Excerpt from Until the End – by Adelle Larmour (The Story of John Gagnon-Health and Safety Union Activist)

Adelle Larmour is a journalist at Northern Ontario Business and Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal. Contact her at  untiltheend.larmour@gmail.com  to order a copy of Until the End.

Chapter 4 – Mine Mill Union

Processes for extracting ore from the ground and, in turn, specific metals from the ore were still developing and very much at the experimental stage. The industrial revolution was gaining momentum, but the technology employed was crude at best. Harsh, dangerous working conditions were the norm, creating a breed of hard-bitten, tough labourers who produced the wealth for mining companies.

These very conditions, coupled with long strenuous work days, termination notices at the drop of a hat, job and race discrimination, and screaming tyrant bosses, created a stress-induced, unsafe environment leading to numerous fatalities. Consequently, attempts to organize workers into unions as a means of collective protection were initiated.

On May 5, 1893, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was born and brought into being in Butte, Montana, according to The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, CIO-CCL (Congress of Industrial Organizations-Canadian Congress of Labour). WFM organizers were sent to British Columbia in 1906. In that same year, organizers came to Northern Ontario, where Local 146, Cobalt Miners Union, was chartered a member of the Western Federation of Miners. Within ten years the union had spread to many of the northern gold mines.1

This industrial union was based upon a democratic format. Its constitution highlighted the right to: secure earnings compatible with the dangers of employment; enact suitable mine safety laws and inspectors enforcing those laws; give employment preference of union members to non-union men; place a ban on child labour; and organize labour. It required a secret ballot vote by three-quarters of the members to enact a union strike. It also called for an annual convention of elected delegates.

Since its formation, the WFM had established strong affiliations with other American organizations in an attempt to build its numbers and credibility. By 1916, the union changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) in order to provide equal representation for all its members. While unionisation grew in the United States, it also expanded throughout northeastern Ontario. Labour strikes occurred in Cobalt, South Porcupine, and Kirkland Lake in order to gain better wages, job security, pensions, safer working conditions, and an eight-hour work day.

At the same time, Canadian and U.S. government and industry efforts to disband unionism resulted in a serious decline in membership for the union. In Northern Ontario, miners’ efforts to gain collective representation were effectively squashed when the slightest rumour of unionization escaped to management’s ears. Companies hired strike breakers and scab labour, and even went so far as to plant Pinkerton agents in the workplace to disrupt and sabotage union organizing. Attempts to organize a union in the Sudbury mines failed in 1911. By the 1930s, Sudbury’s mining operation was known as the most anti-union sweat shop in the country.2 

An important act passed by the United States Congress and approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 was the National Recovery Act. Within the act was Section 7A, known as the Wagner Act. It was significant because the “U.S. government had declared support for the right of workers to organize.”3 This act breathed life back into the dwindling union numbers of 1,500 members and six locals. Within a year, membership climbed to 15,000, represented by 94 locals.

A diluted Canadian version of the Wagner Act was the order-in-council PC 2685—a declaration in favour of unions in principle only, passed by the newly-elected Mackenzie King government. Known as Employee Representation Plans, it promoted voluntary recognition of unions by employers, and the right to negotiate collectively, as well as enacting dispute resolution by means of negotiations and conciliation, but it did not provide legislative protection for unions to organize or negotiate.

An employee representative communicated to the company complaints or requests for his group of workers. This provided an opportunity for men to air their beefs. “…it was considered a safety-valve to diffuse tempers and reduce the inclination to organize a union.”4

By 1937, The International Nickel Company organized an Employee Representation Plan and called it the Welfare Association. Each mine or plant had its own association. “However, the Welfare Association had no power to stop the firing nor the everlasting penalty layoffs,”5 a punitive reaction from the company when an infraction occurred.

During the mid to late 30s, efforts persisted to organize an independent union, namely Mine Mill, despite company schemes to interrupt, discourage and threaten those involved. Even World War II did not change the attitude of those involved in union organizing, because working conditions for the labourers had not changed: men could be fired at the whim of the supervisor, years of service and job seniority meant nothing, and safety was non-existent, according to an account by a retired Frood miner, Nick Stempien. “Conditions in the mine were terrible in the early days. Very hot and men were driven like slaves. Safety? There was no such thing. There was at least one man killed a week…They fired men for no reason at all…”.6 Tom Taylor, who worked at the smelter for a brief time during World War II, gave this account:

There were three things that worked well for Inco: sledgehammers, shovels and picks … We would tie rubber tires from cars on the bottom of our boots for three-inches of rubber between us and the floor so we could walk on hot matte that we were busting with our shovels and sledgehammers. That was the daily chore before we started. If you worked at the outer smelters, there was no place to go to the bathroom. You used a shovel and got rid of it the best way you knew how. There were no lunch facilities (outside) and cleanliness about washing hands first. You sat wherever you were … that was the way it was.7

During the war years, union meetings continued secretly, often at miners’ homes. Physical violence from company thugs against unionists or anyone with affiliations and lack of law enforcement became the norm. Two previous attempts to organize a local in Sudbury failed, yet discontented workers continued to spread the union message and soon a new unit began to organize.

The 1940-41 eleven-week strike in Kirkland Lake by Local 240 was an important event that helped pave the way for other unions to gain status. It brought to light the “mining companies’ brazen defiance of mediation attempts and the powerlessness of government conciliators.”8 Although the strike appeared to be a defeat at the time, it was the catalyst that brought more pressure to bear on governments to enact labour legislation, which eventually led toward “PC 1003, the order-in-council issued in 1944 that provided the framework for the post-war law guaranteeing the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.”9

Prior to government legislation, Mine Mill went public with its organizing campaign in 1942. However, a group of Inco shift bosses from Frood mine ransacked the union office and viciously beat two union workers. In reaction, 10,000 pamphlets were distributed stating the names of the perpetrators and denouncing the bullying behaviour. Unfortunately, this backfired and those distributing the pamphlets were apprehended and warned of breaking a city littering by-law. The main newspaper known as The Sudbury Daily Star, but often dubbed The Inco Star, reported the incident as “bogey,” contrived by the organizers themselves to gain local sympathy.

“While some, as yet, unidentified persons attempted to summon the support of the ‘pink’ friends on Parliament Hill, opinion in Sudbury appeared to be solidly behind the theory that the debacle was engineered by the C.I.O. in an effort to secure sympathy from a district which had not been welcoming their attentions with open arms,” according the Feb. 25, 1942 issue of The Sudbury Daily Star.

Consequently, Mine Millers were forced to go underground with their activities once again. By April 21, 1942, Local 598 received its charter.

That same year, the International Nickel Company set up its own company union called the United Copper-Nickel Workers (UCNW), but little support was shown for this new union, often referred to by workers as the “nickel rash.” In 1943, aggressive campaigning significantly increased membership numbers, leading to a weekly union publication called the Sudbury Beacon, bringing the organization to light one more time. Capitalizing on this momentum, meetings and rallies were held in rented offices and a meeting hall on Lisgar Street. This became the Mine Mill union hall until 1949, when a new hall was built on Regent Street.

On July 3 and 4, 1943, the Canadian Conference of Metal Miners met in Sudbury. Delegates from all Mine Mill locals in Canada were present, voting to press government to pass labour legislation recognizing the right of workers to bargain collectively. A month later, Bob Carlin, a strong International union activist nominated CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) candidate, was voted to the Ontario Legislature with an overwhelming majority. The CCF formed the official opposition in Ontario. The growing strength of the labour movement and the CCF’s popularity in the polls forced the passage of the Trade Union Act by the Ontario Liberals in 1943.10

With the new legislation in place, a certification vote was held. Local 598 won by a 70 per cent majority of all employees, and 80 per cent of all those who voted. Interestingly, the UCNW never became certified because it didn’t have enough members. On February 4, 1944, Sudbury Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, Local 598, was certified by the Ontario Labour Court as the collective bargaining agent for employees of Inco.

In the years following the war, this government-sanctioned union experienced major gains in its contracts, improving working conditions, union recognition and security, seniority within departments, and grievance procedures. Hours of work and overtime were specified, shift premiums for afternoon and night shifts were established, and third and fourth classes in the trades were abolished.

The early 50s saw further contract changes, including wage increases, 40-hour work weeks, increased holidays, contract bonus agreements, medical provisions, and insurance plans.