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The Great Amherst General Strike of 1919 – Part 5 The unions flex their muscles

In 1919 organized labour began to flex its muscle in Amherst at several industries.
In 1919 organized labour began to flex its muscle in Amherst at several industries. - Submitted

Cumberland County Museum column with Gordon Goodwin

The presence in Amherst of SPC sympathizers may have provided the Maritimers with a link to the OBU.

In the pre-war years Amherst socialists sustained an active SPC branch that included such prominent Amherst Federation of Labour organizers as moulders William Mclnnis and Arthur McArthur, and Clarence Joise, a carpenter.

Although it is not clear whether these men remained SPC members, the SPC did experience a revival in Amherst after the war and its activities gave the town direct contact with events in western Canada, where activists such as Victor Midgley, R.B. Russell, and W.A. Pritchard, were involved in organizing the OBU

The overlap in SPC and OBU personnel in the west was apparent to Amherst socialists and undoubtedly influenced them in the direction of the OBU Yet, although this relationship may explain the Amherst socialists' interest in the OBU, it does not explain why the majority of Amherst union members followed suit.

In fact, the decision of these Maritime workers to throw their lot in with a labour organization centered in western Canada is not as surprising as it may appear. First, similar to much of the west, Amherst lacked a strong craft union tradition. Except for the IMU, craft unions had been unable to protect skilled workers against the employers' assaults on their working conditions. Thus, in Amherst, the weakness of craft unions among skilled workers encouraged them to explore different forms of working class organization. Another factor in the Amherst Federation of Labor's decision to affiliate with the westerners was the initial ideological eclecticism of the OBU.

Because no single political position dominated the OBU's early activities, various socialist and syndicate tendencies found a home in the union. Although this would change over the next few years, in the spring of 1919 the union's flexibility on political and industrial strategies opened the OBU to many workers who otherwise might have rejected it.

This was important in Amherst where the Amherst Federation of Labor's leadership was not influenced by the syndicate tendency popular in the west. In March 1919, Frank Burke headed the Amherst delegation attending a Halifax meeting of provincial labour leaders, which established a provincial federation of labour and discussed forming an independent labour party to contest the next provincial election.

CM. Arsenault, Pictou County labour spokesman and editor of the Eastern Federation also advocated independent labour politics. In 1919, Arsenault spent many days in Amherst assisting in the Amherst Federation of Labor's organization and campaigning for the building of a labour party.

The industrial rather than craft emphasis in the OBU also attracted local support to the union because the Amherst Federation of Labor was already an industrial union organized along the principles of One Big Unionism.

In the spring of 1919, local workers exhibited in their actions a solidarity that was unique in Amherst's history. Relatively minor issues exploded into hotly contested disputes. When a man was accused of stealing tools from his employer he was acquitted even though the judge in his charge to the jury had no hesitation in saying that the accused was 'not a desirable citizen in the community.

This episode and events, like the daylight saving time dispute, worried the editor of the Daily News because though class consciousness has never been one of the particular manifestations of the workingman of this community, there is no question that it is showing a greater strength among them today than it ever did before.

 On 1 May, events at the Canadian Car & Foundry almost precipitated a general strike when moulder Fred Reid was fired for protesting the assignment of his helper to another job. At a hastily convened meeting of the Amherst Federation of Labor, some members demanded a general strike to force the company to reinstate Reid.

Although a majority of the workers at the meeting sympathized with Reid's plight, they decided to delay strike action since many of them had just returned to work after long layoffs. Another consideration of the membership was that Frank Burke and William Mclnnis were scheduled to leave shortly for Montreal to open negotiations with Canadian Car & Foundry officials and many Amherst Federation of Labor workers felt that strike action should be delayed until the results of these general bargaining sessions were known.

The two Amherst Federation of Labor leaders travelled to Montreal on May 15 and, after several days of fruitless negotiations, climbed aboard an east bound train for Amherst, where a delegation of workers met them at the station

To protest recent measures adopted by the car works' management. While Burke and Mclnnis negotiated in Montreal, the company directors had instructed their Amherst manager to introduce the nine-hour day without a provision for ten hours pay.

The company's unilateral action particularly infuriated the Amherst Federation of Labor officials because they perceived it as an attempt to circumvent the union.  On Monday, May 19, the car workers milled around the gates to the Canadian Car & Foundry shops. The employees refused to begin the day's shift and "formed in parade marching through the principle [sic] streets" of Amherst to their meeting hall.

As the meeting commenced, many workers vented their frustrations with management but it was Burke who focussed their anger onto two issues: union recognition and wage differentials between eastern and central Canadian workers.

Burke argued that the company precipitated the crisis by refusing to recognize that the Amherst Federation of Labor had "a right to be consulted on any changes of hours, or rules of wages, affecting the men". Burke also demanded that the company extend to Amherst its agreement with Montreal employees for fewer hours with no decrease in take-home pay.

After listening to Burke and several other Amherst Federation of Labor officials, the car workers dispersed with a call for an emergency meeting of the union that evening.

News of the trouble at the car works spread quickly throughout Amherst and the evening meeting was crowded with workers who "decided that employees of all industries in the town, including town employees cease work on Tuesday morning."

Although the strike was called to support Dane Lodge members, the employees of each industry were directed to meet separately to prepare additional demands to be presented to the town's employers along with the basic proposals for recognition of the Amherst Federation of Labor and the eight hour day.

On Tuesday morning, every factory remained closed building trades workers struck, and the towns outside workers left their jobs. In the evening, the Amherst Federation of Labor staged the largest working class rally in Amherst's history. Between 2,000 to 3,000 workers met at the Labour Hall, reported the Eastern Federation, formed in a line and paraded to the square. After speeches by local and visiting labour spokesmen, Frank Burke recounted some of the background to the dispute and proclaimed the union's determination to stand firm until its demands were accepted by the manufacturers.

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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