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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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1882 -1913 Unionization and Early Gains

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In the first period, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) emerged as the principal spokesman on behalf of miners. Spontaneous efforts to strike at Lethbridge, between 1887 and 1897, proved that miners could not match the power of the companies without formal organization. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM), based in Montana, made a brief attempt to mobilize coal workers between 1899 and 1903, but failed to win their allegiance when it was unable to satisfy their pay demands. The UMWA seemed less controversial than the WFM, which had a reputation for radicalism. The UMWA also had a better record of success in the United States, where it already had negotiated a series of favourable agreements for miners in the coal industry. In the Canadian West, it formed District 18, encompassing coal miners in Alberta and southeastern British Columbia. Between 1903 and World War One, it waged a series of struggles with management, many of which ended in strikes. These confrontations became district-wide in scope after the companies formed the Western Coal Operators' Association in 1906.1

Several key issues emerged during these struggles. The major demand of workers related to wages and pay levels. In the case of the skilled miners, this question was complicated by the complexity of the contracts they had signed at different mines. The rates varied from place to place, depending on when they had been established, and were frequently subject to differences of interpretation. The question of union recognition was another source of conflict. Companies in the Crowsnest Pass were generally willing to acknowledge the right of the UMWA to exist, because of the unstable financial state of the industry, but they sought to minimize the union's influence, and to deal with workers on an individual basis whenever they could. Meanwhile, the union strove for miner solidarity and to prevent workers from competing with each other for jobs or pay. The struggle came to be expressed in terms of the preference for a `closed' or an `open' shop. The UMWA sought a `closed' environment in which all workers would be required to be union members. Management preferred an `open shop' in which miners would be hired regardless of union affiliation.2

Safety was a third issue, though one less pressing to miners. The region's mines were among the world's most dangerous, because of the prevalence of explosive methane gas and coal dust. The danger of gas was particularly serious in the mountains where it was compounded by the challenges of working safely in steeply-sloping passages and rooms. A series of major disasters marked the early years of mining in the Crowsnest Pass: explosions killed 120 miners at Coal Creek in 1902; 34 at Bellevue in 1910; 189 at Hillcrest, in 1914, and finally, 34 at Coal Creek again in 1917. The union pushed for more safety regulations and better enforcement of those already in effect, but the issue rarely became a leading one. In spite of the danger, miners remained more concerned with questions of income. Even in the Pass area, accidents seem to have been regarded as unavoidable hazards of the occupation.3 Safer mines ultimately emerged after 1920, as companies and miners became more familiar with regional geological conditions, and as the provinces became proficient in enforcing safety regulations.

The outcome of the miners' struggles prior to World War One was compromise. There was a slight upward movement in wages, but not enough to keep up with the rising cost of living. The companies were inflexible on this issue because of economic problems. There was some acknowledgment of union influence. In 1905, the owners agreed to a voluntary check off of union dues from the pay of individual workers, but the UMWA was not successful in obtaining a compulsory check off of dues from new miners, which would have, in effect, forced them to become union members. In return for their concessions, the companies were able to negotiate restrictions on strike action. In a series of contracts between 1903 and 1911, a dispute settlement process was worked out, outlawing spontaneous walk-outs while grievances went through a formal resolution process. Management got further security in the 1909 contract, which made workers responsible for maintaining pits in the event of work stoppages. Miners agreed to prevent flooding or gas accumulation, thus protecting the works from long-term damage during strikes.4

During these years, the state intervened repeatedly in labour relations. Its power was not always exercised consistently. For example, the local constabulary intervened during a strike at Fernie, on the British Columbia side of the Pass, in 1903 in order to prevent strikers from harassing company `scabs' hired to carry on production. The North West Mounted Police, however, was more sympathetic to labour. In the Lethbridge strike of 1906, the force permitted the union some latitude in pressuring strikebreakers, in order to encourage a settlement in which neither side lost face.5

Because of the economic importance of the coal industry, both provincial and federal governments sought compromise to reduce unrest and maintain production. The Liberal government of Alberta was particularly conciliatory to miners after its election in 1905, seeking not only labour peace, but electoral support in the coalfields. In the years before World War One, it introduced several reforms demanded by coal miners, such as the eight-hour day. The federal government was also a leading player. Its main spokesman was Mackenzie King, the nation's first Deputy Minister of Labour, who intervened repeatedly in coal strikes on the grounds that the industry was of national importance. His most famous contribution was at Lethbridge in 1906, when he brought the two sides to the table, with threats of holding them responsible for a winter fuel crisis on the prairies. This experience directly influenced the drafting of the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act (IDIA), the federal government's most ambitious effort to discourage labour conflict. Enacted in 1907, it proclaimed certain key industries, including coal mining and railways, as `public utilities' deserving the attention of the state. In these industries, the two sides were prevented from initiating work stoppages while a mandatory conciliation process was underway. According to specialists on the subject, the IDIA was not an effective tool in solving Western coal disputes, but its existence reflected Ottawa's commitment to minimizing labour unrest in the industry. 6

William N.T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines, The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Mineral Rights, Health and Safety-Historic—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918.

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