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Sudbury: A Union Town? (Part 3 of 5)
The 1958 Inco Strike
The first action in what was to become the “year of the strike” was taken by Inco, when it announced on March 15, 1958, that due to the economic recession, it was reducing production and laying off 1 000 employees in Sudbury, and 300 in Port Colborne. This was followed on May 23 by a further layoff of 300 men. On June 17, Inco placed all of its remaining hourly rated workers on a 32-hour week. The fact that the latter two layoffs took place during the negotiating process for a new contract added fuel to the fire. By this time it was clear that Inco, with its substantial stockpile of inventory during a period of reduced demand for nickel, was in a stronger bargaining position; as well, the company had no fear of a production shutdown, as this would allow it time to develop new domestic markets for nickel to replace decreasing military demands.
While negotiations were taking place, a number of wildcat provocations occurred at several plants and mines. Since Local 598 had advocated to its members that they should continue working, suspicions were raised that dissidents within the union were deliberately using these tactics to force Mine Mill into a questionable strike. When further meetings with the company proved unsuccessful, conciliation talks were held. The conciliation board favoured the company position and recommended a one-year contract. Not satisfied with this response, the union went on strike on September 24. For the first time since the chimneys in Copper Cliff were built, the smoke plumes were absent. Thus began a series of mining-related events that were to haunt the Sudbury area for the rest of the century.
As the days grew into weeks, the strike continued. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, under the direction of Bishop Alexander Carter, then entered the picture. In a pastoral letter issued to every Catholic church in his diocese and read from the pulpits on October 24, the bishop chastised the union for allowing the strike to occur. A company proposal to end the strike on November 27 was summarily rejected by the union.
To gather public support, an auto cavalcade went to Queen’s Park on December 3; a week later, a meeting of 900 women was held in the Mine Mill hall supporting the twelve-weeklong strike. This meeting was held to counter a “back-to-work” movement supported by The Sudbury Star. In a front page editorial, the newspaper claimed that the “timing of the strike was catastrophic for the union” and that “it has not been conclusively proven that it is in the interests of the union members to continue with their strike.” In response to the meeting held at the Mine Mill hall, Mayor Joe Fabbro, with the support of the area’s two MPPs, secured the Sudbury Arena for different gathering of women on December 12, at which time they passed a resolution calling “on husbands to go back to work on a forty hour week without gains in the first year of a three-year contract.” This event severely weakened the financial and moral resolve of the union.
After a new offer was made by Inco on December 22, 1958, one of the most controversial strikes in Canada officially came to an end with the new agreement coming into effect on January 2, 1959. While the strike had a major impact on the local community, The Globe and Mail reported that there was no indication that the strike had bankrupted any businesses.21 These events notwithstanding, the strike had a great effect in polarizing the citizenry, the workforce at Inco, and many sectors of the Sudbury community.
After the ratification of the contract, Mine Mill presented it as a major victory. This sentiment was not shared by many of the miners who had suffered as a result of the eighty-day strike. Nor was it shared by Inco, which was clearly the financial winner of the battle. When called upon to defend the strike, the Local 598 executive headed by Mike Solski claimed that the union had no other choice, as Inco wanted a strike, and had no interest in bargaining in good faith. His latter assertion was certainly correct. With a huge inventory at its disposal, Inco was in a strong position to wait out a lengthy strike. As well, the layoffs and production cutbacks implemented prior to and during negotiations were undertaken to test the resolve of Mine Mill. The company even informed Mine Mill during negotiations that, while it would not resume production during a strike, it would use this period to replace the smokestack in Coniston, upgrade the smokestack in Copper Cliff, and have gas lines installed at its Copper Cliff operations.22 The company was also aware of the internal divisions that existed within the local, and saw a strike as a good opportunity to weaken Mine Mill. While the threat of outside raiding by another union was not made explicit, Mine Mill had concerns about the Steelworkers lurking in the background.
Had a strike not occurred, the Steelworkers would have alleged that Mine Mill had caved in the company’s demands. Mine Mill also realized that Sudbury workers had fallen behind the gains reached by the Steelworkers in their Elliot Lake mining contracts. Many of the Inco workers who had temporarily gone to work in Elliot Lake at Denison Mines, where the Steelworkers had a contract, had come back with favourable reports about the union.24 There were even assertions made by The Globe and Mail, the Canadian Register (a Catholic newspaper), and Frank Southern that the strike was called to further the cause of the Communist Party of Canada. While there is little evidence to support this claim, this Red-baiting had considerable impact.
Inco’s large inventory was the most critical issue that Mine Mill had to face. By calling a strike, Mine Mill went against one of the basic tenets of unionism—never strike against a stockpile; simply wait until that stockpile is gone and the company needs you. Mine Mill failed to heed the advice of Walter Reuther of the United Autoworkers in the United States who, when faced with a similar situation of a huge inventory of cars and trucks, said that it was a useless time to strike. A year later, when market conditions improved considerably, the Autoworkers went on a brief strike, and as a result the automobile companies gave them a good contract. In a similar vein, the Mine Mill workers employed by COMINCO in British Columbia managed to suspend wage negotiations in May of 1958, thereby navigating the union through the economic recession with few scars. It is also worth mentioning that Mine Mill did not seriously pursue the option of a one-year contract recommended in the Conciliation Board’s report released on September 9, 1958.
Other criticisms came to fore regarding the handling of the strike itself, which eventually cost the union one million dollars. Since Mine Mill had never experienced a work stoppage before, it had not seriously adopted the idea of having its own strike fund. Local 598’s leaders assumed that if the financial situation was strained due to a strike, they could turn to the National Office for help. This did not turn out to be the case. Shortly after negotiations started on April 15, 1958, Local 598 was told by the National Office that it would be unable to provide much financial support in the case of a lengthy strike. This forecast was borne out by later events. When the local’s cash reserves became depleted, it turned out that the American and other Canadian sections of the IUMMSW were only able to provide Local 598 with minimal strike relief, leaving the bulk of the strike costs to come from outside donations and the local itself.
Given the previous expulsion of Mine Mill from the CIO (Congress for Industrial Organization) in the United States and the CCL (the Canadian Labour Congress, or CLC after 1956), there was no hope of financial support from these national organizations. A strong undercurrent of anger was raised by members, who asked—after contributing dues for fifteen years—why was there such a shortage of funds for strike relief, and why was it not considered to be the right of every union member to collect? Particularly irksome was that the union required strikers to prove with their bankbooks that they had little or no money and needed support. Other sources of resentment were related to the manner in which strike vouchers were issued and used.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many workers at Inco and Falconbridge Nickel, angry at the events of 1958, sought to extract revenge on Solski’s former executive board. Unaware of one another’s existence at the time, three small workers’ groups formed in Falconbridge, Sudbury, and Levack to unseat Solski’s slate at the next election on March 10, 1959. These three groups later merged under the Committee for Democratic Leadership and Positive Action, and formed their own slate headed by Don Gillis, Reeve of Neelon-Garson Township. While this reformist group was optimistic about its chances for victory, there remained sufficient concern for them to seek outside assistance. This assistance came in the form of “divine intervention” from the Roman Catholic Church and the University of Sudbury.
During the aftermath of the 1958 strike, it had become clear that the interests of the reformers, the Steelworkers, and that of the Roman Catholic Church were similar: all were opposed to the influence of perceived Communist leadership within the labour movement. By this time, the Steelworkers had been firmly endorsed by the Catholic Church as a model union for the mining industry. To further their cause, the Catholic Church led by the Jesuit Fathers at the University of Sudbury hired Alexandre Boudreau in 1958.
Boudreau, a Jesuit-trained economics professor, was given a position as the new Director of Extension Courses. An avowed anti-Communist, he stated that “Mine Mill must be destroyed, and disappear from the map of Canada. This can be achieved only by depriving the Commies of their milch-cow, local 598 of Sudbury.” Boudreau initiated the Northern Workers Adult Education Association, and developed courses over the next three years. One of his first courses, titled Leadership Course for Miners, was ostensibly designed to instruct miners who had not completed high school on the true principles of unionism, and teach them to become leaders in their unions.
On closer inspection, it became clear that the Boudreau’s real intent was to destroy Mine Mill. For the Steelworkers, the course was an educational vehicle through which they could develop the nucleus of candidates for the upcoming union elections in 1959. Some 140 students enrolled in Boudreau’s course, of which the majority were reformist-minded workers whose names had been supplied by James Kidd. In another course titled Northern Ontario Workers Adult Education Association Course on Communism, Boudreau focused on one overarching theme, which was to emphasize the evils of Communism.
While in agreement with the gist of the material provided in Boudreau’s courses, Kidd was nonetheless disturbed by his insistence that the main purpose of the trade union movement was the battle against Communism. Kidd suggested that these efforts were likely being subsidized by the Steelworkers. Another of the more contentious aspects of Boudreau’s teachings was his assertion that everyone was obligated to take an affirmative stand against Communism, even if it doing so went against democratic principles. As later events demonstrated, this axiom proved to be effective. Taking direct aim at Solski, Boudreau emphasized that even if people like Mike Solski were not Communists, they nevertheless served as effective “front men” who had to be considered as Communist sympathizers.
While these courses were being taught, a reformist slate headed by Don Gillis was busy promoting a program centred on the need to remove Mine Mill’s isolationist stance, and bring back into the newly formed CLC and the union mainstream. The slate railed against a central weakness of the Thibault-Solski leadership, emphasizing that opposing forces were not permitted to speak at union meetings. Allegations of financial mismanagement provided another point of attack. The final argument Gillis made was that the time for neutrality had long passed. This aspect of the reformist strategy was designed to attract those members who had not bothered to become involved in union affairs in the past. Such apathy was shown by the fact that in the 1953, 1955, and 1956 elections, the Solski slate had been returned by acclamation.
Particular attention was focused on the 2 000 miners who obtained employment in the Elliot Lake uranium mines during the strike, where the Steelworkers were in control. Getting both the uninvolved majority as well as the former uranium miners interested in union affairs paid great dividends; in the election held on March 10, 1959, the Gillis slate won. While the Solski side managed to keep their traditional supporters, it was the votes of formerly uncommitted members that now made the difference. For these workers, the main issue was one of economics rather than loyalty. The only question for many of them was simple: which union could win the highest wages, the most efficient grievance procedure, and the best pension plan?
After the election, a bitter rivalry started between the two factions within the union and the National Office. It became apparent that the majority of the new executive and Boudreau supported the Steelworkers. To start the process of change in this direction, the Gillis supporters (1) declared open war against Communism within Local 598, and undid many of its cultural and recreational achievements; (2) discredited the financial management of the Solski regime; and (3) sought re-affiliation with the CLC. These policies led to intense conflicts with the National Office. The first move was achieved with the sacking of Weir Reid by planting false stories about him in the Toronto Telegram. The Roman Catholic School Board assisted in the plan by issuing leaflets to its students reminding their fathers of what should be done. The second step involved an audit of Mine Mill’s books by Allistair Stewart, a chartered accountant and well-known CCF member of the House of Commons for fifteen years. While he spent a month examining the records of Local 598, his report failed to produce any serious evidence of previous wrongdoing or stealing.
In reality it was not an accounting analysis, but an attack on Mine Mill disguised as a financial audit. There were nonetheless sufficient minor allegations made to cause worry among the members. The final initiative involved the return of Mine Mill to the union mainstream. Many members had come to the realization that Mine Mill’s isolation from the CLC had denied the local access to the CLC strike fund and its fundraising apparatus. They also realized that existing differences between the aims of Local 598, the National Office, and the CLC made a return impossible. This conclusion was affirmed at
the National Convention held in September, at which time a resolution from Local 598 banning Communists from holding office was soundly rejected.
With another election looming in the fall of 1959, the National Office instigated a plan to regain control of Local 598, and to oust the Gillis administration. A decision was approved establishing two new administrative districts (with District 2 comprising allareas east of Saskatchewan), which had the effect of minimizing Local 598’s political clout in Canada. Nels Thibault then announced that he was stepping down as the National President of Mine Mill to contest the presidency of Local 598.
The tone for this election was set not by unionists, but by the Catholic Union Social Life Conference held in Sudbury from October 9 to 11. Mayor Joe Fabbro stated that the reason Sudbury was chosen as the site for the conference was the feeling there and abroad that it held the dubious honour of being the worst hotbed of Communism on all of the North American continent. His message was made clear the next day when The Sudbury Daily Star appeared with the headline, “Must Prove Sudbury Not Communist Area.” The indefatigable Boudreau was quoted in the newspaper declaring that the election was a “last-ditch fight between Christianity and Communism.”36 The nature of the frenzied attacks at the time was exemplified by charges that Thibault was operating under an alias, and that he could speak Polish perfectly. With Boudreau serving as the driving force behind the Gillis administration, the move to maintain the existing executive proved to be unstoppable. In the end, a record turnout of 81 per cent voted for the entire Gillis slate. As an added insult to the National Office, union members also elected a reform slate at Inco’s Port Colborne operations.
Early in 1960, the CLC rejected Mine Mill’s application for affiliation. The CLC considered the situation in Sudbury so volatile that it preferred to play a waiting game. Running battles continued at local membership meetings; the issue of Weir Reid’s severance pay almost caused a riot. Local 598 then took a major step by temporarily withholding dues it normally sent to the National Office. This was significant financially, as these funds accounted for half of the National Office’s revenues. The National Office countered this action by establishing a District Office in Sudbury. At the Constituent Convention establishing District Two, the pattern of dissention continued, with the old guard forces winning the majority of seats on the District Two Board.
Meanwhile, in Sudbury, Local 598 and the National Office became embroiled in the status of the Mine Mill employees at Falconbridge Nickel. Taking advantage of this uncertainty, Falconbridge Nickel implemented a policy of wearing safety glasses, one that led to an unsuccessful wildcat strike at their operations, and the firing of eleven union workers. This outcome was a bitter blow to unionism in Sudbury. Union rivalry continued when the Gillis administration proceeded to form its own Ladies Auxiliary independent of the National Office. At a raucous joint meeting held between Local 598 and the National Office in Sudbury on December 10–11, the Gillis administration al stated that it intended to pursue every avenue open towards affiliation with the CLC. The incidents described served as a prelude to the near civil war situation about to unfold in the Sudbury area.
End of Excerpt
From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City is a historical geography of the City of Greater Sudbury. The story that began billions of years ago encompasses dramatic physical and human events. Among them are volcanic eruptions, two meteorite impacts, the ebb and flow of continental glaciers, Aboriginal occupancy, exploration and mapping by Europeans, exploitation by fur traders and Canadian lumbermen and American entrepreneurs, the rise of global mining giants, unionism, pollution and re-greening, and the creation of a unique constellation city of 160,000.
The title posits the book’s two main themes, one physical in nature and the other human: the great meteorite impact of some 1.85 billion years ago and the development of Sudbury from its inception in 1883. Unlike other large centres in Canada that exhibit a metropolitan form of development with a core and surrounding suburbs, Sudbury developed in a pattern resembling a cluster of stars of differing sizes.
Many of Sudbury’s most characteristic attributes are undergoing transformation. Its rocky terrain and the negative impact from mining companies are giving way to attractive neighbourhoods and the planting of millions of trees. Greater Sudbury’s blue-collar image as a union powerhouse in a one-industry town is also changing; recent advances in the fields of health, education, retailing, and the local and international mining supply and services sector have greatly diversified its employment base. This book shows how Sudbury evolved from a village to become the regional centre for northeastern Ontario and a global model for economic diversification and environmental rehabilitation.
Oiva Saarinen received an Honors B.A. (1960) and an M.A. (1969) from the University of Western Ontario and a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of London in 1979. He retired from Laurentian University in 2003. He is the author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Historical Geography of the Finns in the Sudbury Area (WLU Press, 1999).
To order a copy of “From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City”, please click here: http://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/Catalog/saarinen-meteorite.shtml
For “Sudbury: A Union Town?” Part 2 of 5, click here: http://www.republicofmining.com/2013/06/18/excerpt-from-meteorite-impact-to-constellation-city-a-historical-geography-of-greater-sudbury-by-oiva-w-saarinen-3/#more-22345
For “Sudbury: A Union Town?” Part 4 of 5, click here: http://www.republicofmining.com/2013/06/28/excerpt-from-meteorite-impact-to-constellation-city-a-historical-geography-of-greater-sudbury-by-oiva-w-saarinen-5/#more-22737