In March of 1925, Cape Breton coal miners were receiving $3.65 in daily wages and had been working part-time for more than three years. They burned company cola to heat company houses illuminated by company electricity. Their families drank company water, were indebted to the company store and were financially destitute. Local clergy spoke of children clothed in flour sacks and dying of starvation from the infamous “four cent meal”. The miners had fought continuously since 1909 for decent working conditions, an eight-hour day as well as a living wage.

The British Empire Steel Corporation (Besco) was controlled by President Roy M. Wolvin and Vice-President J.E. McLurg who defended these conditions by frankly stating “Coal must be produced cheaper in Cape Breton, poor market conditions and increasing competition make this an absolute necessity. If the miners require more work, then the United Mine Workers of America District 26 Executive must recommend acceptance of a 20% wage reduction.” The stage had been set for a sequence of events that would lead to the tragic death of a union brother and father of 10 children, William Davis.

In the early days of 1925, J.E. McClurg added insult to injury by eliminating credit for miners at the company store and further reducing days of work at the collieries. On March 6, 1925, UMWA strategist, JS McLachlan, left with few options, called for the removal of all maintenance men from the collieries; a 100% strike was necessary to do battle with Besco. If the company would not negotiate an end to this deprivation and hunger, the mines would slowly fill with floodwater and die. The company response was brief and derogatory, “We hold the cards, they will crawl back to work, they can’t stand the gaff.”

The next two months were filled with grief and hardship; Besco cut off the sale of coal to miners houses and mounted a vigorous public relations campaign to blame the miners for their own predicament. The UMWA lobbied for intervention from the Liberal Provincial and Federal governments to no avail; this prompted the union’s most difficult decision to date. On June 3, 1925, the UMWA withdrew the last maintenance men from Besco’s power plant at Waterford Lake. In retaliation, the company cut off electricity and water to the Town of New Waterford, which included the hospital filled with extremely sick children. For more than a week the town mayor, P.G. Muise, literally begged company officials to restore electricity and water to his townspeople. Besco ignored his requests.


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Cape Breton Miners' Museum  :::  Glace Bay  Nova Scotia  Canada  B1A 5T8  :::  Telephone (902) 849-4522  :::  Fax: (902) 849-8022


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