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.

Vanessa Childs Rolls Her­itage

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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.

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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.

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