Working Class Hero – Standing the Gaff

United Mine Workers of America
the union was initially established as a three-pronged labor tool: to develop mine safety; to improve mine workers’ independence from the mine owners and the company store; and to provide miners with collective bargaining power. Most miner were indentured servents who were only given credit at the company store and not real money.

  • The ‘Redneck War’ – 1920-21. Generally viewed as beginning with the Matewan Massacre, this conflict involved the struggle to unionize the southwestern area of West Virginia. It led to the march of 10,000 armed miners on the county seat at Logan. In the Battle of Blair Mountain, miners fought state militia, local police, and mine guards. These events are depicted in the novels Storming Heaven (1987) by Denise Giardina and Blair Mountain (2005) by Jonathan Lynn.

The Redneck war has a direct connection to Cape Breton and the miners who fought for labour rights.

The Canadian Army deployed thousands of soldiers to the area in the second largest deployment in history for civil unrest within Canada.

District 26 of the UMWA in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada struck in early March 1923 against the British Empire Steel Corporation(BESCO).

The fall-out from World War I saw a syndicate of British investors led by Montreal, Quebec industrialist Roy M. Wolvin negotiate a takeover of Dominion Steel Corporation from Plummer in 1919. BESCO proposed a $500 million merger of DOMCO and DISCO, along with various British steel and shipbuilding interests. In 1921, SCOTIA was merged with the conglomerate to form the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO).

The scope and scale of BESCO was truly mind-boggling. .

The 1925 strike lasted through the summer and contributed to the bankruptcy and breakup of the BESCO conglomerate several years later. The strike against BESCO by UMWA 26 in the Sydney Coal Field was unprecedented for the violence and militancy exhibited by the company toward the striking miners and changed the labour dynamics in Industrial Cape Breton and the world.

IN MARCH OF 1925, Cape Breton coal miners were receiving $3.65 in daily wages and had been working part-time for more than three years. They burned company coal to heat company houses illuminated by company electricity. Their families drank company water, were indebted to the company “Pluck Me” storeand were financially destitute as evidenced by the company “Bob Tailed Sheet”. Local clergy spoke of children clothed in flour sacks and dying of starvationfrom the infamous “four cent meal”. The miners had fought continuously since 1909 for decent working conditions, an eight hour day and a living wage.

The British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) was controlled by President Roy M. Wolvin and Vice-President J.E. McClurg who defended these conditions by frankly stating,

coal must be produced cheaper in Cape Breton, poor market conditions and increasing competition male this an absolute necessity. If the miners require more work, then the United Mine Workers of Americadistrict 26 Executive must recommend wage reduction

The stage had been set for a sequence of events which would lead to the tragic death of a union brother and father of 10 children, William Davis

In the early days of March 1925, J.E. McClurg added insult to injury by eliminating credit for miners at the company “Pluck Me” store and further reducing days of work at the collieries. On March 6, 1925, U.M.W.A. strategist, J. B. McLachlan, left with few options, called for the removal of all maintenance men from the collieries; a 100% strike was necessary to do battle with BESCO. If the company would not negotiate an end to this deprivation and hunger the mines would slowly fill with floodwater and die. The company response from Vice President J.E. McLurg (Besco) was brief and derogatory:

We hold all the cards … they (the miners) will have to come to us … they can’t stand the gaff.

This became a catch phrase for the miners and made the workers even more determined than ever to prove to McLurg and others that they could indeed, “stand the gaff.

The next two cold winter months were filled with grief and hardship; BESCO cut off the sale of coal to miners houses and mounted a vigorous, public relations campaign to blame the miners for their own predicament. Hard pressed merchants continued to give credit, fishermen contributed their catch, the British Canadian Co-operatives donated 500 dollars. In Boston expatriate Maritimers formed a Cape Breton Relief Committee. This time, sympathy and support seemed to be on the side of the miners and their families. The Company and their government friends would soon see the result of this support.

The U.M.W.A. lobbied for intervention from the Liberal Provincial and Federal Governments to no avail; this prompted the unions most difficult decision to date. On June 3, 1925, the U.M.W.A. withdrew the last maintenance men from BESCO’s power plant at Waterford Lake. In retaliation, the company cut off electricity and water to the town of New Waterfordwhich included the town hospital filled with extremely sick children. For more than a week the town mayor, P.G. Muise, literally begged company officials to restore electricity and water to his townspeople—BESCO ignored his requests. On June 11, 1925 drunken company police terrorized the people of New Waterford by charging down Plummer Avenue on horseback beating all who stood in their path. They rode through the school yards, knocking down innocent children while joking that the miners were at home hiding under their beds. It was the last straw.

At 10:00 a.m. in New Waterford, the U.M.W.A. was organizing an army of angry miners. They were determined to restore electricity and water to their homes and families; On June 11 approximately 3,000 infuriated men and boys gathered at New Waterford and made their way towards the power plant. They marched on Waterford Lake power plant and were met by a wall of more than 100 armed company thugs and police on horseback, and the battle of Waterford Lake took place. Police were hauled off horseback and beaten, while others jumped in New Waterford Lake and swam to the other side. Before the miners could state their demands, the riders charged the front line firing wildly into the crowd. Michael O’Handley was wounded and trampled by horses. Gilbert Watson was shot in the stomach; he carried the bullet until the day he died in 1958. William Davis, an active member of the U.M.W.A. had been fatally shot through the heart by a British Empire Steel Company thug. The miners reaction was swift and decisive. They swarmed the power plant, overpowered the company police and marched them off to the town jail, later they were taken to Sydney for their own safety.

For several nights afterward, the coal towns were under a state of siege by the miners. They raided the company stores to feed their starving families and then burned the stores to the ground to eliminate the last symbol of corporate greed and servitude in the Cape Breton coal fields. The company stores never re-opened after the coal wars of 1925.

The miners promised that no man would ever again work the black seam on Davis Day. They have kept their promise to this day. In local coal mining communities, many store owners still close their doors in respect for deceased coal miners and our children take time from their studies to reflect with their families.

The men were driven to this action because on top of already deplorable conditions their supply of water and power to their homes, schools, and hospitals was cut off. Cape Breton was seen as one of the few examples of a Feudal system in North America. Soon after, however, the affair was pushed aside and forgotten.

A provincial election that year saw the defeat of Armstrong’s Liberal government. The Conservatives under E.N. Rhodes met with Besco President, Roy Wolvin and J.E. McLurg on July 16. The police force was subsequently withdrawn, the wage scale was reduced to the 1922 level (a reduction of between 6% to 8%), the Corporation received a rebate of 1/5 of the coal royalties paid to the province for a 6 month period. On August 5 the miners voted 3,913 to 2,780 to accept the Rhodes Proposal.

The strike had lasted for 155 days and J.B. McLachlan rationalized the suffering this way:

Under capitalism the working class has but two courses to follow: crawl – or fight.

The history of the mine workers is filled with memories of class struggle and of brotherhood. It is summed up in the words of District 26 President, Stephen J. Drake—

There is no finer person on this planet than the working man who carries his lunch can deep into the bowels of the earth. Far beneath the ocean he works the black seam; an endless ribbon of steel his only link to the fresh air and blue skies. The steel rails symbolize a miners life, half buried underground, half reaching toward his final reward. William Davis epitomized a miner’s life, it was filled with simple pleasures, family, friends, and sunshine. He will always be one of us, he will never be forgotten


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