Sociology Students Hit the Picket Line!
On 31 January 2011, the 700 unionized workers at the Elkview coal mine in Sparwood, British Columbia, members of Local 9346 of the United Steelworkers, went on strike for a new contract. The operator of the mine, Teck, “is Canada’s largest diversified resource company” and “the world's second largest seaborne exporter of steelmaking coal.”
On the line: Can you tell the sociology students apart from the coal miners?
When they learned about the strike, students in Soci 461 (Worker Movements and Labour Unions), taught by Tom Langford, were enthusiastic about participating in a field trip to the Crowsnest Pass to learn more about workers’ perspectives on the strike and the history of coal mining and coal miners’ unions in the area.
The field trip took place on Saturday 5 March, at the end of the fifth week of the strike. As we drove along Highway # 3 nearing Sparwood in the early afternoon, we stopped at the first picket line we encountered. The strikers gave us an insightful “rank-and-file” perspective on the issues in dispute; meanwhile a private security guard (an employee of Canpro Global, “a risk mitigation company” hired by Teck specially for this strike) dutifully filmed our ominous presence.
Next stop was the United Steelworker Local 9346 office in downtown Sparwood. We were hosted and educated by two of the Local 9346 leaders, Recording Secretary Horst Gandner and Strike Captain Peter Chechotko. One of the key issues in the contract dispute was the amount of money Teck contributes to the workers’ RRSP accounts. Mr. Gandner’s personal experience helped the students to understand why this was such an important issue for the coal miners. The previous owner of the Elkview coal mine, Weststar Mining, had gone bankrupt in 1992 and workers at that time had lost all or most of their credits in a defined benefit pension plan. Because of this loss, and because in the meantime the defined contribution pension plan at the Elkview mine under Teck’s ownership had not been particularly generous, Mr. Gandner continued to work at the mine even though he is 66 years old. A miner who had retired in 1992 also joined the discussion. He reported that all he had salvaged in pension after the Weststar bankruptcy was $200 a month.
We were running short of time as we left Sparwood in the late afternoon, but we still made time to stop at the town’s most famous tourist attraction, the Titan Truck, billed as the world’s largest. It had successfully hauled many thousands of tons of coal in the Elk Valley but was decommissioned after it became too hard to find replacement truck parts.
The other two educational stops during the field trip shed light on the history of coal mining labour and coal mining communities on the Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass. In the morning, Diane Peterson of the Crowsnest Pass Ecomuseum Trust Society treated the class to a special underground tour of the Bellevue Mine (closed as an operating mine since 1961 but now an historical resource and tourist attraction).
It was a cold morning, but fortunately it was a bit warmer once we got deeper into the mine. Ms. Peterson’s knowledge, enthusiasm (and ghost stories) made a huge impression on the students, as did the unique environment of the underground mine tunnel.
On the way home to Calgary, we stopped in Coleman to briefly tour the Crowsnest Museum’s magnificent exhibit on historic underground coal mining in the area. Volunteer museum directors Claire Allum, Joanne Wilson and Henry Bruns were our hosts.
The general consensus of the Soci 461 students was that this was an excellent educational experience (even if it lasted 15 hours!): they appreciated the opportunities to visit a primary resource community, talk to unionized coal miners and get to know their classmates better.