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This Day in Labor History: June 11, 1925

[ 16 ] June 11, 2013 |

This is a guest post by Jacob Remes, who is assistant professor and mentor at SUNY Empire State College, where he teaches public affairs and history. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press. He tweets at @jacremes.

Happy Davis Day

Today in 1925, soldiers in New Waterford, Nova Scotia, shot and killed William Davis, a striking coal miner. Members of District 26 of the United Mine Workers, representing miners in Nova Scotia, have never worked on June 11 since.

Davis was killed after a militant turn in a long and bitter strike in the coal fields of eastern Nova Scotia. The previous contract had expired in January, and relief committees in each of the towns had been operating since the winter. To pressure the workers, the employer, the British Empire Steel Company, or BESCO, cut off credit at the company stores at the most militant mine heads. The miners walked off the job in March, and BESCO retaliated by pulling out the ponies and maintenance equipment from three collieries and allowing them to flood. The the men who left work at those mines, they knew, would probably never return.

Even so, the UMW international insisted on a strategy of waiting. John L. Lewis, the UMW’s virulently anti-radical international president, had colluded with the company to break the last strike, watching as District President J.B. McLachlan had been carted off the jail on trumped-up sedition charges and replacing him with a docile and unelected executive. Now McLachlan was out of prison and running a radical newspaper, and by early June the miners were frustrated that no progress had been made.

So they stopped waiting and called for a total strike. Before, only actual miners had stopped work. Now, nobody would be allowed to work for the company. On June 4, the men who had been operating a company power plant in New Waterford walked off the job, cutting off the town’s water and electricity. On June 11, fifty managers and mounted company police overtook the few picketers guarding the plant. In response hundreds—estimates ranged from 700 to 3,000—of striking miners marched to the plant to enforce the strike.

They were met with gunfire. Many were beaten by police, several were injured by bullets, and one was killed. The death of William Davis sparked a riot in which company stores—which had remained tauntingly well stocked but closed to strikers—were looted and burned. Angry miners ran the police out of town and would perhaps have killed them had it not been for the intercession of Father J.H. Nicholson, Mt. Carmel Parish Priest in New Waterford, who calmed the men until the police had a chance to escape. William Davis, killed for striking, had not been given that chance.

Even with this violence, it took until August for a newly elected Conservative premier, Edgar Rhodes, to negotiate a stop-gap contract while a Royal Commission investigated the coal industry. By this point, the union was fighting for its life, and any contract at was a victory. Other than the continued existence of the union, the one victory was that it kept the dues check-off for the length of the final contract. It was, otherwise, a lost strike.

To keep alive the memory of the Strike of 1925 and the murder of William Davis, the members of District 26 swore they would never work again on June 11. Davis Day became a holiday in the coal mining region of Cape Breton. But gradually, Davis Day has become a day associated less with remember the killing of a striker and more with remembering all the dead of Nova Scotia’s mines. There have been many, from the 75 men killed in the Springhill mine collapse of 1958, to the 26 non-union miners killed in the Westray explosion of 1992. In 2008, after the social democratic New Democratic Party was elected to the Nova Scotia government, the province finally recognized Miners’ Memorial Day. But Davis Day should be more than a commemoration of mining accidents, as terrible as those are. Davis did not die accidentally in a tragic, if avoidable, disaster. He was murdered by the military for striking.

Like Davis Day, Workers’ Memorial Day (April 25) began as a Canadian commemoration. Perhaps, like Workers’ Memorial Day, we can spread Davis Day south. One way to so so is to donate to the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Founded by Robert Meeropol in honor of his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Rosenberg Fund supports the children of those who are killed, jailed, or lose their jobs for their progressive political activities. Included in this group are parents whose bosses fire them for union activism. Americans have few better ways to commemorate Davis Day than with a donation to the Rosenberg Fund, perhaps to the Clinton Jencks fund, which is “designated to assist children of workers who have been penalized, injured, fired, jailed or have died for their organizing efforts to build unions, improve working conditions and elevate living standards for all in the work force.”

William Davis was neither the first murdered striker nor the last. The labor movement has too many martyrs. This Davis Day, let us remember them all.

company store

Further Reading:

David Frank, J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1999).

John Mellor, The Company Store: James Bryson McLachlan and the Cape Breton Coal Miners (Toronto: Doubleday, 1983)

Paul MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1976).

Donald Macgillivray, “Military Aid to the Civil Power: The Cape Breton Experience in the 1920s,” in Cape Breton Historical Essays, ed. Don Macgillivray and Brian Tennyson (Sydney, N.S.: College of Cape Breton Press, 1980): 95-109.

David Frank, “The Cape Breton Coal Industry and the Rise and Fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation,” Acadiensis VII no. 1 (autumn 1977): 3-34.

Jacob Remes, “In Search of ‘Saner Minds’: Bishop James Morrison and the Origins of the Antigonish Movement,” Acadiensis XXXIX no 1 (winter/spring 2010): 58-82.

This is the 64th post in this series. Previous entries are archived here.

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Comments (16)

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  1. Jeffrey Beaumont says:

    Good essay, though I might consider changing that next to last paragraph’s closing line. Strictly speaking, and according to this narrative, Davis wasn’t killed by any military, right?

  2. Jacob Remes says:

    The 1925 strike occasioned the second-largest domestic call-up of the Canadian army (militia, strictly speaking). It’s actually really unclear to me who did the actual shooting, but if it was the civil or private police forces, they were certainly backed up by the army. (If you’re interested in this question in more detail, I recommend the Macgillivray chapter cited in the post; I don’t actually have it with me and so can’t check it myself for the details.)

  3. Melissa says:

    I was in Halifax during the investigation of the explosion. Everyday the papers printed more news about the company’s practices and provincial negligence. The provincial mine safety unit had long failed to inspect the mines. I believe a minister lost his seat, though that isn’t enough. The comp[any and government worked (or failed to work) hand in hand.
    Thanks for this piece;

  4. Melissa says:

    I was in Halifax during the investigation of the explosion. Everyday the papers printed more news about the company’s practices and provincial negligence. The provincial mine safety unit had long failed to inspect the mines. I believe a minister lost his seat, though that isn’t enough. The company and government worked (or failed to work) hand in hand.
    Thanks for this piece.

    • Jacob Remes says:

      You’re talking about the Westray inquiry? I think you raise an important point about workplace disasters–that they’re not actually accidents, not random, and not blameless. Like all disasters, they can be prevented or mitigated, and their effects and the experience of them fall on a social gradient. Westray was only accidental in the sense that no one actively planned it; in every other way, it was the result of collusion between the owners and the government. The documentary I linked to in the post is really good on this.

  5. Bruce Vail says:

    Fascinating. Was the British Empire Steel Co. a local, private enterprise, or part of a state-owned (or London-owned) corporation?

    • Jacob Remes says:

      Not state-owned. Capital came from London, New York, and Montreal, and that’s where the power lay. (My memory is that the contract negotiations happened in Montreal.) The 1977 Acadiensis article by David Frank is really good on this.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Thanks for this.

        I’m intrigued by your characterization of John L. Lewis as “virulently ant-radical”. The view of Lewis in the US is certainly mixed, but he was really quite radical in the US context at certain points in his career, and was seen that way by government and business leaders.

        Of course, little attention is usually paid to his early career as a union leader when he was consolidating his control over the fractious UMWA

        • Jacob Remes says:

          Later, CIO-era Lewis is certainly seen as more radical, although he’s always pretty anti-Communist. In this period, his anti-radicalism trumped everything else, especially when it came to District 26. Lewis is obviously an interesting and deeply complex figure who, perhaps more (or more obviously) than others, changes considerably over time.

          In the District 26 story, Lewis basically only ever appears as a villain, because of he way he deposes the elected district leadership in the middle of a militant strike. Part of that comes from a historiographical focus on McLachlan, the Communist district president Lewis deposed (and who was tried and jailed for sedition). It also comes from a group of historians who celebrate the militancy of Cape Breton miners and bemoan Lewis’s conservatism. Because it’s Cape Breton–on the periphery of a peripheral province in a peripheral country–District 26 rarely if ever shows up in general UMW histories. I’d be interested to see how one could write a history of Lewis, McLachlan, and District 26 in a way that paid more attention to Lewis’s motives, rather than just featuring him sweeping in to ruin things.

  6. Melissa says:

    Oops. Sorry for both the double posting and the omission of Westray.

  7. Gregor Sansa says:

    This is a great series.

    I was interested to read recently the ILO Global Wage Report. There’s a section where they assign blame for labor’s declining share of the pie. In developed countries, the breakdown is:

    46 percent of labor’s falling share resulted from financialization, 19 percent from globalization, 10 percent from technological change and 25 percent from institutional factors

    “Institutional factors” is code for weaker labor unions, and that is the second-biggest factor. But an oversized financial sector is almost twice as important; and that’s without considering its role in the economic crisis. That suggests that dates like July 1, 1999 (Glass-Steagal repeal) should be on your list.

  8. [...] of the Overpass. June 7, 1913–Paterson Silk Pageant. Addendum here. June 11, 1925–Davis Day June 16, 1918–Eugene Debs arrested for violating Espionage Act. June 21, 1877–Molly [...]

  9. [...] June 11, 1925: Soldiers in Nova Scotia kill a striking coal miner [...]

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