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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.
Thirteen 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
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
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.