UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Western Federation of Miners and the Royal Commission on Industrial Disputes in 1903 with special reference to the Vancouver Island coal miners' strike. Orr, Allan Donald


The Dominion government appointed a Royal Commission in April 1903 to investigate the causes of strikes that began in February between the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees at Vancouver and the Wellington Colliery Company and the Western Federation of Miners at Extension and Cumberland on Vancouver Island. The Boyal Commissioners were instructed to report whether in their opinion these and other American unions should have their activities in Canada curtailed. After a month of hearings the Commissioners reported that the United Brotherhood and the Western Federation were undesirable unions for Canadian workingmen to join. The Commissioners concluded that both unions had conspired to bring about strikes in the Wellington Colliery mines. The Nanaimo Miners' Union, Local 177 of the Western Federation, was accused by the Commissioners of assisting in the conspiracy to tie up the coal mines in the adjacent towns. As the Canadian Pacific Railway Company depended in part on the Wellington mines for steam coal for its trains at Vancouver, it was apparent that the unions concerned tried to break the strike for recognition between the railway company and the union in favour of the union. The Commissioners also reported that these American unions were spreading revolutionary socialism in British Columbia. The main result of this political action, concluded the Commissioners, was to instil in workingmen a belief in the inevitability of class conflict between themselves and their employers. The transportation and mining industries of the province were in danger of having their businesses seriously disrupted if these foreign unions remained in Canada. The Commissioners stated that a few socialists in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Extension and Cumberland were responsible for encouraging these radical unions to organize the workers. The question as to whether the Western Federation actually caused the strikes on the island has never been seriously explored. Historians have been divided on the question and on their assessment of the validity of the Commissioners' Report. The official hearings disclosed that James Dunsmuir, the president and owner of Wellington Collieries, locked out his miners once they had formed unions. The Commissioners argued that the conspiracy plan depended on the predictable reaction of Dunsmuir to the formation of unions in his mines. In the past he had never permitted unions to exist for long in his mines before he dismissed the union leaders. It has never been satisfactorily demonstrated whether the miners joined the Western Federation for reasons of their own and then struck for union recognition or whether they were, as the Commissioners alleged, tricked into the Federation only to find themselves locked out. The Commissioners admitted in the Report that Wellington Collieries and other large employers of labour bore some responsibility for the fact that working men organized unions in order to protect themselves from the arbitrary and unjust treatment they often received from managers and foremen. Although the Commissioners stated that shorter hours and higher wages would make workingmen more content, they did not report that grievances over working conditions and wages were the real reasons why the miners joined the Western Federation. Yet the official hearings of 1903 contained ample evidence that the strikes at Extension and Cumberland occurred for reasons that lay primarily within and not outside the coalfield. The Commissioners misinterpreted the reasons why the miners joined the Western Federation because their attention was directed solely to the issue of the advance of American unions into Canada. An analysis of the official evidence of the Commission reveals that the miners formed unions at Wellington Collieries in 1903 in order to resolve problems that had become traditional sources of dispute on the coalfield. The traditional problems that embittered relations between miners and companies were geological, social and economic in character. The faulted condition of the coal seams made mining both difficult and dangerous. Since 1871 Wellington miners had organized unions to fight for improvements in safety and working conditions underground. However, the increased employment of illiterate and inexperienced Oriental workers increased the dangers of mining to all concerned. Miners demanded the exclusion of Oriental workers from the mines for another important reason than the question of safety. Oriental workers competed for the jobs of mine labourers and were often used in place of white miners during strikes. During strikes in 1877, in 1883 and in 1903 Chinese workers kept the mines running while white miners were locked out. In contrast to the Wellington mines, unions emerged at the Nanaimo mines and working conditions steadily improved after 1883. A miners' union grievance committee was established in the mines by 1883. An eight hour day, oriental exclusion and union recognition were in effect in the Nanaimo mines by 1891. Attempts by union leaders from Nanaimo in the years 1890 to 1901 failed in their purpose of organizing the Dunsmuir mines. When the Nanaimo miners joined the Western Federation of Miners in 1902 in order to improve their weak bargaining power, miners in the adjacent Dunsmuir mines saw their opportunity to join the Federation. With the financial and moral support of a large union behind them the Dunsmuir miners demanded union recognition as the first step in their plan to negotiate improvements in wages and working conditions.

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