The so-called ‘Great Strike’ really was a lockout, part 1 – by T.W. Paterson (The Citizen – September 6, 2013) [Cowichan Valley Citizen]

It devastated families, divided communities, set trade unionism on the Island back by more than a decade and left memories – for many, bitter, bitter memories – that survived for several generations.

August 2013. As you stand in brilliant late summer sunshine at Ladysmith’s First and French Streets, you’re surrounded by busy traffic, neat and well-maintained businesses, the historic Eagles’ Hall and some roadside artifacts dating from this 49th parallel city’s heyday as a shipping port for coal from the Extension mines.

It taxes your imagination to picture this intersection as it would have appeared in August 1913.

That’s when Ladysmith was a city besieged, having been placed under the equivalent of martial law by order of the provincial government. That’s when the Eagles Hall was headquarters to hundreds of armed soldiers, uniformed policemen and civvies-clad special constables who patrolled these very streets amid sand-bagged machine gun emplacements while on the lookout for, and often provoking, confrontations with hundreds of angry, striking coal miners.

We remember it, a century after, as the Great Strike. It could be argued that it was really the Great Lockout. That’s the way it began, in September 1912, as a lockout, when Vancouver Island’s mine owners collectively refused to recognize the miners’ right to join a union or to improve working conditions.

Previous attempts to unionize had failed in the 1880s and ’90s. The American-based United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which began labouring for collective bargaining rights in the Island coal fields in 1910, wasn’t the first workers’ organization to attempt to do so but, unlike its smaller, less affluent predecessors, could offer strike pay from its large coffers swelled from the dues of hundreds of thousands of American miners. (Even that treasury would be challenged when, having committed financial support to Island coal miners, the UMWA subsequently became embroiled in a major, lengthy and bloody strike on home soil, in Colorado.

Ostensibly, the Great Strike started over the matter of safety underground which had always been an issue, particularly since a disastrous explosion in the Extension mine killed 32 men just three years before. But working conditions, wages and union recognition were also key factors. As was the toxic alliance of intransigent mine owners and a conservative provincial government who interpreted the more radical socialistic principles espoused by some miners as evidence of a plot to bring about revolution against the capitalist system.

This time, events and emotions and the competing agendas escalated until the coal mining communities of South Wellington, Extension, Ladysmith, Nanaimo, Wellington and Cumberland were brought to a virtual standstill for almost two years. Two years! It ended just in time for even greater conflict, this one distant, the First World War.

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