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Strikes—The Drumheller Strike of 1919

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The Drumheller Valley miners called their own strike on May 24,1919 after the thirteen Valley mine operators refused to formally recognize the One Big Union as their legal bargaining agent.°" The mine operators contended that the legal bargaining agent for the miners was the UMWA, who had already secretly met with the operators and made a pact to derail the OBU. These companies were also given permission by the federal government to hire special constables to help in breaking the strike. These "specials" were war veterans, who upon returning to Canada, found the economy in upheaval and jobs were scarce."' They saw "enemy alien" immigrants with work and wondered why Canadian citizens and British subjects were without employment.

Homes of striking One Big Union minersThirteen mining companies, including the Drumheller, Newcastle, Western Gem, Manitoba, Atlas, ABC, North American Colliers, Scranton, Stirling and Midland, refused to have anything to do with the OBU, and were given permission to bring in special constables. Unfortunately, these were not difficult to find, as many veterans were out job hunting...To persuade the strikers to return to work, the specials were issued with pick handles, crow bars, and brass knuckles. If a striker refused to go along with the goons, then he was given a ride out in the country for some thirty or forty miles, beaten up and left alone in agony. For a striker to go out alone was an invitation to disaster."

The strike busters were paid $10 a day plus all the alcohol they could consume to break the back of the OBU strike. The "specials" patrolled the streets and gathered any lone miners. If they did not offer resistance, they were sent to work in the mines. If they resisted in any way, however, the miners were severely beaten, sometimes resulting in serious and permanent bodily harm. Some men were also actually tarred and feathered while others were hanged upside down by their feet and were forced to drink horse urine."

Due to the volatile nature of this strike, the miners eliminated much of their non-union related activities, and were afraid to even go outside unless accompanied by several other miners. Their only safety was in numbers. Even their homes were not safe from the strike busters, who would occasionally raid the shacks to force the strikers into a fight or submission.

"...In those days you had to be a British of some sort, in order to get anywhere, because the 'wops" and the 'bohunks' didn't have a chance in the world.

Yet if one is to read the periodicals of the time, one would probably not even know there was a violent strike underway that summer. One reason being that the newspapers were owned and organized by the upper and middle classes, not the working class. As well, the coal mines were major advertisers. This effectively obstructed any sympathies being noted or published at the local level.

When there was an occasional article, it was certainly not sympathetic to the miners. In fact, the newspapers often seemed to distort the truth of the strike and the mistreatment of the miners during the strike. It was reported by the Calgary Herald that the man forced to drink horse urine "was given a drink of water and was told not to spit in it."

The strikers of the Drumheller Valley were overwhelmed by the alliance between government, the mine operators and the United Mine Workers of America. When most leaders were physically beaten, tortured or run out of town, the miners were quickly intimidated into submission. After two strike leaders were captured by the "specials", they were tied to telephone poles where they were nearly beaten unconscious, then tarred and feathered. This was likely the key incident that broke the back of the OBU Drumheller Strike in 1919."

By the end of August 1919, the Drumheller Strike was over. The leaders were run out of town, most fearing for their lives. The miners were soon back at work without their union. Despite the violence and the indecisive outcome, the Drumheller Strike outlived the more famous Winnipeg General Strike, which had met a deadly end on June 17.

Although the miners were defeated, many did not lose their taste for confrontation, the OBU or leftist activities. The UMWA's District 18, especially in the Drumheller Valley and the Crowsnest Pass, would remain haunted by unrest, strikes and division for the next fifteen years. Other movements such as the Mine Workers Union of Canada, which gained popularity in the Valley, had partly risen from the ashes of the OBU."

With the strike broken, the "specials" were hired by the Valley's thirteen coal operators to work in the mines' It is ironic that these war veterans, who helped break the strike, were soon laid off for being inefficient workers, and the experienced miners, the "alien element", were again hired under UMWA contract. It's a Miner's Life! A social history of the Drumheller Valley coal miners

This article has been extracted from It's a Miner's Life by J. E. Russell (East Coulee, Alberta: Atlas Coal Mine Historical Society, 1995). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank the author and the Atlas Coal Mine Historical Site (a Year of the Coal Miner member) for permission to reprint this material.

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