a further fifteen per cent reduction. The miners fought those reductions. Against the announced policy of the union leadership to supply the operators with other miners if necessary, they struck the mines. The Province of Alberta and the mining towns of eastern British Columbia were torn with bitter struggles throughout 1925, aggravated by the conflict between the overwhelming majority of the rank-and-file miners who wanted to defeat the attempts of the operators to reduce their standard of living, and the official leadership of the U.M.W.A. which accepted the operators' terms and collaborated with them in forcing the miners back into the pits.

The odds against which militant workers had to fight during that period, as well as the very high political level of many of their trade union actions, were exemplified in the continual struggles of the miners and steelworkers in Nova Scotia through 1920-1925. Indeed, their struggles marked the highest level attained by Canadian trade union action up to that time.

Ownership of the province-wide coal mines and steel mills and their ancillary operations had been merged in an octopus named British Empire Steel Corporation (Besco). The miners finally had compelled Besco to recognize their union, the U.M.W.A., after more than ten years of struggle marked by repeated police violence. At last, at the end of November, 1921, the union won from the corporation a basic rate of $5.00 per day for all workers employed underground. In January, 1922, Besco cut the miners' wages again without so much as a pretence at consultation with the union. During the following eighteen months, while the miners' leaders strove doggedly to compel the corporation to negotiate the miners' wage rate, the corporation pressed its offensive against the steelworkers also, combining victimization of active union men with systematic chiselling on wage rates.

Steelworkers earnings had averaged $5.20 per day in 1920, but by the spring of 1923 they were down to an average of $4.15 a day. In addition to restoration of the 1920 wage level, the workers were demanding a reduction of working hours. At that time workers in production departments at the Sydney steel plant worked a twelve-hour shift six days a week with the night shift working a twenty-four-hour shift at the change-over once every two weeks. The workers wanted an eight-hourday. When the union submitted its demands in March, 1923, the company made its rejection public, announcing that it aimed to maintain the open shop; that there would be no check-off of union dues, and no wage increases. The final result was that on June 28, 1923, the union declared a strike. The management of the plant announced the organization of a "defence force" of 400 "faithful employees...armed with iron bars." Armed forces of the state from Toronto and London, Ontario, again invaded Cape Breton Island and the Nova Scotia provincial government added its mounted provincial police. There were 2,000 uniformed soldiers and policemen in the town of Sydney in addition to the company's 400 goons–an armed strike-breaker for every worker on strike.

A veritable reign of terror was launched in Sydney and the adjacent mining towns. The office of the steelworkers' union and the homes of its officers were raided daily. An officer commanding mounted provincials ordered his men to ride into a crowd of 1,000 people in and around a railway underpass on the pretext that it was necessary to "clear the streets." Many were injured, including women and children, some seriously. The office of District 26 U.M.W.A. at Glace Bay Was raided, as were the homes of officers of the miners' union. All these raids were carried out by men in provincial policemen's uniforms, without warrants, with complete disregard for elementary decency, and in several cases with extreme brutality.

The miners of the Glace Bay area, assembled in a huge mass meeting, and by unanimous vote, called upon their executive officers to shut down every mine in the district if the troops and the provincials were not withdrawn. In response to this meeting, the executive officers met with representatives of the provincial government, who would give no commitments about the withdrawal of troops. Another mass meeting was held and a resolution was adopted unanimously, calling upon all miners to leave the pits by midnight of the following day. Every miner in the Glace Bay area obeyed this rank-and-file decision. Following that, the district officers issued a circular to the local unions of the district describing the reasons for the stoppage and calling upon all locals not yet on strike to call meetings immediately, to decide upon action. Every local except one joined in that movement.

Dan Livingstone, the president, and J. B. MacLachlan, the secretary-treasurer of District 26, were arrested. J. B. MacLachlan described his arrest afterward as a kidnapping. Besco, the provincial government, the federal Department of Labor, and the capitalist press carried on a co-ordinated campaign of propaganda to the effect that the steel strike, the miners' sympathy strike and all the violence in Nova Scotia were caused by "foreign agitators." J. B. MacLachlan succeeded in getting bail in spite of the strenuous opposition of the provincial government and he advised the governor-general of Canada that: "If the government will withdraw the troops, the miners will return to the pits immediately." The governor-general declared his intention to "advise" the provincial and federal governments to withdraw their forces but, on that very day, the international executive board of the U.M.W.A. revoked the charter of District 26, removed its elected officers and appointed representatives of the international president to administer the district. The appointed officers ordered the miners back to the pits. On August 1 the Amalgamated Steel Workers Union called off the steelworkers' strike.

Defeat of the strike was followed by brutal prison sentences for "unlawful assembly." Hundreds of the more active union men were blacklisted. The Ukrainian community in Sydney was reduced from several hundreds to a few dozens. Jim MacLachlan was sentenced to two years' imprisonment on the pretence that a letter sent out to the locals of the union had contained seditious libel. The provincial government refused to allow his trial to be held in Glace Bay where the alleged offence was committed–it was held in Halifax.

The real reason for the arrest and imprisonment of Jim MacLachlan was to remove him from the leadership of the miners. He was released from Dorchester Penitentiary in March, 1924, having served only four months of the two years. Miners quit work to greet his return with great spontaneous mass meetings which held up the train. At Glace Bay he was met by a band and thousands of miners who paraded to the theatre where he was welcomed home on behalf of the miners and their families by the mayor, the deposed vice-president of the union, the secretary of the steelworkers union, and by Tom Bell, editor of the Maritime Labor Herald. But the international commission remained in control of the union; the miners were stripped of the militant leadership under which they had fought so heroically for more than ten years to establish. the U.M.W.A.

The struggles indicated by the above very sketchy description exerted a very important influence upon the Workers' Party, later the Communist Party, during the 1920's. From the first wage cut imposed by the company in January, 1922, our party was inextricably involved in all the series of great struggles of the miners and steelworkers which continued without interruption until the end of 1925. J. B. MacLachlan and most of the fighting leadership of the miners throughout that period were members of the party. J. B. and Tom Bell were members of the party's Central Committee. All across Canada our party spearheaded the battle for support to the embattled miners and steelworkers, to help feed their children, provide legal defence, to unite the workers around them. On Cape Breton Island the periodic excuses used by the "provincials" for their violent lawlessness was that they were "searching for Reds from Toronto." The party was completely vindicated and rewarded by the fact that, despite all the odds against them the miners and steelworkers halted the offensive of the steel and coal monopoly by their militant struggle.

The defeats suffered by the trade union movement, despite heroic working-class militancy, spotlighted the decisive evil, namely, that the organized workers were but a tiny minority of the working class. As noted earlier, the aggregate membership of all the unions, including the Catholic Syndicates and various independent organizations, was reduced, by the combined effects of the employers' open-shop drive and the policies of the union leaders, to less than a quarter of a million by 1925. Union membership was confined mainly to the "sheltered trades." Except for the workers in the Sydney mill, the basic steel industry was unorganized. Metal fabricating industries, the logging and sawmill industry, automobile, meat-packing, hard-rock mining, textile, aluminum, shipping, asbestos, etc.–the industries in which the great majority of wage earners were employed–were unorganized. Those industries could not be organized on a craft union basis and the bureaucracy of the international unions refused to organize industrial unions. Indeed, they expelled members for even advocating industrial unions. It was evident that the mass industries had to be organized, but it was equally evident that the leaders of the existing trade unions would not do it.

The 1924 national conference of the Trade Union Eductional League pointed to that anomaly and its dire, consequences for the Canadian working class. The conference called upon supporters of the T.U.E.L. everywhere to combine, with the "back-to-the-unions" campaign, movements to "organize the unorganized."(3) The issue was taken up in regional conferences of the T.U.E.L. in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, and local industrial conferences were convened to initiate organization.

The loggers were the first to get a functioning organization established, starting in Ontario. Under the leadership of the late Comrade Alf Hautamaki, the Lumberworkers Industrial Union organized camp after camp. At the union's annual convention in 1926 there were thirty-seven delegates, from locals in the Thunder Bay, Algoma, and Hearst areas. The struggles required to build the union were fierce. The lumber bosses stopped at nothing. In October, 1929, two union organizers, Comrades Rosvall and Voutilainen, were murdered in cold blood. But blacklist and violence couldn't stop the union. From modest beginnings made by hard-fighting Finnish lumberjacks, the loggers of northern and northwestern Ontario, built up through twenty-five years of struggle the splendid organization that Hutchison, the president of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, gutted in June, 1951. The Pacific Coast loggers had built a powerful union during and immediately following the First World War. The boss loggers, aided by syndicalist confusion spread by the One Big Union and the I.W.W., destroyed that union. As a result the coast loggers got their organization drive under way somewhat later than in Ontario. They, also from modest beginnings, built a militant fighting union. Later, its president, Harold Pritchett, was elected international president of the International Woodworkers Association when the Canadian and U.S. unions merged.(4)

Organization of the hard-rock miners started with the Porcupine Mineworkers Union (1925), which became part of the Mine Workers Union of the W.U.L. and entered the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in 1936. Organization in the automobile industry was tough. No permanent organization was achieved in the hundred per cent strike at Oshawa in 1927. In the General Motors and Ford plants at Oshawa and Windsor respectively the companies' system of anti-union espionage seemed almost perfect. One after another, union activists were fired and effectively blacklisted from the industry. At last a constituent convention was organized at the Prince George Hotel, Toronto. Delegates representing locals (small and completely underground) in the General Motors and the Ford automobile plants, and some feeder plants in Toronto and St. Catharines, adopted a constitution and a general platform of demands.

The Automobile Workers Industrial Union never achieved bargaining strength however. In 1937 its small underground local in Oshawa succeeded in combining the effects of its propaganda activity with burning resentment against arbitrary company action. Starting with the body department, the entire plant was tied up. The possibility that the A.W.I.U. of Canada might emerge as an open organization could not be allowed to determine what tactics the small local should pursue. Overcoming the reluctance of several of the comrades who had worked so hard and risked so much to maintain their local through the years of underground effort, the decision was made to utilize the strike as a means of organizing all Canadian auto workers in the United Auto Workers of America. After convincing the Oshawa members, J. B. Salsberg, contacted Homer Martin, then president of the U.A.W.A. Martin sent a representative to Oshawa immediately. The strike became a U.A.W. strike and the General Motors plant at Oshawa became a union shop. Unionization of Windsor followed shortly afterwards.

In the steel industry, too, organization was extremely difficult at first. Several local unions were established, but it was years before a number of them were linked together in a functioning union. In steel, also, the obstacle to unionization was the unscrupulous activities of the employers, not lack of interest on the part of the workers. For example, the workers of the National Steel Car plant at Hamilton, Ontario, fought a major strike for six weeks in 1928. That struggle illustrated both the will of the workers to struggle and the fruit of the party's work in developing youthful leadership. Harvey Murphy, then twenty-two years of age, led that strike like a veteran. The union had no treasury, the families of many of the workers went hungry until a relief committee was organized and set to work by a young comrade (Minnie Davis) then twenty years of age.

Textile, furniture, packinghouse workers and others established local unions, fought bitter strikes and learned invaluable lessons. In the Estevan massacre, September 29, 1931, the mounted police shot down peaceful miners as they were assembling for a public strike meeting, killing three and wounding thirteen. Then they hunted down Annie Buller, the miners' guide and inspiration, and sentenced her to two years' imprisonment, literally for the bloody massacre carried out by the R.C.M.P. Troops and tanks patrolled the streets of Stratford, Ontario, in a governmental attempt to intimidate workers. Miners at Flin Flon and Noranda, textile workers in Quebec and Ontario, needle trades workers in Toronto and Montreal, packinghouse workers in Winnipeg, sawmill workers in British Columbia–all defied government and employer violence and organization went on.

As a direct result of the work of our party, the attitude of revolutionary workers to the trade union movement was completely changed before the end of the 1920's. The long-entrenched idea that revolutionary workers should refuse to be members of A.F.L. unions, that they should denounce craft unions as "job trusts" and expend their energies in efforts to build one or the other of the various "perfect-on-paper" revolutionary unions, was completely discredited and rejected by all revolutionary workers. In its place there was established recognition of the fact that the place for militant workers was in the unions which commanded the loyalty and support of the overwhelming majority of the workers. The return of thousands of militants had revitalized the craft-unions in many areas. For the first time in history there were examples of craft unions giving active assistance to the building of industrial unions.

Much of what the party fought for in its battles for industrial unionism and to organize the unorganized during the 1920's has been achieved now: not always in exactly the way that we then anticipated, but that is not the main consideration. The idea of industrial unionism that the party implanted in the minds and hearts of hundreds of thousands of workers became the vital dynamic driving force of the later campaigns which did establish industrial unions throughout the main industries of Canada. In several industries the unions that were established by the T.U.E.L. or the Workers' Unity League were the organizational beginnings of what are now powerful C.I.O. or A.F.L. unions.

(1) Steps to Power, pp. 8-10.

(2) Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois.,

(3) The slogan was part of the official program of the T.U.E.L.

(4) It is noteworthy that Comrade Pritchett ceased to be international president of the I.W.A. through action of the U.S. government–not by the will of the membership. The U.S. Immigration Department refused to allow him to perform the duties of his office in the United States.