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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement

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Besides the special constables, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police was mustered against the Drumheller strikers.  The strike lasted longer than the Winnipeg General ending by the end of August, 1919.  Leaders were beaten and intimidated and some were run out of town.  Labour unrest would continue for another 15 years not only in Drumheller but also the Crowsnest Pass to Fernie.The period of compromise ended during the First World War, when a growing gap appeared between workers' expectations and conditions. Miners became increasingly militant and radical, and the federal government became steadily more involved in the industry's labour relations.

The war heightened labour's demands for improvements. As the war-time market for coal expanded, a shortage of mine labour emerged, and the bargaining position of miners improved. At the same time, their economic circumstances were deteriorating. They had always struggled with a low standard of living. During the war, their problems intensified as prices rose faster than wages. The situation caused them to break with the UMWA, which was committed to maintaining coal production and avoiding strikes in both Canada and the United States during the war. Western coal miners walked off the job several times in 1916 and 1917. Arguing that coal was of strategic importance, the federal government intervened to negotiate settlements with the owners, resulting in unprecedented wage hikes, and other concessions. By 1920, the region's coal miners had obtained the highest rate of wages they would achieve until 1945, and boasted the best pay levels of any miners in Canada. 1

The perennial issues for which miners struck were layoffs, wage roll backs, payment in scrip requiring that purchases be made at mine-owned businesses at inflated prices, safety concerns and poor housing. In April, 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike began launching a wave of sympathetic strikes across the country.  Valley miners struck on May 24th, 1919.  They broke away from the UMWA for a number of reasons including their opposition to contract mining and also the fact that their union dues, which were paid to the Union head office in the US left them short of Unions funds in the Drumheller Valley.In spite of concessions, miners became increasingly radical. By the end of the war, they were advocating, not just better rates of remuneration and improved working conditions, but a fundamental change in the established social order that would include nationalization of the coal industry, and workers' control of the means of production and the political system. Some miners had come to the coalfields with these ideas. By 1908, the Socialist Party of Canada, which favoured electoral means to achieve socialism in Canada, had begun receiving strong support in the Crowsnest Pass area. Many miners, however, were not originally in favour of nationalization or workers' control. They were pushed to these positions by frustration with the lack of opportunity in isolated mining towns, and swayed by the prevailing atmosphere in the international labour movement. Since 1900, revolutionary industrial unionism had been growing in Europe and America, typified by the massing of workers in large unions, and demands for the destruction of the capitalist system. By 1919, the situation seemed to be reaching a climax. The events of the previous two years included the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, the replacement of the Kaiser with a republican social democratic government in Germany, and the emergence in the United States of the Industrial Workers of the World, a syndicalist union dedicated to bringing workers to power through the mechanism of the strike.2

Communist in Crowsnest PassConvinced they were on the brink of great change, Western Canada's workers moved towards endorsing a revolutionary strategy. At the Western Canadian Labour Conference, in March 1919, delegates favoured breaking away from the established unions and setting up a Marxist-oriented all-inclusive organization, known as the One Big Union (OBU). Founded in June 1919, the OBU organized workers by locality, regardless of industry, and thus cut across traditional union lines. While it commanded little support east of the Lakehead, it expanded rapidly in the West. Coal miners were attracted to it because of their disillusionment with the UMWA, and their interest in a militant Canadian organization. In an unofficial referendum held by UMWA members, over 90 percent, of those voting, supported the OBU. The new union sought the overthrow of the existing social order and its replacement with one based principally on workers' rights.3

On May 24th, 1919, Drumheller miners went on strike along with over 5,500 miners from Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.  They broke away from the United Mine Workers of America and voted in favour of joining the newly formed, all-Canadian One Big Union (March 1919, Calgary).  S. Centazzo, blacklisted from the Humberstone Mine in Edmonton, testified at the Alberta Coal Mining Commission hearings in 1919 that he was a supporter of the One Big Union and had worked in the various mines in Alberta including.  Drumheller.  He indicated that most Italians were union supporters and had participated in strikes.  The OBU was formed in an atmosphere of deepening social crisis. In May 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike began, symbolizing for many Canadians the ultimate confrontation between workers, on the one hand, and capitalists and the established state, on the other. Sympathy strikes broke out across Canada, and coal miners in Alberta and the Crowsnest Pass area of British Columbia walked out. The UMWA international leadership, headed by John L. Lewis, reacted by revoking the charter of District 18, and placing the disintegrating Western Canadian branch under the control of three appointed American labour leaders. The work stoppage, which led to violence in the Drumheller Valley, ended soon after the defeat of the Winnipeg General Strike in June.4

Frank Slide Interpretive CentreThe One Big Union was eventually broken by the federal government, working together with the companies and the international union. Eager for a popular election issue, the Union government launched an attack on Bolshevism and labour radicalism. Then, the Director of Coal Operations, appointed by the government to oversee the industry during the war, ordered coal operators not to take back miners unless they renounced the OBU. By this time, the companies were willing to work with the moderate UMWA in order in order to discourage radicalism. Gideon Robertson, the federal Minister of Labour, who had strong ties with the conservative part of the labour movement, negotiated an agreement between the Coal Operators' Association and the UMWA, which gave the latter a "closed shop" in the industry. The miners had to take out cards in the IJMWA and pay dues if they wished to work. Ironically, the international union achieved total control of the workforce just when it lost the confidence of the miners. By these methods and further wage increases, the federal government almost completely crushed the OBU in the Western coalfields by the end of 1920.5

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 , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918

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