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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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The State and Labour Relations

By William N. T. Wylie

[Cliquez ici pour le texte en français]

The state intervened repeatedly in labour relations because of the political sensitivity of the industry, and its perceived importance in the regional and national context. As we have seen in the chapter on labour-local, provincial and federal officials were all involved in discouraging work stoppages, insuring continued coal production, and, after 1918, also suppressing labour radicalism. In so doing, these officials revealed an enduring belief in industrial capitalism, tempered by a willingness to tolerate a unionized workforce pursuing moderate goals.

Pamphlet: Memorandum of AgreementBecause of the economic importance of the industry, the state sought to minimize strikes and maintain production. The three levels of government tended to do this in different ways. Local officials-often businessmen or professionals who were sympathetic to the companies-sometimes brought in the police to protect strikebreakers. We have already noted an instance of this at Fernie in 1903. The provincial and federal governments, on the other hand, were willing to placate moderate unionists in order to encourage labour peace, and in the case of Alberta, to win their political support. After 1905, Alberta introduced a series of legislative reforms intended to please organized labour, including the eight-hour day, a requirement for companies to build miners' wash houses, and a measure requiring miners to be certified. The federal government intervened in specific disputes to protect the national interest in coal production. Mackenzie King, the chief figure here, was involved in seeking compromise-not only before 1911, but also when he was prime minister, during the labour disputes of 1922 and 1924. He was also largely responsible for the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act of 1907, a legislative attempt to establish mandatory conciliation in labour conflicts of national importance. In addition, Ottawa was willing to be more decisive in times of crisis, imposing settlements designed to placate miners during the First and Second World Wars. 1

When dealing with labour radicalism, state official of all levels were inflexible. Believing the future of the established social and political order hung in the balance, they mounted a series of attacks on radicals, starting with the One Big Union, and continuing with the Communist Party, and other radical groups in the 1920s and 30s. The goal here was to crush radical unionists in order to preserve political democracy and the capitalist social order. The coal industry became a prime target because of its high profile and the extent of radical influence among its workforce. In 1919, as we have seen, the federal government was willing to support moderate unionism in order to thwart the OBU, negotiating an agreement excluding OBU supporters, and giving the more conservative United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) a "closed shop" in the industry. 2

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 power of the state was also exerted through the police and the courts. In 1925, for example, radical miners in the Drumheller Valley became dissatisfied with the UMWA, formed the more militant Red Deer Valley Miners' Union, and struck for better wages. The province reacted by sending in the Alberta Provincial Police to aid strikebreakers and stop the spread of revolutionary ideas. The courts also intervened, handing down a sweeping injunction against the left-wing union. In 1931, the Mine Workers' Union of Canada, which had formally affiliated with the Communist-led Workers' Unity League, became one of the targets of a concerted anticommunist government campaign. Following the intervention of the RCMP in a MWUC coal strike at Bienfait and Estevan, Saskatchewan, a court judgment declared the union an "unlawful association."3 Throughout the inter-war period, agents of the state worked to discourage Communist organizers in the coalfields. The goal was not to destroy the labour movement, but insure that it operated within established social and political boundaries.

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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