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Sudbury: A Union Town? (Part 1 of 5)
While Sudbury’s history has been intimately associated with the corporate aspect of resource extraction, this linkage also brought with it another aspect of the mining spectrum—unionism. Indeed, Sudbury has long had the reputation of being a union town. While most Sudburians have traditionally taken pride in this image, for others it has been regarded as a dubious distinction. The latter view, for instance, is explicit in the book For the Years to Come, a history of International Nickel of Canada written by one of the company’s chairmen in 1960, where the existence of Mine Mill did not even warrant mention in the book’s index.
When viewed in the context of Inco’s traditional hegemony in Sudbury and its influence in the corridors of power in Toronto and Ottawa, and the lack of interest shown by other Canadians to Sudbury’s woes related to hazardous working conditions, mining assessments, and environmental issues, it was inevitable that some counterforce to this capitalism would appear.
This resistance came in the form of the only option available to workers: unionism, notably via the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW), known locally as Mine Mill. For three decades, Mine Mill had an honourable tradition of supporting its union members and the wider community through cultural programs and fundraising activities. Its presence was sufficiently strong in the 1950s to encourage the rise of unions in other sectors of the community.
Throughout its early years, Mine Mill successfully faced many challenges, some of them internal, and others from a variety of external forces elsewhere in Canada and the United States. While these forces ultimately combined to bring about the demise of the union at Inco’s operations in 1962, Mine Mill managed to reign supreme at Falconbridge’s operations. The takeover of Mine Mill at Inco by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA or the Steelworkers) in 1962 is legendary in the annals of union history, and many miners and retirees today still remember the bitterness that accompanied this epic battle.
As subsequent events revealed, the victory of the Steelworkers’ union over Mine Mill turned out to be bittersweet for the two factions and the community at large. Beginning in1966, the Sudbury area witnessed a turbulent pattern of recurring strikes against Inco/Vale Canada and alconbridge Ltd./Xstrata Nickel that has continued into the present day.
The strike involving Vale Canada and the Steelworkers that took place in 2009 and 2010, however, was a watershed in terms of the history of labour and management relationships in the Sudbury area. The outcome of the strike not only represented a major victory for company management but also demonstrated the futility of the traditional adversarialbargaining approach, and illustrated the need for more flexible stances on both sides to ensure the long-term viability of the mining company and the union. The muted response on the part of the community to the strike raised the question as to whether Sudbury could any longer be considered a hardcore union town.
The beginning of unionism in the Sudbury area started with the IUMMSW.2 This union can trace its roots back to 1893, when the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was formed at Butte, Montana. The first local of the WFM in Canada was established at Rossland, British Columbia in 1895. It was 1906 before the first miners’ union was formed by the WFM in Ontario, at Cobalt. Two more locals were then formed at Garson Mine and in Sudbury in 1913. At these sites, Finnish immigrant workers were especially supportive due to their previous exposure to socialist thought in Finland.
As I have written elsewhere, working class radicalism in Sudbury expressed itself most strongly in the mining industry, where the eighty-four-hour work week and dangerous conditions were the norm. Hazardous conditions in the mines, and the feeling among workers that coroners’ investigations always absolved the mining companies in the death of miners, encouraged Finns to turn to socialism and unionism as a match to corporate power. The first strikes at Canadian Copper in 1899, 1903 and 1904 were led by Italians; it was not until 1909 that Finnish activism started at the Mond Mine in Garson.
When the mine supervisor demanded that a Finn by the name of Gus Viitasaari pay for a damaged tool, he was fired for his refusal to do so. Despite the lack of a union, the next shift went on strike demanding that he be rehired and not forced to pay for the drill. The Mond Company reluctantly agreed to this first show of strength among the Finns. From this point on, the trail of the Finnish mine worker could be seen in every subsequent strike.
When the two unions showed signs of growth, mining companies responded by hiring the Pinkerton spy agency and ransacking union offices in Garson and Sudbury for membership lists. These lists were then used to blacklist union members. The mining companies’ practice of blacklisting was made public at the hearings of the Royal Commission on Industrial Relations, held in Sudbury in 1919, where a miner gave the following testimony: “I know that immediately a man takes an active part in labour organization he is discharged from his position.” Particularly irksome to miners was the fact that employment could be brought to an end on the simple whim of a boss, or saved by means of “whisky seniority.”
Accidents and the lack of compensation were other serious concerns. While the Ontario Bureau of Mines’ 1912 report noted that there were 43 deaths and 341 serious accidents at the mines and workplaces regulated by the Mining Act of Ontario, ensuing investigations resulted in the prosecution of four workmen and the fining of only one company for $100. As the Bureau’s 1913 report blandly states, “the majority of non-fatal accidents were due to carelessness and incompetence of the injured workers.” Judgments such as this were the norm, so mining companies found it easy to fire workers and limit compensation awards.
As a result of continued company threats, both of the existing unions disappeared in 1916. In the same year, the WFM disbanded and was renamed the IUMMSW. Another local was formed at Coniston in 1919, but it too floundered. These failures notwithstanding, the province was sufficiently worried about the level of labour unrest to pass the nofault Workmen’s Compensation Act in 1914, and additional legislation in 1918, limiting the hours of work in the mines to eight in any one day.
Following the First World War, the advance of unionism in North America was stalled by a severe economic depression, internal divisions involving the International Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States and the One Big Union (OBU) movement in Canada, and campaign against unions by both government and industry. Government attacks were fostered by fears of the Russian Revolution spreading to North America. The mining shutdowns that occurred in Sudbury between 1920 and 1922 were sufficient to extinguish any spark of unionism that might have prevailed. After 1925, the IUMMSW ceased to function in Canada. It was not until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President of the United States in 1933, and the passage of the Wagner Act in the same year giving workers the right to organize, that Mine Mill came back to life. In 1935, Mine Mill became one of the founding unions behind the formation of the Committee (later Congress) for Industrial Organization (CIO) in the United States.
The events in the United States spurred Mine Mill’s reentry into the mining camps of Northern Ontario in 1936, especially in Sudbury where organizers thought that victory would allow the union to sweep into other areas. To this end, two locals were formed in 1936 and 1937, in Sudbury and Garson respectively. Due to continued company resistance, the destruction of a union office in collusion with law enforcement, and a lack of support from the international headquarters in the United States, the two unions were forced to dissolve before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Order-in-Council 2685, issued by the federal Mackenzie King government in 1941, stated that “workers should be free to organize in trade unions, free from control by employers or their agents.” It looked fine on paper, but its power was illusionary because the government failed to introduce any implementation measures. This weakness was apparent when the gold mine owners at Kirkland Lake, in 1941–42, successfully defied federal legislation by refusing to recognize or negotiate with a Mine Mill local. While the three-month strike that occurred during the winter was ostensibly a huge defeat for the union, its long-term effects were the opposite. When the Kirkland Lake miners left the area to seek employment in other industrial centres of the province, including Sudbury, they were powerful forces encouraging the spread of unionism.
In Sudbury, the situation was complicated by the industry’s refusal to relocate experienced miners from Kirkland Lake. The plight of the Kirkland Lake workers gained considerable support from the public and many church pulpits. Even more ominous in the eyes of the provincial and federal governments was the rise of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) political party. Standing for economic reform, the party won a crucial federal by-election in 1942 that prevented the Conservative leader, former prime minister Arthur Meighen, from entering the House of Commons. In the following year, the CCF became the official opposition in Ontario.
The growing strength of the labour movement and the CCF’s popularity in the provincial polls resulted in the passage of the Trade Union Act by the Ontario Liberals in 1943. In response to these events, the federal government enacted Order-in-Council PC 1003 establishing Wartime Labour Relations Regulations in 1944: these guaranteed the right of workers to choose the union they wanted to represent them without outside interference, and directed employers to bargain in good faith. These legislative enactments were potent legal forces that cleared the way for a new era of unions in Sudbury, one that lasted until the election of the Harris government in Ontario.
The stage was thus set for the rise of unionism in Sudbury. The new era started when Mine Mill Local 598 was formed, in considerable secrecy, in 1941. When the union openly established an office in downtown Sudbury early in 1942, there was a brutal attack on union officials that was condoned by the police and the Sudbury media, notably The Sudbury Star (referred to by mine workers as the Inco Star). Due to this opposition, Mine Mill found it necessary to initiate a secret sign-up campaign and created its own weekly paper known as the Sudbury Beacon. Despite the success of Local 598 in signing up members, Inco steadfastly refused to recognize Mine Mill’s bargaining authority and asserted that it had an agreement with its own company union known as the United Copper-Nickel Workers (UCNW) established in 1942 (this union was popularly called the “Nickel Rash”). A similar company union was formed at Falconbridge Nickel.
When Bob Carlin, running for the CCF in Sudbury, won a landslide victory, the die was finally cast in the union’s favour. Following certification as a union in December 1943, Mine Mill became the bargaining agent for employees at both Inco and Falconbridge Nickel Mines, with Mel Withers serving as the first president to more than 10 100 employees. Once certification was announced, the bargaining process moved with surprising speed.
The first contract between Mine Mill and Inco was signed on March 10, 1944; a similar agreement was reached between Mine Mill and Falconbridge Nickel Mines on April 19 of the same year. Local 598 was then certified at the Canadian Industries (CIL) sulphuric acid plant and negotiated a contract for workers there by June 15, 1944. History was made without a single man-day being lost in production. The signing of the contracts set a pattern, whereby negotiations with Falconbridge Nickel Mines and CIL would follow the precedent set by Inco. With the agreements in place, Local 598 not only acquired the honour of being the largest local chartered by Mine Mill, but also the largest in Canada. From this point in time, union presidents became part of the power structure in the Sudbury area.
One notable gain in these first contracts was the replacement of the earlier “face-to face”
interpretation of the eight-hour day with the “collar-to-collar” provision. Previously, the eight-hour day had been calculated from the time miners arrived at their exact locations in the mines until they left at the end of the shift. The new provision meant that their hours of work would begin as soon as they entered the mine collar to be lowered by cage into the mine. The time clock would then run until miners reached the surface. For miners, this often meant the working day was shortened by more than an hour with no loss of pay.
Another important aspect of these contracts was a provision inherited from the WFM constitution forbidding discrimination by the company or the union against any employee on the basis of sex, race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry, place of origin, or political opinion. The clause regarding freedom of political expression later became the dominant issue in the battle for labour supremacy in the United States and Canada. Other important gains were made with respect to seniority rights in all departments, and the introduction of grievance procedures. These accomplishments were significant. For the first time in Sudbury’s mining history, workers had finally gained some dignity in the workplace.
End of Excerpt
From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City is a historical geography of the City of Greater Sudbury. The story that began billions of years ago encompasses dramatic physical and human events. Among them are volcanic eruptions, two meteorite impacts, the ebb and flow of continental glaciers, Aboriginal occupancy, exploration and mapping by Europeans, exploitation by fur traders and Canadian lumbermen and American entrepreneurs, the rise of global mining giants, unionism, pollution and re-greening, and the creation of a unique constellation city of 160,000.
The title posits the book’s two main themes, one physical in nature and the other human: the great meteorite impact of some 1.85 billion years ago and the development of Sudbury from its inception in 1883. Unlike other large centres in Canada that exhibit a metropolitan form of development with a core and surrounding suburbs, Sudbury developed in a pattern resembling a cluster of stars of differing sizes.
Many of Sudbury’s most characteristic attributes are undergoing transformation. Its rocky terrain and the negative impact from mining companies are giving way to attractive neighbourhoods and the planting of millions of trees. Greater Sudbury’s blue-collar image as a union powerhouse in a one-industry town is also changing; recent advances in the fields of health, education, retailing, and the local and international mining supply and services sector have greatly diversified its employment base. This book shows how Sudbury evolved from a village to become the regional centre for northeastern Ontario and a global model for economic diversification and environmental rehabilitation.
Oiva Saarinen received an Honors B.A. (1960) and an M.A. (1969) from the University of Western Ontario and a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of London in 1979. He retired from Laurentian University in 2003. He is the author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Historical Geography of the Finns in the Sudbury Area (WLU Press, 1999).
For “Sudbury: A Union Town?” Part 2 of 5, click here: http://republicofmining.com/2013/06/18/excerpt-from-meteorite-impact-to-constellation-city-a-historical-geography-of-greater-sudbury-by-oiva-w-saarinen-3/#more-22345
To order a copy of “From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City”, please click here: http://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/Catalog/saarinen-meteorite.shtml