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The year 1919 was a period of industrial unrest in many parts
of the world. The war had ended but not the tension nor the
anxiety for a better post-war deal. No sooner had World War 1
ended when the labour war began, accompanied by strikes and
violence, in March of 1919, at a Western Labour Conference in
Calgary, a new union originated with the trade unions of Great
Britain, the news union itself was to be all Canadian and for
Canadian workers only. The aim of this "One Big Union" was to
unite all workers, both white collar and manual, under one
leadership. It was to work in the interests of labour and was to
be totally disaffiliated from International Unions.
During the spring of 1919, the coal miners of the Drumheller
Valley went on what would become the Valley's most notorious
strike. Joining over 5,500 miners from Alberta, Saskatchewan and
British Columbia, the Drumheller Valley miners broke away from
the ineffectual international United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
A key component of the dissatisfaction with the UMWA was the
issue of union dues. The dues paid by the Drumheller miners were
sent to the UMWA head office in the United States, and always
left a shortage of union funds in the Valley. The Drumheller
miners, who were part of UMWA's District 18, were also at odds
with the international union over the issue of contract mining.
While the Canadian miners wanted the UMWA to abolish contract
mining, eastern American miners wished it to remain and even
threatened to suspend funding to the Canadian District 18."
This was the final insult for many of the western Canadian
UMWA members They decided it was time to join an all-Canadian
union where such issues could be dealt with in an expeditious
manner. The 5,500 miners held a vote in which 95% were in favour
of joining the newly formed all-Canadian One Big Union (OBU).
This lent to the swift and dramatic rise in popularity of the
OBU movement as the coal miners wanted ameliorated working and
living conditions. Since the UMWA was ineffective in addressing
these types of issues, the Drumheller miners decided it was time
for a change.
Squalid, overcrowded company "houses" coupled with poor or no
sanitation and lack of medical facilities made mining towns
prime reservoirs of disease. Unemployed or underemployed miners
couldn't feed their families properly, and schools were
completely inadequate. This was the hot bed which produced
labour unrest which swept district 19 in the years following
World War 1.
The miners also had little control over wage roll backs and,
at some camps, the men were not paid in cash, but only in
company scrip. This limited the miners to making purchases only
at mine-owned businesses at grossly inflated prices. As well,
the scrip was not generally honoured by independent
Furthermore, the philosophy behind the OBU was to unite all
working people under one gargantuan industrial union. This meant
that the working classes could have a very powerful bargaining
tool, and the miners would not lose their dues or grievances to
a distant international union. In the view of the Valley miners,
the OBU meant the disaffiliation with international trade unions
that were indifferent to their vested interests."
The One Big Union, which was formed in Calgary in March of
1919, condemned private industry and profit making at the
expense of the working classes, it also sent support and
congratulations to the Soviets in Russia. In attendance at this
meeting were representatives from all the major western
coalfields and labour representatives from Winnipeg who would
later organize the Winnipeg General Strike.
By April 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike was underway and,
before its demise later that summer, 35,000 people in Winnipeg
were on strike, bringing the city to a complete standstill."
Sympathy strikes erupted all over Canada, with tens of
thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of Canadians
participating. The movement, however, found the core of its
support coming from the mining camps where working and living
conditions were desperate. All levels of government were truly
startled by the magnitude of labour unrest throughout Canada,
and the sudden power wielded by the OBU in the factories and
mining camps. Undoubtedly, many in government feared this was
the prelude to revolution.
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.