When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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What was happening in the mining communities of southern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia was the equivalent of the Yukon Gold Rush. There was no way in which housing, schools, hospitals (all the infrastructure of community living) could keep pace with the rapid growth. As well, conditions in the mines themselves were difficult at best and the competing interests of the mine owners (and government) were sometimes on a collision course with miners’ needs.

Replica of IWW PosterThe United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) actively recruited in the region and their materials were translated into different languages to more easily communicate the message that unionization was a means of protecting and affirming workers’ rights. In addition, many coal miners saw their conditions as the direct result of capitalism and the systemic exploitation of the working classes. This group of militants envisioned “One Big Union” (OBU) to protect their interests. Thus, labour organization would shift from one based on a “craft” or trade to one based on all workers in all industries coming together. At the forefront were the coal miners of District 18 of the UMWA, which comprised western Canada. They wanted to withdraw from the UMWA and set up their own district—District 1, Mining Department, OBU. The UMWA tried to crush this splinter movement and in the period 1919-20 there were a number of strikes and lockouts. It was an idealistic attempt to get workers to see their commonalities rather than differences but was doomed to failure by entrenched craft and trade thinking dating back to the Middle Ages.

In addition, the Winnipeg General Strike, which began in May 1919, set off other strikes in support. Edmonton and Calgary both saw strikes and, in August 1919, violence broke out in Drumheller. Strikebreakers, drawn from returning veterans, attacked the miners and their homes. The miners, largely immigrants, were OBU supporters.

In response to the strikes and also demands of the owners to control production, the Alberta Coal Mining Industry Commission was struck and hearings took place over a two-and-one-half month period beginning October 6th, 1919, in Edmonton. Other hearing sites included Calgary, Drumheller, Lethbridge, Wayne, Edson and Blairmore. Of 12 recommendations, only three deal with issues pertinent to the welfare of miners.

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