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 cant 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 unions most difficult decision to date. On June 3,
1925, the UMWA withdrew the last maintenance men from Bescos
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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