The Great Amherst Gen­eral Strike of 1919 – Part 5 The unions flex their mus­cles

The Amherst News - - COMMUNITY - Gor­don Good­win is a di­rec­tor of the mu­seum and is the re­tired Pres­i­dent and CEO of the G&G Group of Com­pa­nies.

The pres­ence in Amherst of SPC sym­pa­thiz­ers may have pro­vided the Mar­itimers with a link to the OBU.

In the pre-war years Amherst so­cial­ists sus­tained an ac­tive SPC branch that in­cluded such prom­i­nent Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of Labour or­ga­niz­ers as moul­ders Wil­liam Mcln­nis and Arthur McArthur, and Clarence Joise, a car­pen­ter.

Al­though it is not clear whether these men re­mained SPC mem­bers, the SPC did ex­pe­ri­ence a re­vival in Amherst af­ter the war and its ac­tiv­i­ties gave the town di­rect con­tact with events in western Canada, where ac­tivists such as Vic­tor Mid­g­ley, R.B. Rus­sell, and W.A. Pritchard, were in­volved in or­ga­niz­ing the OBU

The over­lap in SPC and OBU per­son­nel in the west was ap­par­ent to Amherst so­cial­ists and un­doubt­edly in­flu­enced them in the di­rec­tion of the OBU Yet, al­though this re­la­tion­ship may ex­plain the Amherst so­cial­ists’ in­ter­est in the OBU, it does not ex­plain why the ma­jor­ity of Amherst union mem­bers fol­lowed suit.

In fact, the de­ci­sion of these Mar­itime work­ers to throw their lot in with a labour or­ga­ni­za­tion cen­tered in western Canada is not as sur­pris­ing as it may ap­pear. First, sim­i­lar to much of the west, Amherst lacked a strong craft union tra­di­tion. Ex­cept for the IMU, craft unions had been un­able to pro­tect skilled work­ers against the em­ploy­ers’ as­saults on their work­ing con­di­tions. Thus, in Amherst, the weak­ness of craft unions among skilled work­ers en­cour­aged them to ex­plore dif­fer­ent forms of work­ing class or­ga­ni­za­tion. An­other fac­tor in the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor’s de­ci­sion to af­fil­i­ate with the western­ers was the ini­tial ide­o­log­i­cal eclec­ti­cism of the OBU.

Be­cause no sin­gle po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion dom­i­nated the OBU’s early ac­tiv­i­ties, var­i­ous so­cial­ist and syn­di­cate ten­den­cies found a home in the union. Al­though this would change over the next few years, in the spring of 1919 the union’s flex­i­bil­ity on po­lit­i­cal and in­dus­trial strate­gies opened the OBU to many work­ers who oth­er­wise might have re­jected it.

This was im­por­tant in Amherst where the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor’s lead­er­ship was not in­flu­enced by the syn­di­cate ten­dency pop­u­lar in the west. In March 1919, Frank Burke headed the Amherst del­e­ga­tion at­tend­ing a Hal­i­fax meet­ing of pro­vin­cial labour lead­ers, which es­tab­lished a pro­vin­cial fed­er­a­tion of labour and dis­cussed form­ing an in­de­pen­dent labour party to con­test the next pro­vin­cial elec­tion.

CM. Ar­se­nault, Pic­tou County labour spokesman and edi­tor of the Eastern Fed­er­a­tion also ad­vo­cated in­de­pen­dent labour pol­i­tics. In 1919, Ar­se­nault spent many days in Amherst as­sist­ing in the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor’s or­ga­ni­za­tion and cam­paign­ing for the build­ing of a labour party.

The in­dus­trial rather than craft em­pha­sis in the OBU also at­tracted lo­cal sup­port to the union be­cause the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor was al­ready an in­dus­trial union or­ga­nized along the prin­ci­ples of One Big Union­ism.

In the spring of 1919, lo­cal work­ers ex­hib­ited in their ac­tions a sol­i­dar­ity that was unique in Amherst’s his­tory. Rel­a­tively mi­nor is­sues ex­ploded into hotly con­tested dis­putes. When a man was ac­cused of steal­ing tools from his em­ployer he was ac­quit­ted even though the judge in his charge to the jury had no hes­i­ta­tion in say­ing that the ac­cused was ‘not a de­sir­able cit­i­zen in the com­mu­nity.

This episode and events, like the day­light sav­ing time dis­pute, wor­ried the edi­tor of the Daily News be­cause though class con­scious­ness has never been one of the par­tic­u­lar man­i­fes­ta­tions of the work­ing­man of this com­mu­nity, there is no ques­tion that it is show­ing a greater strength among them to­day than it ever did be­fore.

On 1 May, events at the Cana­dian Car & Foundry al­most pre­cip­i­tated a gen­eral strike when moul­der Fred Reid was fired for protest­ing the as­sign­ment of his helper to an­other job. At a hastily con­vened meet­ing of the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor, some mem­bers de­manded a gen­eral strike to force the com­pany to re­in­state Reid.

Al­though a ma­jor­ity of the work­ers at the meet­ing sym­pa­thized with Reid’s plight, they de­cided to de­lay strike ac­tion since many of them had just re­turned to work af­ter long lay­offs. An­other con­sid­er­a­tion of the mem­ber­ship was that Frank Burke and Wil­liam Mcln­nis were sched­uled to leave shortly for Mon­treal to open ne­go­ti­a­tions with Cana­dian Car & Foundry of­fi­cials and many Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor work­ers felt that strike ac­tion should be de­layed un­til the re­sults of these gen­eral bar­gain­ing ses­sions were known.

The two Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor lead­ers trav­elled to Mon­treal on May 15 and, af­ter sev­eral days of fruit­less ne­go­ti­a­tions, climbed aboard an east bound train for Amherst, where a del­e­ga­tion of work­ers met them at the sta­tion

To protest re­cent mea­sures adopted by the car works’ man­age­ment. While Burke and Mcln­nis ne­go­ti­ated in Mon­treal, the com­pany di­rec­tors had in­structed their Amherst man­ager to in­tro­duce the nine-hour day with­out a pro­vi­sion for ten hours pay.

The com­pany’s uni­lat­eral ac­tion par­tic­u­larly in­fu­ri­ated the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor of­fi­cials be­cause they per­ceived it as an at­tempt to cir­cum­vent the union. On Mon­day, May 19, the car work­ers milled around the gates to the Cana­dian Car & Foundry shops. The em­ploy­ees re­fused to be­gin the day’s shift and “formed in pa­rade march­ing through the prin­ci­ple [sic] streets” of Amherst to their meet­ing hall.

As the meet­ing com­menced, many work­ers vented their frus­tra­tions with man­age­ment but it was Burke who fo­cussed their anger onto two is­sues: union recog­ni­tion and wage dif­fer­en­tials between eastern and cen­tral Cana­dian work­ers.

Burke ar­gued that the com­pany pre­cip­i­tated the cri­sis by re­fus­ing to rec­og­nize that the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor had “a right to be con­sulted on any changes of hours, or rules of wages, af­fect­ing the men”. Burke also de­manded that the com­pany ex­tend to Amherst its agree­ment with Mon­treal em­ploy­ees for fewer hours with no de­crease in take-home pay.

Af­ter lis­ten­ing to Burke and sev­eral other Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor of­fi­cials, the car work­ers dis­persed with a call for an emer­gency meet­ing of the union that evening.

News of the trou­ble at the car works spread quickly through­out Amherst and the evening meet­ing was crowded with work­ers who “de­cided that em­ploy­ees of all in­dus­tries in the town, in­clud­ing town em­ploy­ees cease work on Tues­day morn­ing.”

Al­though the strike was called to sup­port Dane Lodge mem­bers, the em­ploy­ees of each in­dus­try were di­rected to meet sep­a­rately to pre­pare ad­di­tional de­mands to be pre­sented to the town’s em­ploy­ers along with the ba­sic pro­pos­als for recog­ni­tion of the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor and the eight hour day.

On Tues­day morn­ing, ev­ery fac­tory re­mained closed build­ing trades work­ers struck, and the towns out­side work­ers left their jobs. In the evening, the Amherst Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor staged the largest work­ing class rally in Amherst’s his­tory. Between 2,000 to 3,000 work­ers met at the Labour Hall, re­ported the Eastern Fed­er­a­tion, formed in a line and pa­raded to the square. Af­ter speeches by lo­cal and vis­it­ing labour spokes­men, Frank Burke re­counted some of the back­ground to the dis­pute and pro­claimed the union’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to stand firm un­til its de­mands were ac­cepted by the man­u­fac­tur­ers.

A visit to the mu­seum will pro­vide a com­plete view­ing of all the won­der­ful his­tor­i­cal photo, dis­plays and ar­ti­facts, for a min­i­mum visit fee.

The mu­seum fall/win­ter hours are now 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tues­day through Fri­day.

To gain pub­lic ac­cess, please con­tact Natasha Richard, cu­ra­tor/man­ager at 902-667-2561.


In 1919 or­ga­nized labour be­gan to flex its mus­cle in Amherst at sev­eral in­dus­tries.

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