Before the war, among mining camps in Northern Ontario, Sudbury had earned the reputation of being a centre for “scabs” and “company stooges.”
Labour historian Jim Tester wrote in 1979, “Besides, they [Inco/Falconbridge] hated unions with a universal, almost pathological, passion.” He continues, “Inco had one of the best spy systems in all of North America, not exceeded by the notorious set-up at Fords. Inco’s reputation was known in every mining camp on the continent. In Kirkland Lake and Timmins there was a tremendous sympathy for the nickel workers of Sudbury. It was estimated that one in ten Inco workers was an informer.”
Inco hired people to intimidate union organizers handing out leaflets and disrupted meetings. The company even resorted to violence to keep the union out. In 1942, two union organizers were severely beaten and hospitalized and their downtown office destroyed by a group of twelve company goons. Although it was the middle of the day, no police were around to stop the violence. Two of the twelve went public and the union printed and distributed 10,000 leaflets throughout the community telling the truth.
A portion of the leaflet read, “This may be what INCO wants — it may be what the Star wants — but it is not what we want, and not what Sudbury wants. We are not going to stand for this kind of a deal. We are fighting for democracy abroad. We do not propose to accept fascism here in Canada and the above is plain Hitler fascism, and nothing else. … this is the violence that INCO and their blowzy prostitute “Sudbury Star” blame on the union.”
To forestall an independent union, Inco sponsored a company funded union called the United Copper Nickel Workers Union. The workers nicknamed it the “nickel rash.” There was also strong opposition to Mine Mill union organizing activities from the Catholic church, local police and media. The Sudbury Daily Star was often called the Inco Daily Star. William E. Mason, who owned the paper as well as the community’s only radio station CKSO was intensively anti-union and would use his media clout to rally against their organizing activities.
Robert Carlin, who came from the Kirkland Lake gold mines, was one of the key union leaders along with Bill Miner and James Kidd. A strong and determined organizing campaign finally won out and in December 1943, 6,913 men voted for Mine Mill while 1,187 voted for the company sponsored union the “Nickel Rash.” At Falconbridge, 765 men voted for the union and 294 against. By February 4, 1944 Local 598 of the Mine Mill and Smelter workers became the collective bargaining agents for Inco and by March 8th for Falconbridge.
Ultimately it was war time labour shortages, high taxes, wage controls and supportive provincial legislation – original federal laws were too weak and stronger legislation only came in after the certification – that allowed the union to finally become established in the Sudbury Basin. Sudbury was one of the least unionized cities in Canada at the start of the war and by 1950 the city had the largest organized workforce in the country who were among the highest paid.
In a speech in Butte, Montana, in November 1943, Mine Mill Chief, Reid Robinson praised the Sudbury workers but mentioned the Kirkland Lake strike, “Considerable credit for these extraordinary gains must go to our brave Kirkland Lake miners, whose courageous tenacity during the bitter strike in the winter of 1941 laid the groundwork for our organizational success in 1943. If these workers had not held their union together through unbelievable sacrifice, we could not of hoped for I.N.C.O.’s unionization today.”
Right from the beginning of the established union, communist leanings in some of the senior leadership started causing internal rifts and concern among high government officials in Canada and the United States. Federal government concern about communism in the union movement went back to the late 1930s and RCMP were routinely spying and infiltrating the union movement well into the early 1960s.
During the war, the Soviet Union was fighting with Britain, Canada and the United States against Germany, Italy and Japan, allowing the communist union members to be tolerated.
Once the cold war started in 1949, allegations against the union leadership of communist control would start more than a decade of inter-union rivalry, red-baiting, union raiding and violence in Sudbury that would make front-page headlines across Canada. For the moment, Sudbury’s nickel workers could take pride in finally establishing a union that would protect their hard won rights.