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The Great Amherst General Strike of 1919 – Part 4 The efforts by the unions?

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Cumberland County Museum column with Gordon Goodwin

(When we left part 3, the union was established, but was it working?)

The growth of conflict in the car works during the pre-war years represented more than simply conflicts over the size of the pay packet. After the turn of the century, it was the railway and metal-working industries in North America that sought to maximize profits through the assertion of greater control over the labour process. Management perceived the deeply held artisanal culture of their craftsmen and skilled workers as the major obstacle to the success of these plans

and, in response to the artisans' resistance to the erosion of workplace autonomy, tried to introduce efficiency schemes and mechanization programs to weaken the power of craft unions. The railway companies spearheaded this drive in North America and some of these changes were introduced into Amherst's railway car building shops at least as early as 1913. It is significant that the earliest strikes occurred in the metal-working divisions, which bore the brunt of the new assertiveness by management.

Sheet metal workers struck in August 1918 to protest working conditions and the firing of  a  moulder in early May 1919, for protesting the assignment of his helper to another job, almost sparked a general strike. It was not only the metal-working trades in the car works that felt these pressures. Writing to the Industrial Banner in 1914, painter Irvin McGinn asserted that attempts by Amherst employers to mix-in tradesmen and labourers of all classes, had turned many craftsmen toward the great and noble cause of unionism. Unfortunately for these workers, their rate of organizational success was no better than that of the metal-workers.

The almost continuous conflict in the car shops, and the workers' inability to maintain an effective craft union presence were important factors behind the growth of industrial unionism. Clashes with management prior to 1914 had demonstrated the ineffectiveness of craft unions in a factory employing as many as 25 different types of tradesmen and hundreds of semi-skilled workers and labourers.

Appearing before the Mather Commission in June 1919, Frank Burke told the commissioners that the all-grades principle, of the Amherst Federation of Labor was adopted precisely because craft unions were too easily dismissed by the employers. Another prominent labour activist in Amherst, C.M. Arsenault of Pictou County, agreed that craft unionism clings to the old ideas which are not keeping abreast of economic lines and advanced ideas. Tradesmen in the car works responded enthusiastically to calls for a broad-based industrial organization. Eleven of the 13 men holding executive rank in the Amherst Federation of Labor between November 1918 and July 1919 worked for Canadian Car & Foundry; five of them were carpenters and four others metal-workers. The president of the Amherst Federation of Labor, Frank Burke, a carpenter in the car works, the vice-president, William McInnis, a moulder; and the recording secretary, Alfred Barton, another carpenter, had held executive positions in Fair Play Lodge, International Brotherhood of Railway Carmen prior to the war. This continuity of leadership in the Amherst labour movement was a crucial influence on the emergence of the Amherst Federation of Labor and it was not limited to the car works. Others among the leadership cadre, like tailors Dan McDonald and John McLeod, had even longer records of involvement in local labour activities.

The conditions that pressured workers towards new organizational forms were reinforced by a renewed interest in socialist ideas. Before the First World War, Amherst socialists maintained locals of the Socialist and Social Democratic parties, offered socialist candidates in civic elections, and joined other trade unionists in sponsoring a labour candidate in a 1909 provincial

by election. The fracturing of the international socialist movement during the war discouraged many Amherst socialists, but by 1919 they had started once again to distribute radical literature, conduct street corner debates, and sponsor public forums. In February, a group of S.P.C. supporters invited Roscoe Fillmore, a prominent local socialist, to speak on the truth about Russia. In two lectures Fillmore accused the capitalist press of misrepresenting the revolution because it was a purely working class movement" that meant capitalist downfall everywhere if it succeeded in Russia. This Amherst audience knew little or nothing of the Russian situation, Fillmore observed, and they drank it in like milk. Convinced that this Amherst bunch contained

the best blood of any part of the Maritime movement, Fillmore committed himself to organizing a new S.P.C. local among the about 40 young energetic Reds, already in Amherst. This socialist presence was strongest in the car works, where Fillmore found little difficulty in selling a roll of Red Flags and Soviets.

In April 1919, the sudden explosion of daylight saving time into a class question and the Amherst Federation of Labor's attempts to affiliate with the one big union reflected the increasingly militant mood of the working-class. Daylight saving first came to Canada in 1918 as a federal war measure. When the question of continuing the practice was left to the municipalities the next year, Amherst's town council convened a public meeting in April to discuss the issue. While merchants and manufacturers championed the idea, many workers,

Increasingly suspicious of any initiatives from the business people, opposed it. To demonstrate their opposition, 300 Amherst Federation of Labor members marched to the public meeting and shouted down daylight saving proponents. Roscoe Fillmore charged angrily that daylight saving was a capitalist plot to lengthen the working day. Other workers complained bitterly that because

business people did not have to rise early in the morning, they were not in position to understand what the earlier time actually meant in the average workingman's home. As a result of this confrontation, and despite the best efforts of daylight saving proponents to revive the question, the issue, the Daily News reported, was squashed flatter than a pancake.

It was during this debate that the leaders of the Amherst Federation of Labor established contact with the western One Big Union movement. In a telegram to Victor Midgley, secretary of the O.B.U. Central Executive Committee, the Amherst workers inquired, as to what steps we should take to unite with the One Big Union. Midgley replied two weeks later, that the Maritimes had

jumped the gun. The Central Executive Committee was only authorized to conduct a referendum among western trade unionists, to determine if they wished to leave the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (T.L.C.) and form the O.B.U.  Until then, the O.B.U. technically did not exist and had no authority to issue or accept affiliations, although Midgley promised to keep his Amherst supporters in good supply with O.B.U. leaflets and other propaganda. In the

Western referendum held in May, approximately three quarters of the votes cast favoured replacing the T.L.C. with the O.B.U., whose supporters convened the new organization's founding convention on 4 June in Calgary. Several weeks later, the Amherst Federation of Labor voted 1185 to 1 to join the O.B.U. This decision in favour of the O.B.U. marked the final rejection of affiliation with the T.L.C, which had been offered to the Amherst Federation of Labour in March 1919.

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.


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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