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Labour Activism





Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

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Many Italian immigrants to Alberta worked in the coal mines.  This was dangerous work and, frequently, the miners were at odds with management not only because of conditions of work but also housing, rates of pay and the practice of "docking" wages for dirty coal.  While the fraternal societies or loggias were undoubtedly valuable, Italian workers also quickly became union members. Aritha Van Herk in Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, notes: "Wages of $3 a day attracted workers from all over the world, as coal became the crucible for unions: organizers from the United Mine Workers of America signed up miners by translating their creed into Italian, Ukrainian, and Hungarian." 1   

While work stoppages and strikes were common from the first part of the 20th century, 1919 was a significant turning point. Howard and Tamara Palmer in Alberta: A New History provide an excellent overview of the labour unrest in the mines. The Drumheller Valley played an important role in this labour unrest. The Winnipeg General Strike, which began in May 1919, was a spark that set off other strikes in support. Edmonton and Calgary both saw strikes and, in August 1919, violence broke out in Drumheller. Strikebreakers, drawn from returning veterans, attacked the miners and their homes. The miners, largely immigrants, were supporting the concept of One Big Union, which, they believed, would give them more bargaining clout when dealing with the establishment mine owners. The Palmers note: "Veterans seized the OBU leaders, brought them to a kangaroo court-martial at Drumheller, and ran them out of town. With this vigilante pressure operating while the police stood by, striking miners had little choice but to return to work." 2

The strikes and pressure from the mine companies forced the Government of Alberta to act and, in 1919, a commission was established to investigate the problem-Alberta Coal Mining Industry Commission. A partial transcript of the hearings was published by the Historical Society of Alberta, Alberta's Coal Industry, 1919. This was edited and with an introduction by University of Calgary historian David Jay Bercuson.  Bercuson notes that the Commission was formed at a time of labour unrest and business uncertainty. Hearings lasted for two-and-a-half months beginning October 6th in Edmonton. Other sites included Calgary, Drumheller, Lethbridge, Wayne, Edson and Blairmore. It is noteworthy that two of the hearing sites are in the Drumheller Valley area and is evidence of the importance of the region's mines. The Index of Witnesses provides a "quick" overview of the key mining companies in the province and interests represented. Of 12 recommendations, only three deal with issues pertinent to the welfare of miners. Bercuson writes in his introduction:

Though its use to government and operators of the day was limited, the evidence of the Coal Mining Industry Commission of 1919 is invaluable to those interested in the social history of western Canada. The unedited evidence amounts to more than 900 typed, legal size, pages. Almost every aspect of mining as a business, occupation and life style were examined, though curiously little attention was paid to conditions underground. Perhaps this was because those conditions were generally as safe as could be made given the knowledge and technology of the day. The Alberta government passed its first Mines Regulations Act, aimed at establishing safety rules, in 1906.3

The testimony is of interest for a range of reasons and reveals the struggle between the companies to maintain and increase profits and the desire of the miners to improve conditions of work and wages. The third party is, of course, the various unions struggling not only to help the miners but also to entrench themselves in Alberta. There is also an unspoken theme, which is evident in some of the testimony-the systemic racism. The mine owners and managers were largely British while the workers were largely not. The Palmers cite the following statistics drawn from the 1919 commission on the makeup of the mining labour force in the Crow's Nest Pass:


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