June/July 2011

Historical Metallurgy

Social problems in the mining industry – a historical essay (Part 4)

By Fathi Habashi, Laval University, Quebec City

Copper workers’ revolt in Krompachy, Czechoslovakia (1921)

After World War I, the metallurgical plant in Krompachy in the present-day Slovak Republic shut down putting 3,500 people out of work. The backlash that ensued was commemorated in a stamp issued by the former Czechoslovakia in 1971 (entitled "History of the Communist Party") showing a painting by a Czech artist depicting the workers’ bloody revolt.

South African gold mining strike (1922)

In 1922, in the gold mining region of Witwatersrand, mine owners formulated a plan to reduce wages by replacing well-paid white workers with black workers. White South African workers went on a strike that quickly escalated to a violent rebellion – known as the Rand Revolt. Strikers formed commandos and in response, the government sent in troops from the Active Citizens Force and declared martial law. The ensuing violence resulted in hundreds of injuries and deaths. Authorities arrested thousands of workers; four were put to death. The negative reaction to the government's actions cost Prime Minister Jan Smuts and his South Africa Party the 1924 election.

Steel workers strike in Nova Scotia (1925)

In Sydney, Nova Scotia, steel workers went on strike in early March 1925 against the British Empire Steel Corporation. On June 4, the union pulled its men from a company power plant in New Waterford. More than 50 company police, many on horseback, occupied the plant on June 11. An estimated 700 to 3,000 miners and supporters marched to the power plant. As the crowd arrived, police opened fire, killing a miner and wounding several others. In retaliation, the miners sabotaged the power plant. Police and company officials that did not escape the battle were locked up in the town jail. On the following nights, company stores were raided and burned, including the colliery building. The Canadian Army deployed thousands of soldiers to the area. The strike lasted throughout the summer.

Columbine Mine massacre in Colorado (1927)

For the 50 years prior to 1927, the Colorado mines were a hotbed of unrest, marked by poor labour relations throughout the mining industry, strikes, aborted uprisings and confrontations between miners, mine owners and the state militia. Following the attack at Ludlow in 1914, the state was home to one of the largest uprisings of workers in American labour history, with entire towns being occupied by armed miners.

Miners in Colorado participated in a three-day strike called by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1927, in protest of the pending execution of anarchists Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. About 8,400 striking miners successfully shut down the coal mines in northern Colorado. Although mainly owned by Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the Columbine Mine was kept running by scabs. These “imported” scabs were housed in the town of Serene, which had been turned into a fortress with barbed wire fences and armed guards at the gates.

In the southern part of the state, Colorado Fuel and Iron owned most of the local mines. The company had been at the bargaining table with the company-controlled “union” that was put in place after the Ludlow strike. Mass rallies were held by workers outside the Columbine Mine for several weeks and on November 21, about 500 miners and their families marched towards the north gate of the town. On their arrival, they were met by plain-clothed militiamen with rifles, blocking the entrance. A battle soon ensued and eventually, the miners forced their way through the gate. Police fired, killing six people, and an additional 60 were injured. A couple weeks later, another two strikers were killed, this time in Walsenburg. The owner of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company brought an end to the strike several weeks later when he declared that henceforth, the union was to be affiliated with the American Federation of Labour. Eventually, the company would come to recognize the United Mine Workers of America.

Coal miners’ strike in Harlan, Kentucky (1931-1937)

A violent labour dispute broke out between the United Mine Workers and strikebreakers in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1931, which lasted several years. The events leading up to the strike included wage disputes, dangerous working conditions, unsatisfactory living conditions, the forming of unions and economic hardships affecting the town.

In the summer of 1937, workers at the Duke Power-owned Eastover Coal Company's Brookside Mine in Harlan County voted to join the union. Eastover management refused to sign the contract and the union went on strike. Duke Power brought in replacement non-unized workers, many of who were subsequently attacked, arrested, hit with baseball bats, shot at and struck by cars. One striking miner was shot and killed by one of the replacement workers. Three months after the union returned to work, the national contract expired.

Gold miners' strike in Kirkland Lake (1941-1942)

Failure to recognize a union and collective bargaining, as well as firing miners participating in union affairs led to a strike in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, from 1941 to 1942. On the evening of November 18, 1941, the night shifts in eight of the mines failed to report for work. Both the federal and Ontario governments refused to intervene. By February 12, 1942, the Kirkland strike was lost and the humiliated miners returned to work. The strike was a turning point in Canadian history, resulting in legislation in 1944 similar to that of the 1935 legislation in the United States that recognizes the right of workers to form a union.

Strike in Arvida, Quebec (1941)

In July 1941, Canada's largest aluminum plant, located on the Saguenay River in Quebec, stopped production. Minister of Munitions and Supply C. D. Howe quickly concluded that saboteurs were responsible and sought military intervention to restore order. Prime Minister Mackenzie King and other Cabinet colleagues shared the desire to keep workers producing for the war effort, but hesitated to send in troops against strikers.

African miners' strike (1946)

African workers were introduced to trade unions through witnessing the struggles that British workers underwent in an effort to form trade unions, as far back as 1880. There was no solidarity among black and white workers. The organization of African miners was one of the most difficult tasks facing the trade union and national movement in South Africa. Workers were housed in prison-like compounds, speaking many different languages, guarded and spied upon.

On August 12, 1946, the African mine workers of the Witwatersrand went out on strike in support of a demand for higher wages. They continued the strike for a week despite savage police terror. On what became known as Bloody Tuesday (August 13), a peaceful procession of workers began to march to Johannesburg; they wanted to get their passes and go back home. However, police opened fire on them and a number of workers were killed. In protest against these brutalities, on August 14, a special conference of the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions decided to call a general strike in Johannesburg. The weakness of the unions and the failure to reach factory workers resulted in only a partial success of the strike.

Many unsuccessful attempts were made to form a trade union prior to August 3, 1941, when a miners’ conference was called by the Transvaal Provincial Committee of the African National Congress. The conference was attended by workers from many mines and by delegates from a large number of African and Indian organizations, but speakers were arrested and meetings broken up. With the formal establishment of the union, organizational work began in the face of increased harassment, arrests, dismissals and deportation. Nevertheless, the union grew in strength and influence.

Asbestos strike in Quebec (1949)

Asbestos mine workers on strike
At midnight on February 14, 1949, miners walked off the job at four asbestos mines near Thetford Mines and Asbestos in Quebec. The union demanded that asbestos dust be eliminated both on the inside and outside of the mill, as well as a wage increase and a social security fund to be administered by the union. The demands were rejected.

Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis sided with the companies, due to his hostility to all forms of socialism. The provincial government sent police to protect the mines. Duplessis' Union Nationale party had long been closely allied to the Catholic Church, but in this case, the Church supported the workers. The population and media of Quebec were sympathetic to the strikers. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, future Canadian Prime Minister and then-journalist, also covered the strike in a sympathetic manner.

Six weeks into the strike, Johns Manville hired strikebreakers to keep the mines open. In response, the strike turned violent as the 5,000 strikers fought back and destroyed the property. More police were sent to protect the strikebreakers and hundreds of miners were arrested. Some of the incidents included a dynamite explosion that destroyed part of a railroad track that led into the Johns Manville property and the overturning of a company jeep, injuring a passenger. On March 5, Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau delivered a fiercely pro-union speech asking all Catholics for donations to help the strikers. Premier Duplessis asked the Church to transfer the archbishop to Vancouver because of his pro-union stance, but his request was refused.

Archbishop Maurice Roy of Quebec City served as mediator. In June, workers agreed to return to work with few gains. In the long term, both conditions and wages of the workers considerably improved. Trudeau edited The Asbestos Strike, a book portraying the strike as a violent announcement that a new era had begun.

San Juan massacre in Bolivia (1967)

A meeting of miners had been planned for June 24, 1967, at the mining camps of Siglo XX (20th century) near Oruro with a goal of demanding an increase in wages. The government and the armed forces heard about the meeting and rushed to occupy the mining centres. They surrounded the miners and opened fire; 20 were killed and 70 wounded. Electricity was cut off to the union headquarters and the Voice of the Miner radio station, and the union leader was murdered. The massacre was carried out under orders from President René Barrientos Ortuño, whose government forbade union activity. In addition, the government launched a furiously cruel persecution against political and union leaders in an effort to break the resistance of the labour movement.

The massacre was followed by repression and the firing of the so-called agitators. The military captured the main leaders of the underground unions on July 29 and disposed of them without a trace.

Coal miners’ strike in Britain (1984-1985)

The miners' strike of 1984-1985 was a major event affecting the British coal industry, which was nationalized and heavily subsidized. The government was looking to close a number of mines that were either unsuccessful or in need of an upgrade (through increased mechanization) to become profitable. Many unions resisted, as it would result in job cuts.

The strike ended with the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers by the Conservative government. Some years later, the Labour Party moved away from its traditional socialist agenda. The dispute exposed deep divisions in British society and caused bitterness in northern England and South Wales where several mining communities were destroyed. Ten deaths resulted from events surrounding the strike.

Post a comment


PDF Version