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.
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.