Mining was hard and dangerous work. The jobs hierarchy within
mines included not only the split between owners, management and
workers but also split along ethnocultural lines. Thus,
ownership and management was largely of British and Canadian
descent while workers were largely southern and eastern
European. Conditions were difficult not only because of the
desire of owners to maximize profits but also because of the
pace of growth.
What was happening in the mining communities of southern
Alberta and southeastern British Columbia was the equivalent of
the Yukon Gold Rush. There was no way in which housing,
schools, hospitals (all the infrastructure of community living)
could keep pace with the rapid growth. As well, conditions in
the mines themselves were difficult at best and the competing
interests of the mine owners (and government) were sometimes on
a collision course with miners needs.
United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) actively recruited
in the region and their materials were translated into different
languages to more easily communicate the message that
unionization was a means of protecting and affirming workers
rights. In addition, many coal miners saw their conditions as
the direct result of capitalism and the systemic exploitation of
the working classes. This group of militants envisioned
Big Union" (OBU) to protect their interests. Thus, labour
organization would shift from one based on a "craft" or trade to
one based on all workers in all industries coming together. At
the forefront were the coal miners of District 18 of the UMWA,
which comprised western Canada. They wanted to withdraw from
the UMWA and set up their own districtDistrict 1, Mining
Department, OBU. The UMWA tried to crush this splinter movement
and in the period 1919-20 there were a number of
lockouts. It was an idealistic attempt to get workers to see
their commonalities rather than differences but was doomed to
failure by entrenched craft and trade thinking dating back to
the Middle Ages.
In addition, the Winnipeg General Strike, which began in May
1919, set off other strikes in support. Edmonton and Calgary
both saw strikes and, in August 1919, violence broke out in Drumheller. Strikebreakers, drawn from returning veterans,
attacked the miners and their homes. The miners, largely
immigrants, were OBU supporters.
In response to the strikes and also demands of the owners to
control production, the Alberta Coal Mining Industry Commission
was struck and hearings took place over a two-and-one-half month
period beginning October 6th, 1919, in Edmonton.
Other hearing sites included Calgary, Drumheller, Lethbridge,
Wayne, Edson and Blairmore. Of 12 recommendations, only three
deal with issues pertinent to the welfare of miners.
Alberta Coal Studies