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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks

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The miners of the Crowsnest Pass were strong supporters of unionism.  The Western Federation of Miners was organized in Fernie as soon as mining began but the miners changed allegiance and joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) on May 8th, 1903.  Subsequently, they organized in Frank, Lille and Coleman and Alberta and British Columbia formed District No. 18 of UMWA.  Periods of major industrial action happened after World War I in 1919 and in 1932.  Both were the result of market fluctuations and mine owners ordering mass layoffs and reduced wages.  In 1931-32, there was an eight-month strike involving 800 men mostly against the West Canadian Collieries (Blairmore-Bellevue).  The picture shows a rally in front of the Blairmore Bandstand and mounted RCMP can be noted.In the period between the two world wars, labour was forced on the defensive by the economic difficulties of the industry and the aggressively anti-union tactics of the coal companies. While the workers suffered significant defeats in terms of wages and union organization, they survived as a militant force with radical tendencies. The period unfolded in several stages. Between 1921 and 1925, the operators attacked and virtually smashed the UMWA, the union they had propped up only a few years before. In the resulting vacuum, the miners formed an indigenous union, the Mine Workers Union of Canada, which upheld their tradition of militancy through difficult economic times. In 1936, the UMWA re-emerged. With the help of favourable wartime conditions, it managed to recoup some of the earlier wage losses, before the decline of the industry weakened its influence in the 1950s.

The owners' offensive began in the 1920s when the industry's economic future seemed clouded. After the end of the Great War, the demand for coal by the railways dropped significantly, and the domestic fuel market was shaken by the appearance of natural gas as an alternative. Facing an uncertain future, the operators sought to cut costs by reducing wages, and, at the same time, to weaken, and possibly destroy, the UMWA by abolishing the "closed shop" and the check-off of union dues. During strikes in 1922 and 1924, these ambitions were stymied by the federal government. Still intent on minimizing conflict, Ottawa negotiated settlements resulting in wage reductions, but no change in status for the UMWA. The companies in the Crowsnest Pass were not satisfied. Sensing the potential for a greater victory, they locked out their employees during the winter of 1924-25. Faced with economic destitution, the workers in the Pass abandoned the UMWA, accepted further wage cuts, and formed "company unions"-organizations willing to accept management's terms-in exchange for a return to work. The movement spread across the coalfields in Alberta until the UMWA remained in place only in the Drumheller Valley, where its support was fractured between moderates and radicals.1

Why had the UMWA collapsed so precipitously? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the economic situation for the miners was desperate. However, the limits of the cohesion of the miners' movement had apparently also been reached. The situation in the West contrasts with that in Nova Scotia at the same time, where the miners were also under attack, in this case by the combined force of the British Empire Steel and Coal Company and the state--which had massed troops on mining property to intimidate strikers. In Nova Scotia, the miners stood unified, able to draw on a homogeneous culture of workers' consciousness in towns which had nurtured several generations of miners and their families.2 In spite of the emergence of an embryonic miners' culture in the West, the mining community was still divided by ethnic differences, and weakened by continuing geographic mobility, as workers roamed from town to town. In the crisis, worker unity had not been able to survive, as miners scrambled to save their financial positions. Finally, the collapse of the UMWA also reflected the lack of confidence in it felt by miners of all backgrounds after its behaviour during and immediately after World War One.

In spite of the defeat of 1925, the union movement did not die in the coalfields. In place of the UMWA, a union arose which was more clearly identified with regional interests and aspirations. The Mine Workers' Union of Canada (MWUC) was a militant organization influenced by the Communist Party (CP), which had emerged as the focal point for radical thought after the collapse of the One Big Union. The new union, however, took an independent line, avoiding the rhetoric of the CP, and winning support from moderates and radicals alike by focusing on the practical concerns of miners, such as wages. The MWUC negotiated a series of contracts over a period of 11 years, and gained widespread support across the region's coalfields, particularly in the Crowsnest Pass, the Coal Branch, Lethbridge, and the Banff area.3

In the early 1930s, the MWUC was weakened by developments on both its right and left wings. The coalfields were experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis. Facing privation, miners began to split along ethnic and religious lines. A right-wing group of workers, mainly of British descent, began to argue that people of "Anglo-Saxon" background should have precedence in the allocation of jobs. Meanwhile, the policy of the Communist Party shifted in a way tending to divide the labour movement. In the 1920s, the party had concentrated on enlarging left-wing support by working within existing unions and organizations. After 1930, the international leadership of the party called on members to follow the Stalinist line of building Communism, even at the expense of disrupting the rest of the left. In coalfield politics, Communists now contested elections against left-wing candidates, for instance—from the Alberta Labour Party—which they formerly had supported. In union affairs, the Communist Party formed its own organization, the Workers' Unity League (WUL), which set out to take over the Mine Workers' Union. 4

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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