Men of steel
Steelworkers survived tough times before unions
In 1919, the Dominion Steel Corporation was taken over by the British Empire Steel Corporation run by Roy Wolvin.
BESCO was plagued with financial difficulties from the start. The company had trouble securing customers in the Canadian market and they could not compete with cheaper American coal and steel. To survive, BESCO needed to reduce costs. So the company decided to cut wages, in some cases by two-thirds. Unionism spiked in both the steel and coal industry. One of the biggest strikes was the 1923 Sydney Steel strike.
However, Roy Wolvin did not intend to allow a union that was not a company union to be established at BESCO.
“The policy of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company is to maintain the open shop … trade unionism is wrong in principle … and will not be tolerated by this company,” said Wolvin.
It was this hard stance on unionism that facilitated the 1923 steel strike and led to the workers referring to Wolvin as Roy the Wolf.
The conditions at the steel plant were also cause for concern amongst the workers. They worked 11 hours by day and 13 hours by night. They worked seven days a week with no vacation or holidays. Work conditions were also dangerous as most men handled molten steel with very little safety protection. On June 28, 1923, a group of 100 striking men rushed the plant gates and tried to scare away the men working at the number one boiler house. The city police were called and Mr. Hill, a manager at the steel plant, read the group the riot act. Several objects were thrown at him, one even knocking him out. Although no damage was done to plant property, the company felt they needed more force to keep the strikers at bay.
Roy Wolvin convinced the premier of Nova Scotia that there was an outbreak of Bolshevism that needed federal and provincial intervention to maintain the peace. Premier Ernest Howard Armstrong was also aware that BESCO provided two-thirds of the provincial government’s revenue and was responsible for 45 per cent of the coal mined in Canada. Any stoppage would impact the province’s bottom line. A train full of federal troops and provincial police arrived on June 30. They installed machine guns at the gate and called in the provincial police to protect the scab workers and keep the strikers under control. The soldiers and police camped at the plant.
On Sunday, July 1, 1923, or Bloody Sunday, a group of mounted provincial police rode down Victoria Road and into Whitney Pier. They charged a group of people returning home from church. They galloped in, bats and clubs swinging. One group was followed by a mounted police officer into the lobby of a local hotel. Men, women, and children were trampled and beaten.
Cape Breton Labour activist J. B. McLachlin wrote about the incident and drew attention to the cause through a sympathetic strike by the coal miners. Their timing was unfortunate as the financially struggling company took the strike as a shutdown that they were in no hurry to end. McLachlin however was arrested for seditious libel shortly thereafter.
John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, placed district 26 under his trusteeship and suspended its leaders. This ended the miner’s sympathetic strike.
After the steel workers lost the support of the miners they were faced with mass eviction from their company owned homes. This pressure caused the strikers to fold. They gave up their demands and accepted a company union. The company announced that with a reduction in steel orders they were unable to employ as many workers as they had before the strike. Also, several strikers were blacklisted. Unable to work they ended up leaving the area. There was no one left to lead the union charge at the steel plant. Those who were lucky enough to get rehired but had been vocal during the strike were given less than glamorous jobs on the plant. Some of the men called it purgatory. The company union ran until the United Steel Workers of America established a union in 1936.
A man looks at the armed troops brought in during the Sydney Steel Plant Strike of 1923. 89-510-18705. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.
Tents are shown on the steel plant site during 1923 strike, a time of tension for local workers. 89-517-18712. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.
It may seem hard to believe now but army troops patrolled the steel plant on horseback in 1923. 89-505-18700, Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.