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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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The Strike of 1906—Lethbridge

Resource industries are notoriously sensitive to market forces and the coal mines of the Lethbridge region were no exception. The primary Lethbridge market was always for domestic coal although it was used in CPR locomotives when the mines were first opened. Unlike steam coal, where users tended to be a few railways and industries with a constant demand, users of domestic coal consisted of thousands of householders drawing a heavy supply in winter for heating and cooking but a very limited supply in summer for cooking purposes only. Further, the domestic coal fields were tied to the agricultural economy of the prairies so that demand varied with crop conditions. Variable winter weather strongly influenced demand. The coal could not he stored in the open so mines had to operate on the basis of producing only sufficient coal to fill current orders.

This led to great fluctuations in demand with full employment for a few months followed by lengthy layoffs. When generally difficult labour relations, particularly in the early years, were added to strongly seasonal demand and a volatile market the potential for trouble was always present. Strikes became a frequent event, instigated by whichever side was in a position temporarily to exert economic pressure on the other.

It should be pointed out that this referred mostly to the early years from about 1905 to 1930. Local miners were members of the United Mine Workers of America, the most powerful union in North America for decades. It was not until the 1950s that industry in general began to confront such union strength in, for example, the American Federation of Labour and the Congress of Industrial Organizations or AFL/CIO, and not until the 1950s that government began to do so in, for example, the small but militant Canadian Union of Postal Employees or CUPW. Thus, many people failed to understand the difficulties faced by early mine owners in negotiating wage-benefit contracts with a monolithic union such as the UMWA. Strikes became less frequent as both parties learned from their mistakes and, eventually, long periods of relative labour peace began to characterize the industry.

One of the most celebrated of these strikes was the miners' strike of 1906. Rising prices, a natural outgrowth of an overheated economy, caused considerable discontent among a large majority of Lethbridge's workers. In February, believing that their wages were not keeping pace with inflation, miners from the Galt and Ashcroft collieries sought to increase their earnings and decrease their working hours by forming Local 574 in District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America. Only a month later they presented the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company with a list of demands. The company, under managing director Sir Augustus M. Nanton, rejected the demands out of hand and on 9 March 1906 the union called a strike, initially the strike was peaceful but when the company hired 100 men to keep the mine open and several private detectives to spy on the strikers, the situation turned ugly. Several times during the summer angry miners and their wives attacked policemen protecting the strike-breakers; on two occasions explosives damaged the homes of employed workers.

By the end of the summer the strike had reached a stalemate and intervention was necessary to prevent a coal famine later that winter. Lethbridge's city council and its board of Trade tried to arbitrate but met with little success as neither was trusted by labour. In November the Hon. W. R. Motherwell, Commissioner of Agriculture with the government of Saskatchewan, fearing a coal shortage, pressured the dominion government to act. The federal government was receptive to intervention because a coal famine would seriously hurt immigration to the prairies and would create much localized hardship. It sent its senior mediator, Deputy Minister of Labour William Lyon Mackenzie King, to find a settlement. King set up in the Lethbridge Hotel and, by alternately cajoling and bullying the workers, brought about an accord. King was helped by the absence of Nanton, who was at the Montreal bedside of his dying mother, and by being able to deal directly with Peter Lawrence Naismith, general manager, and William D. L. Hardie, mines manager, of the Galt interests in Lethbridge. The mines reopened on 6 December 1906.

Oral tradition among mine officials of the region has it that a basis for settlement of the strike had been arrived at before Mackenzie King reached Lethbridge. Negotiators wired him at Winnipeg to return to Ottawa as he was not needed. However, Mackenzie King insisted on proceeding to Lethbridge to reap the political benefits and publicity that accompanied a settlement.

The long and bitter strike provided workers with few immediate gains. The miners won a small wage increase and the right of collective bargaining, but because the company refused to collect union dues from the men’s' wages, they failed to gain union recognition. The disappointment left a bitter legacy: strikes varying in length from three to eight months occurred in 1909, 1911, 1919, 1922, 1923 and 1924.

Based on his experience at Lethbridge, Mackenzie King in 1907 drafted, and Parliament enacted into law, The Industrial Disputes Investigation Act, long a model of labour conciliation legislation. A Royal Commission, chaired by Arthur L. Sifton, was set up to study the coal mining industry in the Province of Alberta. Partially as a result, the Alberta government in 1907 passed its first Workman's Compensation Act. And in 1908, the government legislated the eight-hour day, popularly known as "The Eight-Hour Law," long an objective of labour. The law became effective on 1 April 1909.Lethbridge Its Coal Industry

This article is drawn from Lethbridge: Its Coal Industry by Alex Johnston, Keith G. Gladwyn and L. Gregory Ellis (Lethbridge: City of Lethbridge, Lethbridge Historical Society, Occasional Paper No. 20, 1989). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank the authors and the City of Lethbridge, which is the Year of the Coal Miner lead, for permission to reprint this material.

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