February 2010

A spy in the mine

Keeping a watch on the Drumheller strike of 1919

By C. Baldwin


Men working at the Rosedale coal mine

In early 1918, miners at the Rosedale Mine, near Drumheller, Alberta, went on strike and were joined by hundreds of men from the surrounding camps, armed with rifles in a menacing show of force. It took 25 mounted police brandishing machine guns to quiet things down. The burly owner of the Rosedale Mine, J.F. Moodie, was unfazed but determined to keep better tabs on his more troublesome workers. His solution was to contact the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency and hire himself an undercover agent.

Operative #3 arrived in April with instructions to report on strike threats, union activities and socialist “Bolsheviki” sentiments. He worked a regular shift in the mine and kept a watchful eye on his fellow miners.

Moodie had set up what he envisioned to be an ideal work camp, and his “boys” enjoyed some of the most comfortable living and working conditions in the Drumheller valley. Other miners weren’t so lucky, working long hours for low pay and living in squalid company boarding houses. Dissatisfaction among miners was growing, both with their bosses and with their union — the moderately effective United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Eastern promise

A movement of so-called radical socialism was gaining confidence and support, especially among foreign workers — many from the enemy states of Eastern Europe and Russia. With the outcome of the Great War uncertain, people feared that this “foreign element” contained agitators: workers intent on hijacking the unions and disrupting industrial production — men who talked not just of workers’ rights, but of revolution. Moodie would have none of it.

Scofield (as the spy was known) attended union meetings, where he discovered an organization divided between moderate unionists and more radical members. He found the latter to be difficult men. He even got into a fist fight with a particularly obstinate Austrian — and came out on top.

Scofield was elected as a delegate to various labour conventions and union conferences and meetings, where he kept an eye on the progress of worker unrest and reported the names of key agitators. In this way, he witnessed the birth of the One Big Union (OBU), created to unite all labourers under one leadership. For many, the OBU signalled a coming revolution, and it was hated for its unapologetic socialist ideals and aggressive tactics. Its progressive policies, however, gained the support of many miners — enough to call a massive strike on May 24, 1919.

Veteran enforcers

To help fill the vacancies left by the striking foreign workers, mine owners turned to veterans of the Great War. They were hired as miners and as “special constables”— provided with government-issue crowbars and brass knuckles (and plenty of Prohibition beer) to round up strikers and either force them back to work or drive them out of town. The remaining foreigners were forced from their homes on company property. The veterans were happy to comply, having grown bitter about returning from the war to find “enemy Aliens” employed when they and other “English-speaking men” were out of work. Strikers began travelling in packs for their own safety.

Tensions continued to rise. On August 7, Scofield’s reports fell silent. He had been severely injured, though he never revealed whether it was through a mining accident or an encounter with an OBU striker. What is clear is that his days of silence were the most violent of the strike.

Special constables from the Rosedale Mine began a crackdown, running OBU leaders out of town and attacking strikers, who fled into the hills. Those captured were beaten. It wasn’t long before the strikers were coaxed back to work and the remaining OBU leaders dealt with.

Scofield continued with his reports until December. The next year, Moodie sold his mine and turned to the oil industry. Labour unrest continued, though never with the same intensity. Still, the OBU had made an impression and would continue to guide the struggle for workers’ rights over the next decade.

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