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The Great Amherst General Strike of 1919 – Part 2 The effects

Robb Engineering
Robb Engineering - Submitted

Happenings at 150 Church with Gordon Goodwin

Amherst's deepening economic crisis prompted a remarkable upsurge of local working-class activity in the immediate post-war years.

In November 1918, while the Amherst Board of Trade sponsored armistice celebrations, labour spokesmen made their first public appeals to "workers of every grade" to join in the building of a new labour council.

They argued that collective working-class action won industrial disputes and predicted "that so long as the employers can keep you [workers] in your unorganized condition, just so long will you be at their mercy."

This call for organization struck a responsive chord among Amherst's working-class population. In late November, they formed the Amherst Federation of Labor, which by the end of the year had 700 members, making it the largest labour organization in the town's history.

By April 1919, its ranks had doubled and, in the early days of the general strike, its membership must have numbered over 3,000. Although it drew its leadership from among the town's skilled workingmen, the Amherst Federation of Labor's organization diverged significantly from that of the short-lived 1904 and 1913 labour councils chartered by the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada. The Amherst Federation of Labor rejected the exclusivist which had characterized the craft orientated pre-war movement and emphasized the organization of unskilled workers, the majority of whom had little trade union experience prior to 1919.

The commitment to the unskilled went beyond union membership to include a genuine effort to reduce the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers. In essence, the Amherst Federation of Labor was an independent industrial union that grouped the employees of Amherst's eight largest manufacturing concerns into one organization.

The union also included building trades and civic workers, tailors, garage mechanics, the unemployed, especially the veterans, and even a restaurant owner, boarding house proprietor, and a local doctor. As former member recalls, it "was supposed to be One Great Union, just one Great Union of all the factories in Amherst."

The initial structure of the Amherst Federation of Labor was relatively simple. Workers paid a "one dollar fee" which brought them the right to participate in the election of officers and all other affairs that came before the union.

Membership gave the workers, at least theoretically, an equal hand in setting contract demands, initiating strike action, and the ratification of all agreements reached with individual manufacturers.

During a general strike the approval of all union members was required before any one group of employees could return to work. Yet, while the Amherst Federation of Labor functioned as a single body, special units were established in several of the factories. Dane Lodge, the first and largest of these units, was organized early and may, in fact, have been organized simultaneously with the larger body. This lodge served as a workplace unit, giving special attention to the problems of union members employed in the car works.

In May 1919 the Textile Workers' Union, a committee similar in purpose to Dane Lodge, was organized among the predominately female work force in the Amherst Woollen Mills. It is not surprising that these units emerged first among the textile and car workers since conditions in these shops made them the most militant in Amherst.

In late summer 1918, before the formation of the Amherst Federation of Labor, both factories had experienced strikes of several days duration. The presence of such organizations also accounts, in part, for the cohesiveness of these employees throughout the general strike.

In June 1919, they were the last workers to reach settlements with their respective employers. Neither lodge, of course, had any independent status and they were bound by the decisions of the larger organization.

To be continued in Part

Please take note: The museum will be taking part in the Winter Carnival in two locations.

On Saturday Feb. 17, the museum will be at the Chili Challenge at Dayle’s Grand Market.

On Monday, Feb. 19, the museum will be participating in the Heritage Fair at the Community Credit Union Business Innovation Centre.

Gordon Goodwin is a director of the museum and is the retired President and CEO of the G&G Group of Companies.

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