Excerpt: From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City: A Historical Geography of Greater Sudbury – by Oiva W. Saarinen

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Sudbury: A Union Town? (Part 2 of 5)

The Heyday of Mine Mill (1944–1958)

In line with the original mandate of the WFM, Local 598 turned its attention to spreading the cause of unionism into the service industries. While this mission was done in part to prevent the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) unions from organizing the service industries in Mine Mill strongholds, the broader desire to raise minimum wages that existed throughout Sudbury at the time was equally important. To face this situation, Local 902 was chartered as a General Workers’ Union in 1949. Existing CCL unions consisting mainly of bartenders quickly signed up. The ambitious campaign by Mine Mill to organize the remaining service workers in the area caused considerable consternation and resentment among Sudbury’s merchant class.

Despite several setbacks, Local 902 was able to boast twenty-four contracts (mainly at hotels) by the end of 1950. Among these contracts was one signed with the Sudbury Brewing and Malting Company. Another union achievement was its organization of grocery chain stories that were making their appearance in Sudbury. In a rapid-fire campaign, all the clerks at Dominion Stores were unionized by 1952. In 1954, Mine Mill became the first bona fide union at Loblaws in Ontario. Organizational drives continued, so that numerous bakeries, dairies, laundries, downtown shops, hardware stores, and a few minor industries were brought into the fold. Certification of the 5- and 10-cent chain stories proved to be more elusive.

Metropolitan Stores decided to close its operations in Sudbury rather than dealing with the union. The opposition shown by Kresge’s (now known as Kmart) was so strong that a union was never formed in its store.  Nonetheless, by 1956, Local 598 held fifty contracts in the Sudbury area. Although overshadowed by the size of Local 598, General Workers’ Union Local 902 managed to significantly contribute to the working-class history of the area, especially for its French-speaking members.

Another Local 598 aim was to serve as a working-class force within the social and cultural fabric of the community—a phenomenon previously unknown in the Sudbury area. To broaden its community appeal, Mine Mill instituted a welfare plan, participated in fundraising drives such as the Red Feather campaign (one of the forerunners to the present-day United Way Centraide movement), donated an iron lung to the Sudbury General Hospital to assist polio patients, paid for the maintenance of a mobile physiotherapy unit, and actively supported the construction of the Sudbury Community Arena. At the same time, it worked to fill the void that existed in the working-class sporting and recreational sphere, especially in Sudbury itself, which did not have many of the facilities common in the company towns. Entertainment for workers was often centred on the pubs made famous by Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “Sudbury Saturday Night” lyrics, and the sporting and hall activities developed by ethnic groups such as the Finns, Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Slovaks, and Serbs.

Local 598 continued the Western Federation of Miners tradition of building halls to serve its members. Using monies from the union’s building fund, a new hall was built in Sudbury between 1949 and 1952. Other Mine Mill halls were constructed in Garson (1953), Coniston (1956), Creighton (1957), and Chelmsford (1959). These venues served as meeting places for union members and were often used by the community at large, because they offered a variety of facilities and programs including dances, banquets, movies, babysitting services, bowling alleys, and boxing matches. The union sponsored baseball, hockey, and basketball teams as well. A unique venture Mine Mill took on was the creation of a campground on a 65-hectare property on Richard Lake in 1951. A lodge and several dormitories were added later.

In addition to this sporting and recreational infrastructure, the union ventured into the cultural sphere. Under Weir Reid, Mine Mill’s cultural program flourished, and its working-class members began to enjoy activities previously restricted to Sudbury’s elite. Unfortunately, Weir’s notable legacy was besmirched because of the intense union rivalry that occurred between Mine Mill and the Steelworkers after the strike of 1958.

Another Mine Mill legacy of the WFM was the important role accorded to the wives of the miners through Ladies’ Auxiliaries. These groups were formed with the belief that “a union is only half organized if it doesn’t have the women.” These auxiliaries were a constitutional adjunct and integral part of the union itself, and they participated fully in the life of the organization. As stated in the Canadian Constitution of Mine Mill at the time, “It shall be the aim and purposes of this Union to advance and promote the organization of Ladies’ Auxiliaries…. It shall be the right of the Auxiliaries to send delegates to all Conventions of the Union, to attend Local Union meetings and be free to express their opinions and make recommendations to these bodies.”

During Mine Mill’s initial drive, the Ladies’ Auxiliary Local 117 was formed in 1943. The women canvassed homes, spoke
to the wives of miners, and distributed handbills. In the heyday of Local 598’s recreational, cultural, and children’s camp programs, the women in this local were prominent in every activity. When the union halls were built in the outlying areas, auxiliaries appeared in these areas as well. During the 1958 strike, they played a leading role, blocking the efforts of local politicians to start a back-to-work movement among local women.14 They were so influential within the union that one of the first steps taken by the Steelworkers after their victory at Inco in 1962 was to disband the auxiliaries.

Seeds of Dissent

The early years of Mine Mill in Sudbury were relatively peaceful and positive for the entire community; however, while the rank and file members were united in their defiance of the mining companies, there were negative undercurrents that hinted at the power struggle to come. These seeds of dissent had their origin in the period prior to the Second World War. As in other parts of the world, radicalism in the Sudbury area consisted of many factions and ideologies, ranging from revolutionaries and communists on the far left to evolutionists and socialists on the more conservative side, or, as Jason Miller stated, there was “leftwing union versus right-wing union.”15 An anti-Communist observer, Frank Southern, wrote that “these two factions were the initial people who were going to be active in the union. That was the beginning of the big political fight in Sudbury. It started from day one.”16 This factionalism was later exacerbated by the formation of different labour organizations such as the OBU and the IWW, and competing government parties.

The relationship between the labour movement and political power was brought into sharp focus in the provincial election of 1943, when Bob Carlin was nominated as Sudbury’s CCF candidate. At this time, the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) endorsed the CCF as the political arm of labour in Canada. Carlin, a powerful union leader in Sudbury and close ally to Reid Robinson, the International President of Mine Mill and a Communist sympathizer, easily won provincial elections held in 1943 and 1945. For his support of Robinson, Carlin was appointed as a representative on the International Executive Board of Mine Mill. In the process, he alienated many in the conservative fold of the union, notably James Kidd, who would later become one of Carlin’s strongest opponents.

It was clear that the house of labour was divided. The schism over Communism became the most important issue at Mine Mill’s International Convention held in Cleveland in 1946, where the Robinson forces defeated a motion banning Communists
from holding office in Mine Mill. Undeterred, Kidd organized a series of heated debates with Carlin for control of local 598. Carlin’s support of the Robinson faction and his failure to support motions condemning “Soviet Imperialism” and “Communist totalitarianism” raised the ire of the CCL against him. His voting behaviour, along with the sin of permitting an article critical of another labour leader to be published in The Union, Mine Mill’s official newspaper, became the reasons that led the CCL to suspend Mine Mill from its ranks in 1949. While local Mine Mill members were not enthused about being suspended from the CCL, they rationalized the situation, believing that even a Communistdominated union was better than none at all; many of them remembered the old days when no union existed.17 As well, members acknowledged that Mine Mill had secured many improvements in the collective agreements signed after 1944.

The federal government was also involved with the controversy; it reacted to attempts by Mine Mill to build its strength in Ontario’s gold industry using US organizers, including Reid Robinson, by expelling them for their Communist tendencies. In the following year, the IUMMSW was turfed from the Congress for Industrial Organization (CIO) in the United States. This action in the United States was taken following the refusal of Mine Mill to adhere to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The act signified the beginning of the Cold War, requiring union leaders to sign pledges affirming that they were against Communism. Mine Mill’s popularity also suffered when its leaders opposed the Marshall Plan, formulated to revitalize war-torn Europe. In the meantime, Carlin’s flirtations with Communist elements in Mine Mill aroused the suspicions of his fellow CCF party members; his refusal to assist the party in expelling Robinson and other Communist organizers from the gold fields of Ontario resulted in his loss of the CCF nomination for the provincial election of 1948.

In an action that violated the CCF constitution, he ran as an independent candidate against the CCF nominee in the provincial election of this year. Following the victory of the Conservative candidate, Carlin was summarily expunged from the CCF. Carlin’s actions were significant in that they externalized the seeds of dissent regarding Mine Mill. What had previously been a matter of internal division in the union was brought out into the open: the battle now involved powerful state interests in Canada and the United States, as well as the international labour movement. In Sudbury, the fight involved the biased editorials of the influential Sudbury Star.

Around the turn of the 1950s, external and internal pressures on Mine Mill intensified. The Korean War brought with it military tensions, ones that were heightened by Cold War fears and the growth of anti-Communism. New anti-union and civil rights limitations were promulgated in the United States to stifle dissent. The situation can be compared to the paranoia that gripped the United States following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Among the first targets were the militant unions within the CIO, especially the IUMMSW. Raids on Mine Mill began, based on the belief that it was Communist-controlled. This was the signal for its opponents to attack Mine Mill in Canada and Sudbury.

One of the premises for Mine Mill’s expulsion from the CCL in 1949 was that such a move would make it easier for other unions to raid the Sudbury local. This was made evident later in the year, when the CCL approved an application by the Steelworkers to enter Mine Mill’s jurisdiction. After this decision, the CCL awarded Mine Mill’s jurisdiction to the Steelworkers for the paltry sum of $50 000. Although the decision applied to all of Canada, mining operations in Ontario became the focal point for the Steelworkers attacks on Mine Mill. Shortly thereafter, Mine Mill was decisively defeated in the gold mines of the Timmins area. Early attempts made in 1950 and 1952 by the Steelworkers and conservative dissidents, assisted by the Roman Catholic clergy, to usurp Mine Mill in Sudbury proved to be unsuccessful. It was at this juncture that Nels Thibault and Mike Solski were enlisted to counter the Steelworkers. These two individuals soon gained considerable power within Mine Mill and became formidable opponents to the Steelworkers and others during the 1950s and 1960s. While Mine Mill attempted some forays into the field of municipal and provincial politics to strengthen its position, these moves had little success.

In 1955, Mine Mill made a major administrative decision that was to have serious consequences for Local 598. In this year, Mine Mill became the first international union to be granted autonomy because of its Canadian membership. This movement, started as early as 1943, had been spurred by the “Canadian fact” and nationalistic sentiments that Canadian members should be free to govern their own affairs. The autonomy issue gained momentum in the 1950s because of the difficulties that Mine Mill faced in the United States due to its Communist leanings. This process culminated in 1955, when a Canadian constitution and Canadian executive board were approved by Mine Mill.

While this event was welcomed at the time, few realized the problems that this autonomy would cause later for Mine Mill in general, and Local 598 in particular. In 1956, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) made a decision that the Canadian Mine Mill was, in fact, a new legal entity. This decision was a strategic loss for Mine Mill in Canada, as it made it virtually impossible for the union to succeed in organizing the uranium mines at Elliot Lake. The ensuing “dogfight” that took place at Elliot Lake made it clear that the battle was less about Communism and more about the struggle for union supremacy. At the same time, James Kidd continued his harassment of Mine Mill in Sudbury. For his actions, he was expelled from Mine Mill. Kidd remained unfazed by this turn of events, as he had by this time become a full-time staff member of the Steelworkers that had established an office in Sudbury to pursue the demise of Mine Mill.

The depression that started in the non-ferrous metals industry in 1957, the negotiations between Mine Mill and Inco in 1958, and the Diefenbaker government’s “hold-the-line” dictate all provided a brief hiatus for Sudbury’s inter-union battle. The situation changed totally when Mine Mill called the 1958 strike, a step that had tremendous consequences for Mine Mill’s future in the Sudbury area.

End of Excerpt

The Book

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.

The Author

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 1 of 5,  click here:  http://republicofmining.com/2013/06/17/excerpt-from-meteorite-impact-to-constellation-city-a-historical-geography-of-greater-sudbury-by-oiva-w-saarinen-2/

For “Sudbury: A Union Town?” Part 3 of 5, click here: http://republicofmining.com/2013/06/20/excerpt-from-meteorite-impact-to-constellation-city-a-historical-geography-of-greater-sudbury-by-oiva-w-saarinen-4/

To order a copy of  “From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City”,  please click here: http://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/Catalog/saarinen-meteorite.shtml

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