"I Left My Wife Crying"

Friend against friend, father against son, husband against wife. Here's the tragic story of the bitter strike that split a city

RALPH ALLEN October 15 1946

"I Left My Wife Crying"

Friend against friend, father against son, husband against wife. Here's the tragic story of the bitter strike that split a city

RALPH ALLEN October 15 1946

"I Left My Wife Crying"

Friend against friend, father against son, husband against wife. Here's the tragic story of the bitter strike that split a city


TWO NIGHTS before the strike started at the Hamilton works of the Steel Company of Canada, George Washburn and his wife, both Stelco employees and union members, went to work together. Although the strike hadn’t yet been called, it was clearly imminent. The Washburns agreed the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift would be their last before the walkout.

“I haven’t seen him since,” Mrs. Washburn said, nearly two months later. ‘‘He phoned me on the Sunday from the plant, and said, ‘I’m staying in.’ That night I took the three kids down to the Wilcox gate and we marched in the picket line. I’ve been picketing my husband ever since ... I can’t understand. He was so strong for the union, and then ... I don’t know what we’ll do when it’s over.”

In the third week of the strike Tony Rocco, a striking laborer, applied for union relief and began feeding his wife and five small children on $1.43 a day. Inside the plant an acquaintance of Tony Rocco’s, a head roller named Harry Maynard,

was drawing wages of $120 a day, six days a week.

During the fifth week of the strike Joe Bolanzo flew across the picket lines to get married. The day he tried to walk back in, his three cousins were on the picket line. ‘‘Get the scab!” his cousins yelled.

‘‘A mob of pickets started after me,” Bolanzo said afterward. ‘‘I ran.”

For the purposes of history, the Hamilton steel strike began moving toward a ‘‘settlement” late last month, when both union and Government negotiators expressed confidence that the 3,500 employees who had been on strike would soon be back inside making steel beside the 2,250 fellow workers they had held in a state of siege for more than nine weeks.

But ‘‘settlement” was far too big a word.

The Hamilton strike was the most unusual, controversial and potentially violent labor dispute in Canada’s history, and for the Washburns, the Roccos, the Maynards and the Bolanzos, it won’t be settled for years, perhaps for decades. In its effect on the men who make steel in Hamilton, on the women who pack their lunches and on the children growing up to be steelmen

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and the wives of steelmen, the strike’s most lasting byproduct will be the mountainous slag heap of hatred, fear, suspicion and aggravated misunderstanding that overflowed the factory boundaries until, at some point, it had touched every street and neighborhood in a city of 200,000.

Families were split by apparently irreconcilable differences. Lifelong friends became enemies overnight. Coincidental with the adjustments it was making in the world of capital and labor, the strike was making far harsher adjustments in the world of sewing circles, the world of fishing trips, the world of Could - I - borrow - a - cup - of - sugar - Mrs. Brown? the world of How-about-a-beer-Eddie? the world of Please-Mrs.-Jones-can-Bobby-comeout-and-play?

“They Learned to Hate’’

THE STELCO strike’s unique and tragic effect was of the same pattern as its unique and tragic battle lines. It never did develop as a straight fight between the Worker and the Boss. Although the CIO-affiliated United Steelworkers of America, which called the strike, held a sufficient membership within the plant to be designated as official bargaining agent for the employees, Stelco was barely 60% organized. Within the first week, roughly two employees had decided to stay in for every three who walked out. Of the strikers, nearly 900 were nonunion men. Of the nonstrikers, who kept the plant going at more than half its capacity, nearly 200 belonged to the union. Coupled with an order from the Dominion Government to continue producing steel, and the installation of a Federal controller, this lack of solidarity in the ranks of labor enabled the Boss to give a reasonably convincing impersonation of the innocent bystander. The Boss may have remained the strikers’ longterm foe, but as the man on the picket line began to feel the pinch of lo3t wages, the immediate foe became his former friend, his brother, hi3 cousin, his father or his son, working at the blast furnaces or in the rolling mills. And inevitably the hostility of striker against nonstriker became reciprocal. The men inside were imprisoned by the picket lines. They were threatened and often physically attacked when they tried to visit their families, and sometimes their wives and children were annoyed and intimidated by union extremists. They learned to hate too.

The misunderstanding was more stubborn than the hate. Sometimes it was a refusal to understand. Often it was an inability to understand.

Mel Bruce, a nonunion man, walked oilt. His brother Ron, a union man, stayed in.

(Because the issues at Stelco became as personal and provocative as they did, a deliberate effort has been made in this article to avoid the positive identification of the persons whose views are quoted. All names used, except those of company and union officials, are pseudonyms.)

Mel Bruce’s reasons for striking were as old, as simple and as valid as the labor movement itself. “I never bothered to join the union, because I didn’t think it would be necessary,” he said one night as he stood outside the picket line. “But in a squeeze like this, workingmen have got to stick together.”

Ron’s reasons for staying in were more complex, but he expressed them with no less sincerity. “I voted against the strike,” he told me, as he sat on his army bunk, beside a loafing dynamo in the plate mill. “I don’t believe in strikes. We could have got 10 cents an hour without striking. The Government ordered us to stay in. I’m obeying the law and my own common sense.”

Mel Bruce, the striker, said of his brother Ron: “I’d like to forget it when all this is over. I don’t see how I can.”

Ron Bruce, the nonstriker, said of his brother Mel: “The strikers painted my house—‘Scab’ in big yellow letters. My wife and two kids left town. The other night I tried to get out by boat. A gang of pickets chased me back in. Mel isn’t responsible personally, but those things

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"I Left My Wife Crying"

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are part of what be stands for now.”

Unlike the Bruce brothers, most of Stelco’s employees looked through the high mesh fences more in anger than in sorrow. On both sides there was free talk of bloodshed.

Mon; than once the company police bad to dissuade groups of nonstrikers from coming out to try and break the siege by force. Many times a picket captain and one or two determined Hamilton policemen were all that stood between the Wilcox Street picket line and a bead-on assault against the plant’s main gate.

“Hi, Scab”

The mood of the picket line varied. By day the line was usually sullen and a bit fed up, 20 or 30 angry men shuffling in a tight, bored circle, while two or three bored policemen stood well back and tried to look firm but neutral. On warm nights it was different. The line was often good-natured then, almost festive. The women and kids from the workingmen’s homes nearby would stroll down after supper and fall in, parading four and five abreast until the little circle became a deep oval, with its upper bend stretching to within 100 yards of the unfenced company offices at the top of Wilcox Street.

They’d sing a little and cheer a little. They laughed quite a lot. The broadcast music from the picket tent rose above their voici« in brassy fits and starts . . . “Here’s a lady—Mrs. Donovan—just gave a two-dollar bill. How about a band . . . Here’s 50 pounds of frankfurters from Acme Butchers.”

Occasionally, but not often, a man would fall out of the line and stand waving a little tipsily under the two drooping Union Jacks that bung across the bottom of the street, with the pale electric light from the picket tent in his face and the undulating red glow of the blast furnaces and the coke ovens at his back.

“Les’ go in and get the dirty scabs!” he’d invite the sympathetic sightseers who were making up their minds whether to join the line or not. They’d cheer him indulgently and ignore the invitation.

They were fed up on the inside too. But there they had a morale builder that was largely denied to the strikers— something to do. I lived with them for three days. They ate well, in five cookhouses, on good and abundant stocks of food brought in by ship and plane. They slept a little fitfully in steel bunks crowded into odd nooks and corners of the offices and in noisy backwaters along the production line. They had nightly concerts in the tin mill and shot dice for quarters and $20 bills. The company supplied free cigarettes, razor blades, soap, and clothing for those who needed it. It furnished no liquor, but with 20 or 30 men going in and out daily by plane and boat, those who really wanted beer and whisky frequently had it.

At all levels of the plant command there was an air of cameraderie, a little forced, perhaps, but nonetheless effective. Executives who normally wear white collars frequently wandered about the plant’s 360 acres in soiled denims, calling workmen “Steve” and “Tom.” Technicians whose wages had soared to $60 a day washed dishes and peeled potatoes, and a standing detail for the senior supervisors was making sandwiches for the men on night shift. Bob Gillie«, the hard-boiled Scot who is plant manager, had access to a private marble bathroom off the plushand-panelled office of the chairman of

the board, and used it mainly to wash his shirts and socks.

The favorite pleasantry among the nonstrikers was “Hi, scab!” generally pronounced in an accent of elaborate whimsy

Marching Song

From the start the union’s preparations included a careful, semimilitary operational plan for fighting a pitched battle against the police. The battle was postponed, first from day to day and then from week to week. The only reason for these postponements was that neither the Hamilton city police nor the 450 Mounties and Ontario provincials who were called in at the end of the sixth week made any serious attempt to open up the picket lines for the passage of men and materials in and out of the beleaguered plant.

Staff organization, communications and transport, the three fundamentals of any military operation, had been arranged by the union long before there was any talk of intervention by outside police. In the Barton Street basement that served the union as its welfare headquarters there hung a large wall map on which the city of Hamilton had been divided into 11 areas. The addresses of all the strikers were listed in an accompanying index, according to the areas in which they lived. For each area there was a captain. Each captain had divided his area into sections and appointed a section captain for each.

To supplement this chain of command, the union had established a primitive but efficient telephone network. Beside his or her home telephone each of 20 volunteer “operators” had a prepared list of telephone numbers the numbers of roughly a twentieth of

the strikers who owned telephones. Between 30 and 40 automobiles, manned by union squads, were on a constant 24-hour stand-to.

The day the Mounties began moving into their barracks a union official described the mobilization machinery to me, and said: “If trouble starts, we can get between 60 and 70% of all the strikers to the picket line within an hour.”

How bad the trouble might have been is one of the most sobering riddles in Canada’s whole industrial history. After the “outside” police came in, the picket line thickened, not with women and children, but with men who were prepared to fight. There was less laughter.

Almost every day the union’s war veterans’ committee collected sympathetic veterans from other strike-bound factories and from the nearby DVA Trade School, and held at least one parade to the Wilcox entrance, as many as a thousand men marching in step, while a mobile loudspeaker blared the union’s song of battle:

We're gonna roll the union on . . . And if the boss is in the way of us, we’ll roll right over him.

We’re gonna roll the union on . . . And if the scabs are in the way of us, we’ll roll right over them.

We’re gonna roll the un ion on.

The marching veterans carried two colored posters and hung them on the fence of the International Harvester Company factory beside the main picket line, where they remained for several days. One showed a preNeanderthal Mountie. Peering over the Mountie’s hulking shoulders was one figure recognizable as Mackenzie King and two others recognizable only as the owners of silk hats.

“Remember the hungry thirties,” the legend on the poster urged. “These fellows fought us when we asked for jobs.”

The central figure in the other poster was another mounted policeman, also large and ominous. The legend on this one read: “We’ve been up against

storm troopers before.”

Two days before Labor Day, Walter Kubicki, former RCAF officer, who was vice-president of the strikers’ veterans’ committee, found it. necessary to make a speech in which he asked the strikers not to carry knives or other weapons into possible skirmishes on the picket line.

In the face of this evidence company officials insisted to the end that the strikers were losing heart, losing confidence in the union leadership, losing the will to make the strike stick. It’s true that as the strike advanced there were few striking families that didn’t have cause to wonder—from the standpoint of their immediate self - interest — whether the strike hadn’t been a disastrous mistake. But it’s equally true that, even after two weary and sometimes hungry months, there were few striking families that doubted the justice of their cause or the wisdom of their course. At the end of eight weeks the strikers voted to stay out rather than accept Ottawa’s compromise proposal of graduated raises up to 12j^ cents an hour. Most of them were still eager to bear witness to the inflexibility of their will.

Matter of Money

Some were out simply because they needed the extra money. Their philosophy was uncomplicated by union ideology or by the larger aspects of economics; the difference between 10 cents an hour and 15 cents an hour

overrode all other issues. It was like that with Tony Rocco, for instance. Five children, aged four and a half months to eight years. Average takehome pay, after deductions, just under $30 a week.

Rocco had just finished a not-tooample supper when he came into the parlor of his little red-brick house to explain these vital statistics. Then he held up a shoe to expose its nonexistent sole. “You get yourself five kids and 30 bucks a week and you’ll wear shoes like that too,” he said. “We got along fine till prices started going up. But now I’ve got to have that extra nickel. Company won’t give it to me, union will. All right, me for the union.” His handsome, stalwart wife nodded her endorsement.

Bill Lennox, a good-looking 22-yearold ex-Army corporal, fell out of the picket line to get married during the second week of the strike. After a honeymoon in a borrowed car, and on funds donated by his wife’s uncle, Bill went home to keep house in a fourthstory walk-up while his pretty bride took a job at $16 a week.

Bill was getting ready to wash the noon dishes when I called.

“It’s not tHe best way to start a marriage,” he said. “We’re eating on food vouchers from the union. We need a lot more furniture, and I haven’t got a stove yet for the winter. We’re barely standing off the rent. But that doesn’t bother me half so much as the things that are happening to prices. The union’s trying to get us automatic raises for every rise in the cost of living. That’s the big thing. I’ll fight for it as long as they want me to.”

By the start of the third month approximately 800 families were subsisting on union relief—$5 a week for childless couples, with a maximum of $10 a week for workers with children. To qualify regularly for union relief, the head of the household had to report regularly to the picket line, for which he received an extra dollar a week for cigarettes and carfare. Union policy required that strikers who wished to find work elsewhere had to apply to the union for a permit. According to union figures, fewer than 300 such permits were issued.

In spite of this Spartan discipline and diet, I heard only one union man say anything that could have been interpreted as even mildly rebellious. He was Jack Gibson, a Stelco employee of 12 years’ standing. He interrupted a game of horseshoes on the east gate picket line to give his slant on union security.

“Maybe the union hasn’t handled this as well as it might have,” Gibson said, as though arguing with himself. “Maybe it was a mistake to call the strike at all until the plant was better organized. But the way I look at it, anything I don’t like about the union I can correct. I can get out to the meetings and vote—something I never did before. But with the company it’s different. I don’t get a vote on company policy. That’s why I’m out here now. That’s why I’m staying out till we win.”

The “whys” that kept more than 2,000 men inside were more various than the “whys” that sent men out, but in an astonishingly high percentage of cases they had little or no connection with the company’s much-discussed and much-damned offer of 24 hours’ pay for each eight hours work. Two weeks before the strike was called, his local union advisers warned Charles Millard, USWA’s national chairman, that a minimum of 1,500 workers would line up with the company whatever happened. Jn short, according to the union’s own estimate, Stelco had at least 1,500 employees who, for one

reason or another unconnected with extra wages, had no desire to strike.

Perhaps as many as 300 were supervisors, foremen and senior office workers, the type of employees who are not eligible for union membership and almost automatically sich' with management in any strike. A large handful were college students, piling up their fall tuition fees, and unconcerned about abstractions. There’s no generality broad enough to cover the others.

Hitter About Government

Some were antiunion. Men like Harvey Dixon, a head roller in the blooming mill, whose $17 a day is less than half as much as some head rollers make at Stelco, even without strike bonuses. “I’ve been here 32 years,” Dixon said one night, above the red clanking of the mill. “I’ve got a good job, and I’ve gof it because I learned how to do the job. I’m not dependent on any union for my job, and don’t want fo be.”

Some men inside were prounion, but antistrike. George Washburn, the man whose wife was on the picket line, was one of these. Washburn, a native Scot, took part in two major strikes in the old country after the last war. He went into the first under a minimum weekly wage of 20 shillings and sixpence, came out of the second with a weekly minimum of nine shillings and twopence. He believes the workingman always loses in a strike. He reconciles this belief with his union membership by insisting that when unions are patient they can achieve a lot.

Some men were influenced by the orders of the Government. Whether an unquestioning desire to obey these orders was their strongest motivation or not, everybody inside referred to the law frequently and was bitter about the Government’s failure to enforce their right to come and go at their work.

Perhaps the largest group of all stayed in simply because Stelco had won their loyalty. Even union extremists conceded that “as companies go,” and “until this happened,” .Stelco wasn’t a bad company to work for. The company had put approximately $4 millions into a noncontributory pension scheme under which, at 65 or after 25 years’ service, employees could draw up to $1,000 a year in retirement pay. Men who joined the armed services found 15% of their pay waiting for them when they got back— in some cases as much as $1,500. There were extensive sickness and medical benefits. Every 25-year-man automatically got an inscribed gold watch.

Some unionists maintained indignantly that the company’s benefices were inspired by a selfish, hard-headed paternalism, and were partly financed, in any case, by the taxpayers. Nevertheless, things like gold watches, pensions and bonuses count heavily with old-timers who can remember when a laborer in steel often drew less than $15 for an 84-hour week and could be fired on 10 minutes’ notice.

“I been here 41 year,” Mike Roni, a chief helper in the open hearth, said one ! afternoon as he came off shift. “I got two kids out there on strike. I guess they’re mad at me. Okay, let ’em be mad. I built this place. I stay in.”

Nick Palone’s son, Joe, a striker, had been in police court that morning, facing charges of intimidation and besetting after a fracas on the picket line. Nick was troubled as he came out of one of the plant cookhouses to sit in t he sun for a while. “I talk to my wife on the phone last night,” he said. “The police say Joe threw stones. Joe say he didn’t. Joe make a mistake walking out, but he’s a good boy just 1 the same. I don’t think he 11 break the

law.” (Joe was acquitted later.)

Nick went on: “Now I tell you why I’m in. I come to Canada from Italy when I’m 15. Get married, get a job in the coal mines in Nova Scotia. 1 don’t belong to no union but union calls a strike. So 1 walk out. When strike starts I got $2,000 saved up. A year later I’m still on strike and I got $100 left. I come to Hamilton and get a job here. They treat me fine. Even in depression they give me a few days here, a few days there, enough to keep going.”

He paused a minute. “The union fin’ly settle that strike in Nova Scotia,” he said. ‘‘When they walk out they’re getting 95% vents an hour and no checkoff. When they settle they’re getting 95^2 cents an hour and a checkoff. I don’t strike for no more checkoffs.”

Some men undoubtedly stayed in because their respect for the company was tinged with fear - just, as some men went out because they feared the union. Nearly all of them knew Stelco’s president, Hugh Hilton, personally. 'They knew that Hilton had never been a union man, and that although he had never been officially antiunion, his enthusiasm for labor organizations was sharply diluted by the fact that, without their help or sponsorship, he rose to the top of one of Canada’s largest industrial concerns after starting as a laborer in Chicago at 171 ^ cents an hour for seven 12-hour days a week.

“Mr. Hilton is a tough man.” a worker in the strip mill said. “He’s not the kind of man I want to tangle with if I can help it. He gave a lot of ground, but the union didn’t seem to want, anything from him but an unconditional surrender. Anybody who knew Mr. Hilton should have known that was crazy.”

Racial origin was frequently mentioned as a factor in the individual courses that, men took at Stelco. The company said that before the strike 77.8%, of its workers were AngloSaxon and that during the strike this percentage rose materially. Whatever the exact proportions, there were workers of non-Anglo-Saxon extraction inside the plant, just as there were many of Anglo-Saxon extraction on the picket lines.

What Price a Strike?

'The on-the-ground cost of the strike was only a fraction of the ultimate cost in lost production, layoffs and sympathy strikes in other industries and other parts of Canada. Nevertheless the local portion of the bill

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was sizeable enough in itself. The 2,250 men who stayed on the payroll were relatively experienced and relatively well paid—the company estimated their average wage at $1.05 an hour. On this basis Stelco paid out roughly a quarter of a million dollars a week in extra wages alone. At an average of a dollar and a half per day per man, the cheque for free board, free cigarettes, razor blades and tooth paste and free clothes for those who couldn’t get their laundry through the picket line would have been close to another quarter of a million a month.

The union rated it a cheap strike—far cheaper than last winter’s Windsor Ford strike, in which the United Automobile Workers went through an estimated $300,000 in strike relief and administrative expenses. The Steel Workers insisted that even at. the peak their weekly outlay wasn’t running above $10,000, a large percentage of that received in donations from sympathetic fellow unions and private supporters. On the other hand lost pay cost the strikers close to $150,000 a week.

But to anyone who was in Hamilton during those uneasy weeks, the fiscal cost of the Stelco strike will never seem quite so high or tragic as its human cost the legacy of anguish and bitterness it willed to the back yards and front porches of one of Canada’s most neighborly cities.

Few men on either side went through such cruel extremes of torment as Johnny Meldrum, but none wholly escaped the strike’s levy of travail.

Meldrum walked out on the first, day. He wasn’t very sure that what he was doing was right.. A few of his friends stayed in, and he knew their friendship might be lost forever. Still, he had more friends outside.

I saw him in the plant a few hours after he went, back to work.

“I thought it would only be for a few days anyway,” Meldrum said. “But it dragged out. I wasn’t worried about the money. I’ve still got plenty saved up. What 1 did begin to worry about was thi* strongarm stuff, beating people up, painting houses, tangling with the cops. Just before the Mounties came in, a friend of mine asked me to come to a meeting. 'There were about a hundred of us there. I got up and asked, ‘Where do we stand on the law?’ A union official said: ‘The laws

on picketing have been changed before. 'They’ll be changed again.’ He said: ‘'The picket line has got to be kept, closed at any cost .’

“The next night,” Meldrum said, “I read in the paper about some strikers who’d been in police court after a fight with the police on the picket line. One of them was an old Pole, 64 years old, hardly able to talk English. I know him. I know he never meant anybody any harm. He hardly even knew what the strike* was about. But there he was, on trial, a bewildered old hunky, and none of the union bosses were on trial with him.

“I lay awake all night,” Meldrum said. “Then 1 woke my wife and said: ‘I’m going back in.’ At. seven

o’clock we got into the car. My wife drove me down to the plant. I jumped out and ran for the fence. The pickets chased me, but 1 made it.”

As he told the story, Meldrum’s pale face broke into a sweat., like the face of a man in a symbolic motion picture scene. He looked up, almost beseechingly.

“How did your wife feel about it?” I mumbled.

His eyes were dull and hopeless. “I left my wife crying,” he said, if