Mining Strike

The ‘Big Strike’

Coal mining was a very large business in the early twentieth century, and along towns in Vancouver Island, coal was plentiful. Even better, the coal that was mined from the pits in towns like Extension, Ladysmith and Cumberland was of the highest quality.[1] But the extraction of coal from these seams was incredibly dangerous, and there had already been serious accidents costing the lives of miners by 1912. The largest issue with the miners was the pay did not reflect the danger of the work. These miners wanted a better wage at a safer job; striking was their only way of demonstrating that worth.

Ginger Goodwin knew very well that a strike was the best course of action. As a socialist, he advocated the recognition of and steps to reconcile the fact that mining and other occupations were part of the working class that was being oppressed by a capitalistic system. It was Goodwin’s opinion, as he wrote in the Western Clarion in 1912 before labour revolt, that because of this oppression, workers needed to educate themselves with socialist principles and use strikes as a tool to counter that oppression.[2]

However, going on strike was no easy feat. Cumberland’s miners lived in homes owned by Canadian Collieries, meaning that the company had immense power over the workers. When the workers began to strike, they were quickly evicted. Friends, families and sympathetic businesses owners supported the strikers with food, shelter, or both during.[3]

Strikebreakers, or scabs, were hired to fill the vacant positions, but were despised by the communities. As the strike progressed into 1913, violence broke out between the strikers and strikebreakers.[4] The strikers were never advocators of violence, but outbreaks did occur. In July of 1913, acting upon the rumour that a strikebreaker claiming he would “run the strikers out of town,” groups of strikers and strikebreakers broke out in a brawl.[5] Another instance was when the strikebreaker Alex McKinnon lost his right hand and survived serious injury to his face and body when trying to dispose of a bundle of makeshift dynamite thrown into the bedroom of his children at night.[6] Though appearing obviously the actions of strikers, the attack against McKinnon was discovered in 1914 to have been committed by members of the community not associated with the strikers, who were drunk and wanted to make their own attack.[7]

Worse was in Extension that August, when a violent clash between the two groups. The strikers, wanting to confront the strikebreakers, were fired upon as the strikebreakers. In reaction, the strikers set upon the town, destroying company homes and driving people sympathetic to the strikebreakers into the woods, which resulted in the majority of the town in ruins.[8] William Bowser, the attorney general and acting premier for the absent Richard McBride, had troops sent from Vancouver and Victoria to keep the peace in reaction to the riots. Among those regiments included the 5th Artillery, commanded at the time by Colonel Arthur Currie.[9] The Seaforth Highlanders were sent to restore order in Extension.[10] These soldiers, armed with bayonets and a maxim machine gun, were met with disgust and slurs by the strikers and general community, called “half clad barbarians,” and for having little to do but idle about in the sun.[11] However, with the threat of the military, the authorities were easily able to arrest the union organizers, labeled as ringleaders.[12] The strike held on, despite having lost its steam, due to the support from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). When the UMWA discontinued paying strike relief, the strikers were out of options: they had to return to work.[13] Throughout this period, Goodwin contributed articles to various newspapers, including the Western Clarion, speaking, often angrily, in support of socialist practices and for the strikes.[14] The strike came to a close in August of 1914, just as the war was beginning. The former strikers now had new opportunities for their labour, and Ginger had new problems.

[1] Susan Mayse, Ginger: The Life and Death of Ginger Goodwin (Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 1990), 60.

[2] Ginger, 61.

[3] Ginger, 64-6.

[4] John Hinde, When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003), 176.

[5] Coal, 176.

[6] Coal, 180-1.

[7] Coal, 181.

[8] Coal, 183-4.

[9] Victoria Daily Colonist, Aug 14, 1913

[10] Coal, 186.

[11] Coal, 188-9.

[12] Coal, 190.

[13] Coal, 206.

[14] Ginger, 74.