An Alternate Vision of Community:

Crowsnest Miners and their Local Unions during the 1940s and 1950s

--Tom Langford

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was the first union for coal miners in the Crowsnest Pass. In 1902 it established local unions at Coal Creek, Michel, Morrissey and Frank, and in late 1902 these locals amalgamated to form the Crow's Nest Valley District Union No. 7. The next year the WFM decided to concentrate its resources on organising and representing hard rock miners. When it withdrew from the Crowsnest, the WFM invited the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to take its place. The UMWA was able to build on the success of the WFM, and by August 1904 it had seven local unions stretching from Fernie to Bellevue with a combined membership of over 4,000. These local unions participated in the UMWA through its Western Canadian district, District 18, which had been established in November 1903.

Over the past century, the vast majority of coal miners in the Crowsnest Pass have been die-hard union supporters. But they have not always been loyal to the UMWA. As is detailed in Wesley Morgan's contribution to this book, in 1919-20 the One Big Union enjoyed strong backing among Pass miners; the UMWA was only able to maintain its organisational presence in the area by making common cause with the coal operators. This so undermined the union's credibility that, with the exception of the small Maple Leaf mine in Alberta, the UMWA lost all of its locals in the Crowsnest between the mid 1920s and mid 1930s. Some of those locals joined the Mine Workers Union of Canada (MWUC) while others existed as independent "home" locals.

The UMWA's fortunes in the Pass took a decided turn for the better when the Communist Party of Canada concluded it was better for its members to promote a left-wing program inside established unions rather than to help in organising separate entities like the MWUC. Beginning in 1936, the leadership of District 18 of the UMWA welcomed the wayward MWUC locals back into the fold, appointed a number of Communist supporters to leadership positions and successfully organised the home locals into the UMWA. By the early 1940s, every miner in the Crowsnest was a UMWA member, since the union had closed shop agreements with all the coal companies. However, only the Coleman Local of the UMWA had its original Local Union (LU) number: 2633, first assigned in 1904. The other local unions were assigned new (and much higher) numbers when they rejoined the UMWA: Bellevue 7294, Blairmore 7295, Michel 7292 and Fernie 7310.

Because of the complexities of labour history in the Crowsnest Pass between 1902 and the early 1940s, it is misleading to think of these five local unions as strictly UMWA locals. Many of the leaders of the Crowsnest UMWA locals in the 1940s and 1950s had an independence of thought and action that was based upon experiences of class struggle and union politics stretching back to the first decades of the century. For instance, when Sim Weaver retired as the secretary-treasurer of the Michel mine workers local union in 1957, he had held that position continuously since 1924; and when Enoch Williams retired as secretary-treasurer of Blairmore LU 7295 in 1951, he had been working in the coal industry in the Crowsnest Pass since August 1905. It proved advantageous to have all of the miners' unions affiliated with the UMWA in the 1940s and 1950s. Not only were the local unions better able to co-ordinate their activities in the Crowsnest, they also had a much better opportunity to influence the overall direction of the coal miners' movement in Western Canada.

The Second World War sparked a strong demand for Crowsnest coal and the economic boom in the immediate post-war years meant that demand continued into the early 1950s. After the CPR decided to replace its steam locomotives with diesel locomotives, however, orders for Crowsnest coal fell sharply in 1953-54, and again in 1957-58. By the end of the 1950s, only Coleman LU 2633 and Michel LU 7292 had significant numbers of working members. Even then, membership in LU 2633 had fallen from 1,200 in 1952 to a mere 150 in the late 1950s. In the 1940s and 1950s, the five mine workers local unions were among the most important organisations in the Pass. Of course, they did not own the coal mines or the railway, but they were the organisational centres of an alternate vision of community in the Crowsnest, a vision that stressed equality rather than hierarchy, solidarity rather than self-interest and democracy rather than corporate oligarchy.

Union Power

Between the mid 1940s and early 1950s, there were over 3,000 UMWA members working in the Crowsnest Pass. These workers had economic power because of their capacity to halt production through a strike. As a consequence, the UMWA locals and their leaders were given considerable respect by the owners and management of the coal mines and by government officials. The five local unions also exercised power in District 18 of the UMWA because co-ordinated action in the Crowsnest Pass could spark unified worker action across the whole district. Finally, union power extended to community life since a large majority of residents were miners, former miners or the families of miners, and viewed the UMWA locals as their own.

There were two major strikes in District 18 in the latter half of the 1940s. The first was a protest against the meat rationing policy of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB). A mass meeting of miners in Blairmore on 23 September 1945 set a strike date of 27 September unless the fresh meat rations for miners were doubled and rations were lifted for lunchmeats such as bologna. The Bellevue, Blairmore, Coleman and Michel locals all went on strike on the 27th. Fernie LU 7310 walked out the next day and the strike soon included thousands of workers in other mines in B.C. and Alberta. The Crowsnest miners finally ended their strike on 22 October after securing some minor concessions on meat rations. The strike served to remind the coal companies that miners' demands could not be ignored. In November 1945 the management of West Canadian Collieries reported that the meat rationing situation continued to pose "some the miners are liable to take further action unless some concession is made to them."

The Crowsnest UMWA locals also initiated the "no contract, no work" strike in early 1948. At 7 p.m. on 12 January, the local union committees in Coleman, Blairmore and Bellevue each met in their union offices and decided to go on strike. The Michel local joined the strike on 13 January and Fernie followed the next day. The strike soon involved all miners in District 18 and ended in mid-February with miners securing a $2 per day wage increase (the previous minimum rate of pay had been $8.95 per day). The economic power of Crowsnest miners was further exhibited in the numerous pithead strikes during these years. Forty-eight miners at West Canadian Collieries' Adanac Mine refused to work on 16 July 1952 after they learned that mine management had docked them a half-hour's pay for leaving the mine a few minutes early on 15 July.

The UMWA local unions had widespread influence in their respective communities. The Blairmore, Coleman and Fernie local unions were heavily involved in local governments, endorsing and sometimes sponsoring candidates for office. For instance, LU 7310 agreed to cover all the election expenses for executive members Bob Lilley and Mike Nee when they successfully ran in the aldermanic election in Fernie in 1956. (The Michel and Bellevue local unions undoubtedly would have been involved in local governments if this option had been open to them, but Michel was a company town, while Bellevue, Hillcrest and Natal were unincorporated.) Furthermore, the UMWA locals in the B.C. Crowsnest took a leadership role in the Fernie and District Labour Party and the successful provincial re-election campaigns of Tom Uphill. On 1 September 1945 Uphill was nominated to be the Labour Party's candidate by the secretary-treasurer of LU 7292, Sim Weaver, and the nomination was seconded by the secretary-treasurer of LU 7310, Bill Martin.

During these years, union power was taken for granted by the miners themselves and was often acknowledged by their opponents. In an example from 1945, LU 7310 publicly challenged the Fernie Board of Trade when it learned that the Associated Boards of Trade in East Kootenay had passed a resolution opposing the union dues check-off. James White, the president of Fernie's Board of Trade, issued a conciliatory reply indicating that Fernie delegates did not support the resolution. He added that "…it has always been the policy of [the] Board, insofar as possible, and at all times to work in co-operation with the Miners' Union and not against it." Two routine events in the late 1940s further illustrate the important place of the mine workers local unions in each community's power structure. When the Blairmore Chamber of Commerce was reorganised in 1948, both the president and secretary-treasurer of LU 7295 were included as committee chairs. And the three groups that were asked to sponsor contestants in Coleman's Rodeo Queen contest of 1947 were the Board of Trade, the Mine Officials and LU 2633.

Local Unions Working Together

District 18 organised the local unions in the Crowsnest Pass along provincial lines: the Bellevue, Blairmore and Coleman Local Unions made up Sub-District 5 and had a single representative on the District Executive Board. LU 7295's Enoch Williams was the representative until his retirement in 1951, LU 2633's William J. White took over until 1955 when he retired, and LU 7294's Jock Dugdale served for the remainder of the 1950s. Similarly, the Michel and Fernie Local Unions made up Sub-District 8. LU 7292's Sim Weaver represented them on the District Executive Board until his retirement in 1957, Robert Lilley of LU 7310 for a few months until the Coal Creek mine was closed in 1958, and LU 7292's Tony Podrasky for the remainder of the 1950s.

Because of their close geographic proximity, the Alberta local unions worked together on a consistent basis in the 1940s and 1950s. Michel LU 7292, although in Sub-District 8, was just over the continental divide and had a close working relationship with the three Alberta locals. Only Fernie LU 7310 sometimes seemed out of step with the other Crowsnest locals. For instance, LU 7310 did not act on a formal invitation to organise the May Day celebration in 1948, and as a result the Sub-District 5 Board started organising a May Day rally for Blairmore less than a week before the event. Co-operation was more in evidence a few years later. In 1956, LU 7292's president, Sam English, praised the way the Fernie delegates to a District 18 convention had co-operated with the Michel delegates. The Fernie membership passed a motion that the Fernie and Michel union executives should meet every three months. The next year LU 7310 decided to send six delegates to a joint meeting of the Boards of Sub-Districts 5 and 8 in Natal.

The joint work of the miners' local unions in the Crowsnest Pass was facilitated by careful attention to communication. Representatives to the Sub-District Board, District 18 Board, and Canadian Congress of Labour conventions were expected to provide direct reports to the membership meetings of local unions. Furthermore, a local union would sometimes circulate a letter to other UMWA locals in the Crowsnest and elsewhere in District 18 in an attempt to win support on a particular issue. Examples of such circular letters received in Coleman in 1948 include a call for the autonomy of District 18 (from LU 7292) and a protest against the small amount of the strike pay being given to UMWA members in Nanaimo. By working together, the five UMWA local unions were able to co-ordinate their struggles with the coal companies, have a larger impact on the direction of District 18 and strengthen the bonds of solidarity among miners and their families throughout the Pass.

Anticipating the Social Security State

Canadians nowadays take for granted the universal availability of social security programs like old age security and Medicare. The principle underlying these programs is equality. Regardless of wealth or station in life, all citizens are guaranteed appropriate medical treatment and all senior citizens are guaranteed minimal income security. The coal miners of the Crowsnest Pass were so committed to the equality principle that they supported their own social security programs prior to the development of the Canadian version of the social security state.

In the 1940s and 1950s, public medical insurance was unavailable. Each Crowsnest UMWA local hired its own doctors, and paid for them by an assessment against each miner's pay. This early version of a group insurance plan ensured that miners and their families never had to worry about paying for the services of a doctor. Up until 1949, Coleman LU 2633 ran its own hospital in addition to employing its own doctors. In 1947 the yearly hospital assessment paid by each miner was $10.80; whenever expenses were unexpectedly high, the shortfall was covered by a special assessment. The three UMWA locals in the Alberta Crowsnest took a leading role in building the first modern hospital in the area, which opened in 1949 and was located between Blairmore and Coleman. This public hospital was financed through an increase in local property taxes, and was universally accessible to all residents. Those who lived in adjacent unincorporated areas could voluntarily pay an assessment in order to secure hospital coverage.

When the Elk River Colliery in Coal Creek closed in 1958, one of the serious ramifications for the miners of LU 7310 was that they no longer had the means to maintain a contract with doctors. The response of the local union, recorded at its 26 April 1958 meeting, was to "sponsor a public meeting regarding a Drs' Contract for everyone in town." The closing of the majority of Crowsnest coal mines in the 1950s demonstrated to miners the folly of having access to medical treatment tied to employment status. The idea of the citizens of Fernie negotiating a contract with doctors, like the residents of Alberta Pass towns using property taxes to run their own hospital, anticipated the universal character of the Canadian Medicare system where treatment is a right of citizenship.

The District 18 Welfare Fund--later broadened into the Welfare and Retirement Fund--also demonstrated the miners' commitment to equality in social security. This fund was modelled on that won by the UMWA in the United States in the spring of 1946. The new contract in Western Canada signed in October 1946 included a three cents per ton assessment for District 18's own Welfare Fund. By 1958 that assessment would stand at 27 cents per ton. The fund started operating in 1948 and initially paid only death benefits to the widows of deceased members. That same year the fund started paying benefits to disabled miners and, in 1950, initiated a retirement pension of $75 per month for men aged 62 years or older with twenty or more years of work in the mines. The retirement benefit was increased to $100 per month in 1952, but decreased to $75 in 1958 due to the shortfall of revenue caused by the decline of coal production.

Almost at the same time as District 18 started paying retirement pensions, the government of Canada first introduced a universal old age security pension. However it was available to Canadians only at age 70, and paid but $40 per month. The District 18 retirement pensions markedly improved the lives of elderly Crowsnest coal miners who were able to retire with dignity in the 1950s. In December 1955, a total of 1,272 retirement pensions were paid in District 18, 728 of which went to beneficiaries who were less than 70 years of age. Full or partial disability benefits were paid to an additional 117 miners. The Welfare and Retirement Fund paid a total of $1.2 million in benefits in 1955.

District 18's Welfare and Retirement Fund institutionalised a concern for disabled and elderly miners that had long been a component of the culture of the mine workers unions in the Crowsnest Pass. For instance, on 22 December 1946 the membership of Coleman LU 2633 discussed the case of a miner who had been unable to work for some time. A motion was passed to take a collection for this individual at the bank on the next pay day, and a number of leaders of LU 2633 volunteered for the job. The collection raised $178.37--about twenty days' pay at the minimum daily rate. Three years later, LU 2633 voted to start paying the $1 per month union dues for members who were no longer working in the hope that this would make them eligible for UMWA retirement pensions. These examples illustrate the extent to which both equality and solidarity were basic social values shared by the majority of mine workers in the Crowsnest Pass. In this culture, there was strong support for innovative ways of providing social security for miners and their families. The communities of the Crowsnest were an ideal testing ground for the universal social security programs that would remake Canadian life in the 1960s.

Two Faces: Santa Claus and Activists

There are many examples of Crowsnest miners and their unions providing gifts, acting much like large service clubs. As part of the May Day celebrations in the Pass, children were often given 25 cents or more for refreshments. In 1949, Coleman LU 2633 sponsored a free monthly matinee for children in Grades 1 to 9. During the Second World War, Michel LU 7292 gave Christmas gifts to all local residents who were in the service. At Christmas 1946, LU 7292 gave out a total of $1200 in gifts to the children of miners ($1.50 each), old-timers and widows ($2 each) and service personnel ($5 each). The Fernie Free Press proclaimed: "Michel Union is Santa Claus." In addition, the UMWA locals would authorise groups like the United Polish Relief Fund to collect funds from their members. In 1947, Coleman LU 2633 agreed to a system whereby members could authorise such donations through a deduction from pay collected by the coal companies.

But a charitable Santa Claus was only one face that the Crowsnest miners' unions presented to the world. The other face involved supporting labour and allied struggles in Alberta and B.C., the rest of Canada and internationally. These local unions clearly saw themselves as part of a broader, workers' movement. As would be expected, Crowsnest coal miners strongly identified with the struggles of other coal miners. During a 1947 strike in District 26 (Nova Scotia) of the UMWA, Coleman LU 2633 voted to levy an assessment of $1 per month against each member for the duration of the strike, and donate that amount to District 26. Union leaders from other coal fields would sometimes visit the Crowsnest. An example is the delegation led by the leader of the Scottish Miners Union, which met with LU 7310 in March 1957. But it wasn't just coal miners who received such support. In 1946, Michel LU 7292 approved an assessment of $1 per member for a donation to the Mine Mill Union (the successor to the Western Federation of Miners). That same year, the board of Sub-District 5 convened to discuss how it could support the strike by Alberta farmers, and proposed purchasing radio time to convey that support. Also in 1946, LU 7310 organised a collection to support the workers on strike at a Vancouver newspaper, and throughout this period the UMWA locals supported the campaign against rising prices organised by the Housewives' Consumer Association. In 1948, LU 2633 wrote to Prime Minister St. Laurent to ask that a subsidy be given to "the producers of milk so as to enable the children of the working class to get the milk which is so necessary to the health of our children."

The broader political issues taken up by Crowsnest UMWA locals in the 1940s and 1950s included protesting Alberta's regressive labour law reforms of 1948, proposing a shortened work week as a solution to unemployment ("Solve Unemployment: 4 Days Per Week with the Same Take Home Pay" was the recommendation of Bellevue LU 7294 on a banner carried at the 1950 May Day rally in Hillcrest), objecting to old age pensions being conditional on a means test, supporting the Supreme Court challenge to Quebec's notorious Padlock Law and condemning the execution of Greek Communists.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had a huge impact on the labour movements of Canada and the United States. In the name of fighting the "Communist menace," many left-wing union leaders were purged from office and left-wing unions were expelled from labour federations and subjected to raids by rival unions. The Crowsnest UMWA locals consistently opposed this internecine witch-hunt in the house of labour. This position was perhaps to be expected in the case of the two locals unions with the deepest historical links to the Communist Party of Canada (CPC): Blairmore LU 7295 and Michel LU 7292. However, the other UMWA locals in the Crowsnest also consistently took this position. For example, although Coleman Local 2633 had long since distanced itself from the CPC, in 1950 it opposed the expulsion of the United Electrical Workers from the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) and protested the raiding activities of the CCL against the Mine Mill Union.

The Crowsnest UMWA locals were definitely on the left wing of the labour movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Contrary to the Cold War stereotype, this is not because they were controlled by a 'foreign' power. Rather, their left-wing convictions were a product of decades of hard labour, collective struggle and solidarity. The socialistic orientation found in the Crowsnest was firmly rooted in local experience. This is why it proved to be largely immune to the anti-communism which was running amuck in the broader labour movement.

Militantly Democratic

The mine workers local unions in the Crowsnest Pass had many defining characteristics, but the one that stands out above all others is their thoroughgoing commitment to democracy. These unions were democratic in five distinct ways. First, they thoroughly involved their own union memberships in the crucial stages of contract negotiations. Prior to the beginning of district-wide negotiations with the coal operators, District 18 would hold a wage scale convention, such as that held 17-21 November 1952. Before this convention, each local union would meet to decide upon the bargaining ideas they would formally propose to the convention. Furthermore, a local's membership would receive a full report from its delegates to the wage scale convention and regular updates during negotiations. Finally, negotiated agreements in District 18 were submitted (with the 1955 agreement being an important exception) to the membership for ratification or rejection. In 1953 this practice led to a membership rejection of a tentative agreement although the declining economics of the coal industry eventually forced the workers to accept the same agreement.

Second, the Crowsnest UMWA locals always used elections to choose union representatives, and union executive positions were elected yearly. The Coleman LU 2633 executive election in June 1953 produced a huge upset. Earlier that month, LU 2633 had rejected the tentative agreement recommended by District 18 by a margin of 488 to 266. Some of the anger at the tentative agreement appears to have been directed at William J. White, the long serving secretary-treasurer of LU 2633 and the Sub-District 5 representative on the District 18 executive board. White ran for re-election as secretary-treasurer in 1953, but lost by a 424-329 count to Norman Ash.

The third democratic element in the practice of the Crowsnest miners' unions was their often vigorously contested elections. Contending political factions coexisted in leadership positions within the unions. Rather than being like an authoritarian, one-party country, the Crowsnest local unions were like countries with a healthy competition between parties. It is significant that even though the members of factions opposed each other in elections, they worked closely with each other on union business and effectively shared power. Fourth, democratic participation for the Crowsnest UMWA locals involved a constant process of raising issues, communicating a position and trying to build a common front with other local unions in order to effect changes in District 18. As mentioned previously, circular letters from one UMWA local union to other locals frequently made the rounds.

Finally, the miners' local unions in the Crowsnest Pass were never shy about challenging the actions of the District 18 and International UMWA executives. For instance, when the District 18 Executive Board unilaterally renewed the collective agreement in 1955 without consulting with the membership, the Sub-District 5 and 8 representatives on the Board were among the three dissenters. The Bellevue, Blairmore and Coleman local unions all formally protested the decision. The Crowsnest UMWA locals thus served as a militant, albeit loyal, opposition within District 18.

We learn many important lessons about democracy when we study the historical record of the Crowsnest mine workers unions in the 1940s and 1950s: democracy takes time, is hard work and frequently involves confrontation. At the same time, democratic practice built a unity among Crowsnest coal miners that was an indispensable asset in their attempt to create communities that embodied the values of equality and solidarity. Their example demonstrates that democratic planning and decision making can be achieved, and that citizens can accomplish a great deal when they mount popular challenges to the entrenched power of corporate and political elites.

Sources and Acknowledgements

Union documents were the key source for this paper. The records of both District 18 of the UMWA and Coleman LU 2633 are found in the Glenbow Archives in Calgary, as are the records of West Canadian Collieries. I thank Louis Grenier and Rachael McKendry for their assistance in researching these documents, and the Archive's superb staff for their unfailing help. Another important source was stories found in a number of local newspapers: the Fernie Free Press (consulted at the Fernie Public Library), and the Coleman Journal, Blairmore Graphic and Blairmore Enterprise (available for loan through the Alberta Legislature's library). Chris Frazer assisted with this phase of my research. Finally, two books provided important background information: Bruce Ramsey, The Noble Cause: The Story of the United Mine Workers of America in Western Canada (Calgary, 1990); and Warren Caragata, Alberta Labour: A Heritage Untold (Toronto, 1979).