Are Canadians going to get enough coal this winter?.. Here’s the lowdown on a crisis which affects all of us

BLAIR FRASER November 1 1943


Are Canadians going to get enough coal this winter?.. Here’s the lowdown on a crisis which affects all of us

BLAIR FRASER November 1 1943


Are Canadians going to get enough coal this winter?.. Here’s the lowdown on a crisis which affects all of us


YOU, John Citizen, are asked to save at least one fifth of your normal coal supply this winter. Canada’s Government calls the fuel situation a “national emergency.” Munitions Minister C. D. Howe has proclaimed it a crime, punishable if detected, to waste heat. Dealers are forbidden to sell you, in advance, more than half the hard coal you bought last year. Industrial users are limited wherever possible to 80% of last year’s supply. Motion picture theatres, for instance, are on a voluntary 35% cut. Everyone, home owner and building operator alike, is told to keep temperatures down to 68 deg. by day, 58 by night—healthier anyway, doctors say, than the 75 deg. we used to average.

Why all these precautions? Are we really in danger of freezing in our beds before winter is out? Just how much are we short of requirements?

A recent Gallup Poll showed that at the time this article was written only one out of every four Canadians had enough coal for a full winter’s supply. Another one in four had no coal at all.

At Coal Control in Ottawa I learned how complex are the answers to the simple questions. About the danger there is no doubt—a senior official, who knows what he is talking about, said that if any interruption in productio, i should occur this fall our situation would become “desperate.”

But the “shortage” is harder to define. It isn’t so much a shortage as a condition of precarious equilibrium—just enough, just barely enough if all goes well, if every miner produces his utmost and every

consumer saves all he possibly can, to see us safely through.

We are going to burn 47 million tons this year if we can get them, against the record 44 of last year. We are going to produce only 17j^ million tons at the present rate—nearly a million below last year. In production, at best we shall do badly, but so long as we do no worse than a pessimistic Coal Control figured we would do we shall avert disaster. But the equilibrium is delicate in the extreme.

That equilibrium could be upset in several ways. Canada is a coal-producing country supplying half her own peacetime needs. A production breakdown or failure of consumer co-operation could ruin us. Canada is not and cannot be self-sufficient in coal. Finally, we might have a nominal, over-all sufficiency and yet be caught by disastrous regional scarcities.

For Canada, from a Coal Controller’s viewpoint, is not one country but three. There are the Maritimes, self-sufficient in coal, and in peacetime exporting a fat surplus up the St. Lawrence to Quebec and eastern Ontario. There is the West, self-sufficient and able to ship coal east by rail as far as the Great Lakes. There is the “Ontario gap” which, though its size may vary, must always depend on American coal because it is

too long and too costly a haul from any Canadian mine.

That is still the basic pattern but the boundaries have changed. We used to burn western Canadian coal as far east as Jackfish on Lake Superior and Maritime coal as far west as Windsor, Ont. Today we are shipping American coal as far west as Regina and as far east as Riviere du Loup. And each of the three sectors is burning more coal than ever before.

So there is not, today, one all-Canada coal problem. There are three separate problems, all interrelated to some extent but each with its own difficulties, and each needing its own solution.

Central Canada’s problem only the consumer can solve. Here we have no mines of our own. There are no ships now to bring Nova Scotia coal up the St. Lawrence even if Nova Scotia had coal to spare, which she has not. We must rely on the United States.

We have asked Washington’s Coal ControFfor 29 }/$ million tons. Five million will be anthracite and this will be our total supply of this type of fuel for all our own coal is bituminous or lignite. Washington has limited us to 90% of last year’s anthracite import, which is the reason why you have been prevented from buying all you want in advance. But the difference is being made up in “soft” coal of which we shall import for all purposes some 24 million tons.

So far it looks as if we shall get all we asked for, or nearly all. Washington is playing fair, making every effort to keep up to commitments and see that we don’t go short. But we shall not get a pound more than our quota. And in setting that quota we played fair too—it isn’t a padded figure. It. assumes the most rigid economy by every Canadian.

How To Save Coal

OrlvI'AWA has taken numerous steps to encourage and enforce such economy. Orders-in-council will fix maximum temperatures for various industrial locales and operations. Strenuous efforts are being made to supply the home consumer with conservation tips—“Thirty-three Ways to Save Coal” is the title of the latest handout. It includes such advice as: “Clean Continued on page 34

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your furnace; insulate your house; weatherstrip doors and windows; don’t let hot-water taps leak; don’t heat sunroom and garage.” Even such a precaution as drawing window shades can save up to 10% of your fuel consumption. Keeping the house at 68 deg. instead of 75 will save 17.5%.

If voluntary methods fail, we have been warned, rationing must come. That would be no fun for anyone.

Fuel rationing anywhere is hedged with the most complex difficulties. In Britain last year, where the rationing system of ordinary commodities is much more extensive than in Canada and the fuel needs closer to uniformity, they faced a shortage of 11 million tons, and some thought coal rationing inevitable. But on examination so many administrative thorns were discovered that they relied on voluntary saving. The British put on a terrific publicity campaign and won through.

Here, we had better do likewise if we know what is good for us. How would you like to have a federal official decide how much more coal you need for your nine-room house than Neighbor Jones needs for his five-room duplex?

Consumers anywhere in Canada had better watch their “p’s and q’s,” but far eastern and far western regions are the most vulnerable of all. Central Canada has two advantages. One, there are stock piles to be raided. If the private consumer’s plight should become really desperate, and serious distress prevail, it could be relieved in an emergency by borrowings from railway and industrial reserves—which are somewhat depleted but still exist. The second advantage is that all central Canada’s coal is imported, so local production headaches do not enter the picture.

Down East and out West they have neither of these easements. Stock piles are virtually nil. The regions are almost totally without margins of safety and are dependent on maintenance of their own production.

The production picture is bleak. Canadian mines are producing little more than half what they could be producing. In the best months of 1941 and 1942, output ran up to 1,900,000 tons. Last July, latest month for which figures are complete, it was less than 1,400,000. The daily production of the Cape Breton Island mines, richest of the Maritime coal fields, used to be 18,500 tons. This summer the average

had slipped below 12,000 tons a day, and one far-too-typical September day showed only 9,000 tons, less than half the old rate.

I went down to the Nova Scotia coal fields to try to find the reason for this drastic slump. From management and unions alike 1 got the answer in one word—MANPOWER.

Of all workers in Canada the coal miner and all those associated in handling coal are rated the most essential. The coal miner is one of the few men who may not leave their jobs—even to enlist. He is in that select class of men who if already enlisted is paraded before his Commanding Officer and urged to doff khaki for overalls. And with others he has been forcibly yanked out of a new, better-paying job and sent back to the pits under a Government order which has already returned more than 800 experienced mineworkers.

In 1939 there were about 9,500 men digging coal in Canada—actually producing coal, not just working in a mine. Today there are only about 7,300.

It does no good that the rest of the mine staff, the surface workers, the drivers and tim bermen and roadmakers and other maintenance men, are still at their old strength of 16,000. It’s that deficit of 2,200 men “at the face,” as they say, that makes coal mining our Number One manpower problem.

Bitter Pill

The mine operators’ grievance against the Government is that nothing was done about mine manpower until this year. The experience of the last war when manpower depletion cut production in Nova Scotia alone from eight million tons in 1913 to less than six million in 1918 was ignored. Until recently miners were not only permitted to volunteer they were also subjected to the pressure of itinerant recruiting campaigns. In addition they continued to be drafted for our “home defense” army.

This is the bitterest pill of all to the mine operators. Deferments could be had but they were temporary. After three or six months along would come another call-up notice and this time the miner generally refused to apply for deferment and volunteered for active service.

Altogether, the United Mineworkers Union estimates that anywhere from 7,500 to 9,000 of their Canadian members are in uniform today, and a Continued on page 48

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Government check shows this estimate is not far off their mark. And these men, of course, are the pick of their trade in body and spirit. Soldiering and mining call for many of the same characteristics. Today’s typical miner is an older, slower man, and mining companies estimate they would need 15% more men now to produce the same amount of coal as in peacetime.

Besides the drain of the armed services there has been the lure of the war industries. Mining is hard, dirty work, and of all the underground jobs the work at the face is the hardest and dirtiest. So it is not surprising that hundreds of skilled miners took advantage of war “prosperity” and boom wages to get out of the pits.

This was the situation that led, last May, to Order-in-Couneil 4092—the ordinance by which an ex-miner is forced to go hack to the mine.

It seemed the only thing to do and it was widely acclaimed at the time as a step toward “realistic” manpower policy. Perhaps if it had applied to everyone equally it might have been viewed with equal approval by the affected man himself. As it was, the miner’s reaction was, “Why pick on me?”

'Lake the case of “Big Pat” of New Waterford, Cape Breton, who was sent hack in August from a war job in Windsor, Ont. 1 went down No. 12 mine to find Pat at work and 1 met him just at quitting time. We were about three miles out under the bottom of the Atlantic and perhaps a quarter of a mile straight down. As we walked out two abreast to the “rake” that would

carry the men to the surface, I asked him how he felt about the whole thing.

“Well,” he said, “how would you feel if you’d had your pay cut $20 a week and had to work harder for it?”

I said I guessed I wouldn’t like it.

“No,” Pat said, in a mild voice. “Well, I don’t like it either.”

Pat earned $54 a week in Windsor hut just a year after he went to the Ontario city he was back in his native New Waterford and down the mine again for $34 a week. He had no objection to working in a mine, only to earning $34 instead of $54. He was back at the job he’d had before, steel timberman. It’s a skilled job, paying the highest datai rate, but paying a good bit less than actual mining. It is nine years now since Pat last cut coal.

“Would you go back to it if they ordtired you to?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s awful hard work for the bit extra they pay. I can make as much money where I am by working an extra shift in the week.” Then, after a pause, he said: “Oh, I

suppose I’d go. 1 guess I’d do it if they ordered me.”

Not so a New Aberdeen man who had been earning $8.95 a day as a riveter when Selective Service came and got him, and slid him back to $5.71. He was mad clear through.

They told me at Ottawa there were more than 200 such men actually employed at nonproducing jobs in Canadian mines. It seemed incredible that the work at the face could he as hard as all that.

It’s hard, of course. I watched a husky miner running the pneumatic machine which, scythelike, cuts three semicircular swathes in the coal seam. I was chilly in overalls and flannel shirt, but the miner stripped to the waist had sweat running down his face and chest. He let me run the machine for a few minutes. It’s the easiest of the several operations of mining, but it’s not very easy at that.

“Well, what do you think of the job?”

I said it seemed a pretty hard job.

“You’re right, boy, it’s hard,” he said. “A man can’t stand it more than five days a week.”

Five Days Enough

Light began to dawn. A contract miner at the face earns good money— Cape Breton’s average is $8.80 a shift, though the men claim the median is lower. But call it $8 a shift. If a miner can only stand to work five days a week, his $8 rate pays him $40 a week. At $5.71, Cape Breton’s highest datai rate, a five-day week would pay only $28.55—but the datai man doesn’t need to limit himself to five days. He can earn up to $45.68 by working a couple of extra shifts on his six-day week, and with men as scarce as they are he can always get the extra shifts if he needs them.

So experienced miners are refusing “promotion” to the face while compulsory transfers bring more and more men to other mine jobs where they are not needed. P.C. 4092 was not enough. Since mid-August, Selective Service Order 6077 has been rounding up all kinds of casual laborers and sending them to work in the mines. Managers say they are completely worthless. One group of six turned up at Springhill, N.S., took one look down the black mouth of the shaft, and fled in terror.

1 talked to some of these newcomers — they weren’t too happy about it all.

; In the main they didn’t mind underground work, didn’t mind the change ¡ of living quarters, hut all harped on the

same theme: “I was making more

money where I was before.” It keeps coming back to the matter of wages.

In Alberta the pay is higher and the work is said to be easier. However, the United Mineworkers have an application in for more pay and a mind to strike if they don’t get it. The root of the trouble is that the miners voluntarily agreed, soon after war broke out, to accept the pre-war wage scale, plus cost-of-living bonus, for the duration and one year thereafter. They had the idea this policy would be pretty general but they were the first workers in all Canada to sign such an agreement. When this arrangement had become compulsory the miners were chagrined to find other workers’ wages “frozen” at levels which had greatly increased between the date of the miners’ wage contract and the date of the wage-freezing order. As a final irony these latecomers also were getting the cost-of-living bonus.

I f miners are so essential and all they want is more money, why not give them the raise and be done with it? Lots of people earn more than a miner these days, and with less work. But it is not as simple as that.

Mining is not only a vital war industry it is also a permanent peacetime industry—a none-too-profitable enterprise which exploits a wasting asset and can therefore look forward with certainty to a growth, not a diminution, of its difficulties.

Mining is frequently unprofitable. Canadian mines lost money all through the depression, showed a profit in 1940 of only 1.7% and slumped to a loss again in 1941. Requests for a wage increase are opposed by the employers who produce figures to back their plea “We can’t afford it.”

Unless, of course, they are allowed to raise the price of coal. This brings us smack up against the whole problem of inflation, of wage control and its twin, price control. Coal is the very bedrock of Canadian economy. Raise the price of coal and you increase the cost of everything from a heated apartment to a fried egg.

Miners Want Subsidy

United Mineworkers, in arguing for more pay, suggest that if the money cannot be found in the profit margin, the Government should pay it out of Treasury funds. Subsidies are already being paid farmers, importers and others to keep the price ceiling from blowing off; why not to miners?

So far as I could learn in Ottawa the Government is not likely to favor this suggestion. Inflation controllers of the Donald Gordon school think the subsidy policy has already been carried to its feasible limit. The suggestion that subsidies be paid to bolster low wages fills them with horror. Besides, mining companies assert, with some justice, that by peacetime standards their wages are not low. They contend that only the new war-contract jobs, none governed by the economic necessities that restrict private enterprise, make a miner’s wages look puny. And they say this condition is general— “The only reason you’re interested in coal,” one of them said, rather bitterly, “is because coal affects you personally. Actually it’s the same in all the peacetime industries.” And he told how the steel plant at nearby Sydney found itself losing its patternmakers—highly skilled craftsmen whom it takes years to train—and later found some of them working as carpenters for 90 cents an

hour, putting knobs on bureau drawers in a coastal Officers Mess.

On the men’s side there is a tangle of internal feuds and union politics. The United Mineworkers are split East and West. Recently, when a fuel conference was called at Ottawa, delegates of Alberta’s District 18 refused to sit at the same table with the Maritimes’ District 26. Down East, the district itself is split between a faction loyal to John L. Lewis and another faction which broke out of the UMW altogether.

Maybe this confusion is the cause of the random stoppages that plague the coal industry, especially in the East. In the mines of an eastern company there have been 66 separate stoppages of work this year, all minor, all violations of contract, all costly in coal.

Even the consumption side is not simple. Out West, for instance, most people burn lignite, and lignite production has held up pretty well. At first glance one might think the situation well in hand. But it isn’t—because sawdust-burning British Columbians can’t get enough sawdust any more,

and the demand for lignite has zoomed. Little bituminous can be spared to eke out domestic supplies because, paradoxically, in the West it’s Canada that exports industrial coal to the western United States.

But the real headaches are in production—a tough operating problem at best, with recalcitrant miners, sullen returned truants, rampant absenteeism and frequent strikes—all in one way or another related to the basic cause of trouble, shortage of skilled men.

What’s the solution? I put that question to a high official in one mining company and he looked at me unsmiling.

“Between drafting miners into the Army on one hand,” he said, “and hiring them at fancy wages on the other, the Government has created a cancer. Now, you tell me—what’s the cure for cancer?”

As this was written miners in British Columbia and Alberta voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike to settle their wage grievances. The affirmative vote totalled 7,849 and the negative 399.