The Right to Join a Union

Chapter : The Right to Join a Union
This chapter examines the legal protection given to employees in the exercise of their right to
choose collective representation by a trade union. The current legal safeguards were developed
against an historical backdrop of strenuous and sometimes violent resistance by employers
(and at times by government as well) to union-organizing eorts eorts which themselves
were not always free of coercive elements. The following excerpt describes a violent episode in
a union recognition dispute in Estevan, Saskatchewan, during the Great Depression.
Stanley Hanson, “Estevan ” in Irving Abella, ed., On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Can-
ada, 1919–1949 (Toronto: James Lorimer, )  at –
With the formation of a branch of the MWUC [Mine Workers’ Union of Canada] in the
Souris coal eld, a crisis arose that eventually culminated in the September  walkout.
The operators of the large mines adamantly refused to recognize the new organization
as a body with constituted authority to negotiate on behalf of the miners. The miners
were equally adamant in their refusal to negotiate independently of their union. When
requested by the union to attend a joint meeting of all operators and miners’ represent-
atives in the Estevan Town Hall at : p.m. on September  for the purpose of reaching
an agreement on hours of work, wages and living conditions, only the operators of six
smaller mines complied. The operators of the [“Big Six”] deep-seam mines stated:
We will not meet you [Sloan, the President of the MWUC] or any representative of an
organization such as yours which, by your own statement, boasts a direct connection with
the ‘entire Workers’ Unity League and the Red Internationale of Soviet Russia.
Under these circumstances, the union decided to use its ultimate weapon and voted to
cease work at midnight on September , . . . .
When mine operators in the Souris coal eld awoke on the morning of September ,
only one was in operation. Because Truax-Traer [the mining company] did not employ
men underground and its employees were non-union, it was not directly aected by
the work stoppage. Sloan intimated that the fty men engaged in stripping coal and
laying track there would be allowed to continue working despite the union’s call for a
one hundred per cent walkout. He warned, however, that there would be trouble if any
attempt were made to have the men load or ship coal. The union further stated that it
was prepared to permit coal to be shipped to Dominion Electric Power and the Estevan
Hospital, but would vigorously oppose shipments destined for outside markets. Provi-
sion was also made for local supply. Soon after the strike began, union ocials granted
the owners of several hillside mines permission to supply coal for local consumption,
and to ll orders from farmers within a twenty-ve mile radius of Estevan.
Despite the gestures of goodwill by the union towards those in the vicinity of the
coal eld who might require fuel, and despite the sympathetic response to the plight of
the striking miners by workers and others elsewhere, suspicions quickly arose that the
strike might not be altogether peaceful. Hence, to assist the two-man local detachment
in quelling any future disturbance, a squad of four RCMP ocers arrived in Estevan
from Regina at noon on September .
As the strike progressed and tension mounted, additional reinforcements were sent
to the strike zone. A dozen RCMP under the command of Detective Sta-Sergeant Mor-
timer arrived and began operating twenty-four-hour-a-day patrols throughout the dis-
trict for the stated purpose of maintaining law and order. In addition, the Saskatchewan
Coal Operators’ Association engaged a private force of thirteen special constables to
assist police in protecting mine property. . . .
Despite the increasing number of law-enforcement personnel in the district, the coal
operators were dissatised. Mort [a consulting engineer at one of the mines], in par-
ticular believed that the RCMP were handling the situation poorly. Mort, ‘an American
with extreme ideas who has had experience in the Pensylvania [sic] USA strikes,’ report-
edly stated that ‘if this was in the States it would soon be settled . . . the strikers would be
mowed down with machine guns if they carried on the way they do up here.’
At the conclusion of a conference held September , the coal operators issued a
statement charging that the absence of adequate police protection had prevented the
reopening of the mines. A few days later, the operators requested that additional police be
sent to the strike sector ‘to insure protection to life, property and the peaceful operation
of our industries.’ Their plea fell on deaf ears. The acting attorney-general, the Honour-
able Howard McConnell, seemingly of the opinion that the Saskatchewan government
was not responsible for breaking strikes, stated that the government had been and still
was according the mine owners ample police protection in the Estevan district coal eld.
At about the same time, M.S. Campbell, chief conciliation ocer with the Canada
Department of Labour, arrived in Estevan. After a brief conference with the coal oper-
ators, he obtained their assurance that if the miners agreed to return to work pending
an investigation of their grievances, they would be reinstated in their former positions
without discrimination. However, when it became obvious that the operators would
not recognize the union, negotiations collapsed and Campbell proceeded to Regina to
meet with provincial authorities. Testifying later before a royal commission, Dan Moar,
a miner and ocer of the MWUC local, stated that upon his arrival Campbell told the
miners’ committee that the royal commission, headed by Judge E.R. Wylie of Estevan,
which had just been appointed to inquire into the labour dispute, could not proceed
until the men resumed work. He quoted Campbell as saying that ‘the government
wasn’t going to spend money if we wouldn’t go back to work. . . .’ When told the men
would not do so, Campbell allegedly said: ‘If that is your attitude, I am through with you,
I leave this morning.’ Thus, the stalemate continued and the stage was set for violence.
Introduction | :
On September , information was conveyed to Estevan Police Chief McCutcheon
that the miners’ intended to hold a ‘nuisance parade’ in Estevan the following day. The
parade was to be held for the purpose of dramatizing the miners’ plight in order to gain
local support, and to advertise a mass meeting scheduled for the evening of the twenty-
ninth in the town hall, at which time Anne Buller, a WUL [Work ers’ Unity League of
Canada] organizer from Winnipeg, would address the assembly. As no application for a
permit to hold the parade had been made, Mayor Bannatyne called a special session of
the town council for the morning of the twenty-ninth to discuss it, as well as the matter of
renting the hall to the strikers. After brief deliberations, council, it has been said, passed
a resolution prohibiting the renting of the town hall to the miners, banning the parade
and authorizing the Estevan police and the RCMP to prevent any such demonstration. . . .
At : P.M., on the twenty-ninth, some two hundred miners, all of them evidently
unaware that they would soon be confronted by the police, assembled in Bienfait [a
mining town near Estevan], intent on motoring to Estevan, accompanied by their wives
and children, to interview Mayor Bannatyne regarding prohibition of the public meeting
scheduled that evening in the town hall. At two o’clock the group departed for Crescent
Collieries, three miles distant. That mine had been chosen for a rendezvous and soon
cars and lorries bearing strikers and their families arrived from various points through-
out the district. Here the men boarded lorries, a few of which were draped with Union
Jacks, and the women and children entered automobiles for the seventeen-mile journey.
The caravan, consisting of thirty or forty vehicles, extending for a distance of a mile
along the highway and moving at a speed aptly described as that of a funeral cortège,
then threaded its way through the idle mining district, picking up recruits en route. As
it approached Estevan, banners proclaiming ‘We will not work for starvation wages,’ ‘We
want houses, not piano boxes’ and ‘Down with the company stores’ were unfurled.
Meanwhile, in Estevan the police were reportedly charting strategy to prevent any
violation of the town council’s edict forbidding any parade or demonstration. They are
said to have decided that should any attempt to demonstrate occur, they would concen-
trate their forces at the limits of the town to prevent the striking miners from entering.
Reinforcements had arrived intermittently during the strike, and by the twenty-ninth
Inspector Moorhead had forty-seven RCMP under his command. The police were
equipped with thirty ries (one hundred rounds of ammunition per rie), forty-eight
revolvers, forty-eight riding crops and four machine guns capable of ring three hun-
dred shots per minute. Rumours were prevalent that the police also were holding a stock
of tear-gas bombs in readiness.
Shortly before three .., three to four hundred striking miners plus members of their
families reached the outskirts of the town. The motorcade approached Estevan from the
east on Highway  and proceeded west along Fourth Street, the principal thoroughfare,
to Souris Avenue, where twenty-two policemen had formed a cordon across the street.
Chief McCutcheon approached the lead vehicle and told the strikers: ‘Now boys youse
had better pull back home for we are not going to allow you to parade through town. . . .’
During the ensuing argument, McCutcheon apparently grabbed hold of [striking miner]
Martin Day and attempted to pull him down o the lorry. While some of his colleagues
were engaged in holding Day back, another struck McCutcheon in the face and knocked

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT