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The Great Amherst General Strike of 1919

Robb Engineering was a major cog in Busy Amherst and one of the sites affected by the General Strike of 1919.
Robb Engineering was a major cog in Busy Amherst and one of the sites affected by the General Strike of 1919. - Submitted

Part 1 - The cause

Let’s go back to 1919

In 1919 Amherst's economy was in crisis. Like the rest of the Maritimes, the town was confronting the final effects of its integration into the national economy.

Throughout the early years of the 20th century, Amherst thrived on a manufacturing economy that produced railway rolling stock, steam engines and boilers, woollen goods, boots and shoes, enamel ware, furnaces, pianos, and home and office furniture.

The largest manufacturer in town, Rhodes-Curry & Co., employed 2,000 men to build railway cars and to meet the demands of its construction business.

Robb Engineering, known nationally for its engines and boilers, hired 500 workers, and the shoe works and woollen mill each had 200 employees.

Between 1901 and 1906, Amherst's total value of production soared from $1 million to $4.5 million and the population doubled to reach almost 10,000.

The town bore the distinction of being one of the region’s most important and rapidly growing manufacturing centres, and became known throughout the Maritimes as Busy Amherst. Following the 1907-1908 recession, however, Amherst entered a period of decline that intensified over the next 15 years. The flood of central Canadian manufactured goods into the region, and the extension of metropolitan financial control over the region's economy, spelled disaster for the town.

In 1909, in the first and most important of a series of industrial mergers in Amherst, the million-dollar Rhodes-Curry & Co. was linked with two Montreal concerns to form the Canadian Car & Foundry Co.

The serious 1913-1914 depression signalled yet a further weaving of local manufacturing into the national economy. Industries severely reduced staff and at least one factory in Amherst closed permanently. Although this pattern was repeated across the country, few towns faced the total ruin of their manufacturing sector that was confronting Amherst.

The demands of the First World War brought an artificial buoyancy to Amherst's economy. Un-employment declined as men enlisted in the army and factories shifted to wartime production. The railway car works concentrated on munitions, Robb Engineering built marine boilers and manufactured shells, the piano factory provided shell boxes, and the woollen mill and shoe works thrived on government contracts.

The armistice of November 1918 brought an abrupt halt to this activity. Manufacturers warned of a prolonged "readjustment period" and prepared to lay off staff, as unemployment again became a serious problem with the return to Amherst of 500 war veterans.

While many local residents worried about the ability, and in some cases, the desire of local business to make the transition to peace-time production, the most heated debates, were reserved for speculation over the future of the crucially important car works.

Before the war Canadian Car & Foundry had suspended operations at the Amherst Malleable Iron Co. and, in 1919, it announced the closing of plants in Halifax and New Glasgow.

These actions were integral aspects of Canadian Car & Foundry's policy to concentrate production in central Canada.

Supervised by Nathaniel Curry, former president of Rhodes-Curry, this policy threatened the existence of the Amherst car works. It was observed that, "the days of the wooden cars" built in the Amherst works were passing as surely as the days of "wooden ships and iron men" had slipped into a bygone era.

If Amherst was to remain an important centre of the rolling stock industry, it needed modernization, especially equipment to construct pressed steel rolling stock. All the while, Canadian Car & Foundry modernized its Montreal facilities and constructed a new plant in Fort William it retreated from car building in Amherst.

In 1919, the declining importance of the Amherst shops within Canadian Car & Foundry's corporate structure created three pressing problems for local workers: (1) irregular employment, (2) poor working conditions, and (3) wage differentials favouring the company's Montreal employees.

Finding steady employment was a serious concern for Amherst car builders. During the winter of 1918, the company operated with fewer than 200 men. Although this number increased to 800 in the spring months, this was still far below the 2,000 workers employed in 1905.

Given the erratic employment practices of the company, even the men hired in 1919 had few prospects for steady work. Canadian Car & Foundry often raised the hopes of Amherst workers with announcements of massive hiring, followed several months later by equally impressive layoffs. Persistent rumours of one department or another being removed to Montreal further heightened the workers' anxieties.

Working conditions in the car works also created tension. In 1919 a moulder complained to the Royal Commission on Industrial Relations of high gas levels in the foundry, and claimed that the factory inspector refused to heed his complaints.    

The commissioners were urged to tour the plant and discover for themselves that conditions "were far from being what the law demanded."

Although such conditions were common, Canadian Car & Foundry's decision not to direct new investment into its Amherst facilities undoubtedly aggravated the problem. The most contentious issue in 1919 was Canadian Car & Foundry's decision not to extend to Amherst the agreement it reached with its Montreal employees. The Montreal contract recognized the International Brotherhood of Railway

Carmen, and adopted the Whitley Advisory Council idea, the nine-hour day with 10 hours pay, five day week, overtime pay, and layoffs by seniority.

Considered a "fair and reasonable settlement" by the Amherst press (this paper) and most local workers, all agreed that the contract should be extended to the eastern carmen, but the company refused to grant any concessions to its Amherst employees, except the nine hour day with no provision for 10 hours pay.

The marginality of the Amherst shops to the financial health of the Canadian Car & Foundry strengthened significantly the company's negotiating position. Concentration of railway car production in Montreal made it easier, and probably necessary, given the relative decline in productivity in Amherst, to resist the contract demands of eastern workers.

Management believed that the long layoffs of the previous year and the threatened closure of the car works, which finally occurred in the 1920s, would make the car men reluctant to strike. Canadian Car & Foundry's successful attempts to curtail union organizing in the years preceding the war, especially the 1914 defeat of the International Association of Machinists, further bolstered its determination to bargain hard in1919. But the car men were equally determined to win a contract consistent with that of Montreal workers, and partly because of their previous failures at union organizing they began to move toward a broad based industrial union.

The same pressures that prodded the railway car men toward a new form of union organization also affected other Amherst working-class families. In 1919 none of the town's eight major industries appeared to have a particularly stable future. Managerial attitudes toward the employees of the Toronto controlled Dominion Manufacturing Co. and the Truro, Nova Scotia dominated Stanfield's Co., varied little from those of Canadian Car & Foundry. Both Dominion Manufacturing's 1914 purchase of Amherst's Christie Woodworking Co., and Stanfield's takeover of the Amherst Woollen Mill during the war, were mergers to improve profits through reduced competition, and were followed by a rationalization of productive capacity, that detrimentally effected Amherst and brought the eventual closing of the facilities.

Next to Canadian Car & Foundry, Stanfield's was the most aggressive company in the pursuit of this policy. Stanfield's resisted any attempts to improve working conditions which were easily the most deplorable in Amherst and wages among the lowest in town.

The employees' response was predictable and between, 1918 and 1920, they fought three bitter strikes, and they were the last employees to return to work during the general strike.

In 1919 a number of important Amherst industries, including Amherst Boot & Shoe, Amherst Foundry, and Robb Engineering remained ostensibly locally owned and managed. These companies continued to struggle against the forces that had pushed other local industries into mergers, although Robb Engineering was already heavily financed by Montreal interests, and the Amherst Foundry had proposed, but failed to complete, a union with a Port Hope, Ontario. company.

After the war, competition with central Canada's large scale "specialized factories" and a freight rate structure that was beginning to push local manufacturers even from traditional regional markets, worried Amherst businessmen and during the general strike, local owners resisted the demands of their workers with the same determination as Amherst's absentee employers.

In one way or another, the impact of regional underdevelopment touched the members of all classes in Amherst. For some individuals of the business class, like Nathaniel Curry, it brought participation in a financially attractive industrial merger, and the continuation of a lucrative business career in Montreal.

Other manufacturers, like David Robb, who lacked Curry's acumen, in the ways of high finance, and probably retained some commitment to the region, faced the collapse of their industries before fierce central Canadian competition. Underdevelopment also posed a threat to the livelihood of many small businessmen, since factory closings and a declining population represented lost business to local merchants. Finally, the working-class families attracted to Amherst during the 1898 to 1908 industrial boom faced a most uncertain future, since local industries offered little long term security and few immediate benefits.

Please take note: The museum will be taking part in the Winter Carnival in two locations. So drop around and meet us at these locations: On Saturday, Feb. 17, the museum will be at the Chili Challenge at Dayle’s Grand Market and on Monday, Feb. 19, it will be at the Heritage Fair at the Community Credit Union Business Innovation Centre.

A visit to the mMuseum 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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