|Strikes—The Drumheller Strike of 1919|
Page 1 | 2
The year 1919 was a period of industrial unrest in many parts of the world. The war had ended but not the tension nor the anxiety for a better post-war deal. No sooner had World War 1 ended when the labour war began, accompanied by strikes and violence, in March of 1919, at a Western Labour Conference in Calgary, a new union originated with the trade unions of Great Britain, the news union itself was to be all Canadian and for Canadian workers only. The aim of this "One Big Union" was to unite all workers, both white collar and manual, under one leadership. It was to work in the interests of labour and was to be totally disaffiliated from International Unions.
During the spring of 1919, the coal miners of the Drumheller Valley went on what would become the Valley's most notorious strike. Joining over 5,500 miners from Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, the Drumheller Valley miners broke away from the ineffectual international United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). A key component of the dissatisfaction with the UMWA was the issue of union dues. The dues paid by the Drumheller miners were sent to the UMWA head office in the United States, and always left a shortage of union funds in the Valley. The Drumheller miners, who were part of UMWA's District 18, were also at odds with the international union over the issue of contract mining. While the Canadian miners wanted the UMWA to abolish contract mining, eastern American miners wished it to remain and even threatened to suspend funding to the Canadian District 18."
This was the final insult for many of the western Canadian UMWA members They decided it was time to join an all-Canadian union where such issues could be dealt with in an expeditious manner. The 5,500 miners held a vote in which 95% were in favour of joining the newly formed all-Canadian One Big Union (OBU). This lent to the swift and dramatic rise in popularity of the OBU movement as the coal miners wanted ameliorated working and living conditions. Since the UMWA was ineffective in addressing these types of issues, the Drumheller miners decided it was time for a change.
Squalid, overcrowded company "houses" coupled with poor or no sanitation and lack of medical facilities made mining towns prime reservoirs of disease. Unemployed or underemployed miners couldn't feed their families properly, and schools were completely inadequate. This was the hot bed which produced labour unrest which swept district 19 in the years following World War 1.
The miners also had little control over wage roll backs and, at some camps, the men were not paid in cash, but only in company scrip. This limited the miners to making purchases only at mine-owned businesses at grossly inflated prices. As well, the scrip was not generally honoured by independent establishments.
Furthermore, the philosophy behind the OBU was to unite all working people under one gargantuan industrial union. This meant that the working classes could have a very powerful bargaining tool, and the miners would not lose their dues or grievances to a distant international union. In the view of the Valley miners, the OBU meant the disaffiliation with international trade unions that were indifferent to their vested interests."
The One Big Union, which was formed in Calgary in March of 1919, condemned private industry and profit making at the expense of the working classes, it also sent support and congratulations to the Soviets in Russia. In attendance at this meeting were representatives from all the major western coalfields and labour representatives from Winnipeg who would later organize the Winnipeg General Strike.
By April 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike was underway and, before its demise later that summer, 35,000 people in Winnipeg were on strike, bringing the city to a complete standstill." Sympathy strikes erupted all over Canada, with tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of Canadians participating. The movement, however, found the core of its support coming from the mining camps where working and living conditions were desperate. All levels of government were truly startled by the magnitude of labour unrest throughout Canada, and the sudden power wielded by the OBU in the factories and mining camps. Undoubtedly, many in government feared this was the prelude to revolution.
This article has been extracted from It's a Miner's Life by J. E. Russell (East Coulee, Alberta: Atlas Coal Mine Historical Society, 1995). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank the author and the Atlas Coal Mine Historical Site (a Year of the Coal Miner member) for permission to reprint this material.