The Sudbury Experience: Report on an Oral History Project from a Labour Perspective – by Jim Tester (Part 2 of 2)

Jim Tester (1913-1995) was the former mine mill president of Local 598 from 1969-1974 which represented the Falconbridge workers in Greater Sudbury. He is one of the key historical figures in Sudbury’s labour history and wrote a column for Northern Life from 1974 to 1993 in which he shared his considerable knowledge of union struggles and socialist causes.

This is an address by Jim Tester to the Labour Panel of the Canadian Oral History Association, University of Ottawa, June 8-10, 1982.

Essentially, their struggles were for measures of industrial democracy. They believed they should have some control over their working conditions, and their lives in the company-dominated villages and towns. At the turn of the last century they did not gracefully accept the 12-hour day and the bad working conditions. Their ranks were rampant with thoughts of revolt and revenge.

Next year, Sudbury will be celebrating its 100th Anniversary. Many books have been written about Canada’s foremost mining and smelting city. None have told the story of its working people, their aspirations and their struggles, which have built the Sudbury communities into what they are today. If official historians have their way, none will be written. The truth is too staggering in its ramifications. It must therefore, be suppressed or subverted.

When I retired six years ago, after nearly 25 years service with Falconbridge Nickel Mines, I decided to dedicate myself to uncovering labour’s story in Sudbury. It seemed to me the main tool would be oral history. I also decided that history lay, not in the minds of the average workers, or the respectable right-wing labour bosses, but in the experience of the rank-and-file left leaders who had done the spade work and planted the seeds of unionism, despite an inclement social climate and an unyielding soil.

Like all aspiring historians, I applied for a Canada Council grant. Like most applicants, I was turned down. In a way that was fortunate, because I was freed from time constraints and outlines. I could engage in a great deal of experimentation, which I did. It also left me time to check various historic events, from newspapers and union sources, to ensure accuracy in placing events and incidents.

I now have some 75 hours of tapes, with some 50 interviews. I am presently into the utterly miserable, but often exciting job of transcribing and editing them. All are interviews with left-wingers.

When I speak of the left, I take the broad meaning – all the anti-establishment thinkers, most of whom were socialist-minded, but some of whom were liberals and even conservatives. Before the union was recognized in Sudbury, there were few opportunities in the union movement.

It was only when the union became a legitimate organization, fully recognized by the companies and governments, that careerism began to raise its ugly head. It was only then that division and struggle for power began. What careerist would want to risk his fortune, even his neck, in the early union activities, which were of necessity, often clandestine in nature?

Out of the whole left entourage, I interviewed only two who were a disappointment. One was an old Mine-Mill activist and union builder in Sudbury, Jock Turner. The other was a long-time union builder in Timmins, Joe Corliss. Both had been members of the Communist Party; both were too modest to talk about themselves, insisting the labour movement was the thing and they played out minor roles!

The true story of the founding of the union in the Sudbury nickel industry can only be told by the two protagonists in the struggle – the company and the democratic coalition of workers. It was a confrontation that challenged the divine right of autocratic rule. It was a struggle between the masses and the mining barons.

The balanced view, of course, must come form the mouths of the main actors, not the bit players who presume to speak with authority.

The workers were not led by middle-of-the-road compromisers. They were inspired and rallied by left-thinking activist. Only they can lay legitimate claim to a true labour view of events. For that view we have to go to them.

I make no pretensions of being unbiased. Others will have to tell management’s story, if they be sufficiently bold and sympathetic. I seek only to discover the union side. Theat is a task of some dimensions because of distortions and distractions by interpreters of labour history who have a right-wing labour ideological axe to grind. In my opinion, they represent the status quo, not progressive social change.

Most labour historians conceded that Mine-Mill was the most democratically constituted of all the unions in North America. It was not only a rank-and-file oriented union, but actually had a federated structure, with real power residing in the local unions. For example, in Sudbury the collective agreements were between the companies and the local, not the international union.

During the cold war, which officially began with Churchill’s Fulton, Missouri speech in 1946, one of the main targets of the U.S. State Department was the Mine-Mill Union. The most popular explanation for this is that the U.S. Government could not stand for a union in the basic metals industry that was communist-led. That may be partly true but I am inclined to view that it was the democratic structure of Mine-Mill that had to go. It was much easier to wheel and deal with a centralized union such as the Steelworkers, under the leadership of the like of Wavy Davy MacDonald.

In any event, after the merger of Mine-Mill with the Steel Union in 1967, all the Mine-Mill leaders became part of the Steelworkers’ staff organization. Even the reddest of the red, Harvey Murphy, was accepted into the ranks. So it certainly was not the personnel, no matter how red, but the structure they were out to destroy. This, they accomplished, with the help of the right-wing opportunists in the labour movement. It was an unholy alliance.

Some labour historians have pictured the struggles in Sudbury during the Steel raids in the late 40s, as being a fight between the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Communists for control of the union. Nothing could be further from the truth. CCF adherents had complete control of Mine-Mill’s local 598. The split that occurred was in the CCF itself.

The CCF club was the largest in Ontario at the time. The overwhelming majority was opposed to Steel taking over Mine-Mill. They supported Bob Carlin who was the CCF Sudbury provincial member and Mine-Mill leader. Bob Carlin and the CCF club were expelled by the provincial leadership. The Sudbury CCF was in a shambles for the next ten years, until revived by Norm Fawcett and Ed Martel under the NDP banner.

The real division in Sudbury was not between the CCF and the Communists, but between those who believed in Mine-Mill as a rank-and-file union and those who supported a strong centralized union such as the Steelworkers. Despite all the calculated myths to the contrary, the Communists in Local 598 were among the strongest supporters on the rank-and-file aspects of Mine-Mill. None were in the top leadership of the local, only a small handful were on the local executive, most were active in the steward body.

It is ironic that the strength of Mine-Mill lay in its active stewards. Most grievances were settled in the work place. Despite a militant reputation, Mine-Mill had only one strike in the Inco Sudbury operations, from 1944 to 1962. That was in 1958. Rank-and-file activity solved problems with management on a day-to-day basis. There was better work discipline and self-control as a result of such rank-and-file self confidence and militancy. So history puts to rest another myth about the destructive conspiracy of militant unionism. It is just the opposite.

A great deal of what I have related has come from the many interviews I have had with former Mine-Mill activists. Much of it is part of my own experience as a trade unionist who signed his first union card with the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada in 1932, in Kirkland Lake.

I have seen a great deal of hostile propaganda against the union movement in my day. I have seen sell-outs and betrayals, but I have maintained an abiding faith in the working class, its common sense and its ability to produce outstanding personalities and great leaders.

The future belongs to them. They deserve to know of their own past. In a large measure that task belongs to the oral historians who can work with living material, not simply fossil remains from the past.