Articles

How a Red Union Bosses Atom Wokers At Trail, B.C.

Openly controlled by Communists, the Mine-Mill Union doggedly holds its grip on one of Canada’s most vital industries. Its domain includes a carefully guarded heavywater plant in the B.C. mountains. An anti-Communist rival claims a majority of the workers, but the Reds are still on top in a fight that could involve our security

PIERRE BERTON April 1 1951
Articles

How a Red Union Bosses Atom Wokers At Trail, B.C.

Openly controlled by Communists, the Mine-Mill Union doggedly holds its grip on one of Canada’s most vital industries. Its domain includes a carefully guarded heavywater plant in the B.C. mountains. An anti-Communist rival claims a majority of the workers, but the Reds are still on top in a fight that could involve our security

PIERRE BERTON April 1 1951

How a Red Union Bosses Atom Wokers At Trail, B.C.

Articles

Openly controlled by Communists, the Mine-Mill Union doggedly holds its grip on one of Canada’s most vital industries. Its domain includes a carefully guarded heavywater plant in the B.C. mountains. An anti-Communist rival claims a majority of the workers, but the Reds are still on top in a fight that could involve our security

PIERRE BERTON

IN THE SMOKY little smelter town of Trail, huddled deep in the gnarled recesses of B. C.’s Kootenay mountains, one of the most significant union struggles in modern labor history is being fought out against a backdrop of atomic secrecy, Communist infiltration and charges of political opportunism.

Here, the United Steelworkers of America, the continent’s most powerful industrial union, is challenging the right of the 57-year-old International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers to bargain for the men who work for one of Canada’s richest corporations, the Consolidated Mining & Smelting Co., a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The contest at Trail is something more than just another union squabble. In the first place, the Mine-Mill union has, for more than a decade, been run by the Communist Party for its own purposes. In the second, Canada’s first atomic plant is at Trail. CM&S has been producing heavy water for U. S. atomic research—perhaps for a hydrogen bomb—for almost eight years.

So far the Steelworkers have failed to uproot the Communist-led union. They were given the job in January, 1950, when the Mine-Mill union was expelled by the Canadian Congress of Labor. But, after a year of B. C. Labor Board hearings, court cases, appeals and counter-suits, the Mine-Mill union and its Communist-dominated executive is still legal bargaining agent for Trail’s 4,000 workers even though only 1,700 of them actually belong to it.

Although the Steelworkers, in a whirlwind campaign, were able to win 2,200 smeltermen to their cause, the government-appointed Labor Relations Board of B. C. has declined to certify them. And the Trail employees themselves have as yet been given no opportunity to vote on which union they want to represent them.

Some strange things have been going on in B. C. since the union struggle in Trail began. A Liberal M.P. has come out publicly in favor of the Redrun union. A leading American Communist with a black patch over one eye, barred from Canada, has managed to stay at large four days in Trail. And the Canadian Congress of Labor has hotly charged that CM&S has given aid and comfort to the Communist union for the sake of a “bargainbasement contract”—a charge vigorously denied by the company.

In the background looms the grey square tower of the company’s hushhush “Project 9” which has been producing heavy water for the U. S. since 1943. Project 9 and the great hydrogen plant with which it is linked, is set apart from the sprawling fertilizer plant and smelter works by a high picket fence, a sign that says “No Admittance Without Authority,” several uniformed guards, the RCMP, and an elaborate screening process and pass system—part of which is under FBI surveillance. But there is good reason to doubt that Project 9 has been wholly isolated from the Communists who run the Mine-Mill union.

The key men in the Trail local are Communist Party members or Party liners. One of them works as an oiler in the heavy water plant itself. He was identified to this writer as a member of the Labor Progressive Party in 1945 and was recently on the executive of his union.

Another works in the adjacent hydrogen plant as maintenance man. He is not known to be a Party member but has consistently followed the Party line and has distributed copies of the Stockholm Peace Petition within the plant itself.

The plant is vulnerable to sabotage because of the great squat storage tank close by which holds 200,000 cubic feet of highly inflammable hydrogen. Nearby is an ammonium nitrate plant, producing thousands of tons of fertilizer. It can easily be converted to munitions-making. (It was a shipload of ammonium nitrate that blew up in Texas City in 1947 destroying much of the town.)

The smelter itself would be essential to Canada in the event of war. It processes all the base metals from the great Sullivan mine at Kimberley, 200 miles away. This mine is the world’s largest producer of lead and zinc and produces half of Canada’s silver. The miners are also organized by the Communist-led Mine-Mill union which is organized in gold and base metal areas throughout Canada—including the International Nickel Co. at Sudbury, Ont.

The significance of the atomic developments at Trail has not escaped the Communist Party. On March 10, 1950, its west coast organ, The Pacific Tribune, said editorially: “The atomic products of Chalk River and Trail can be made to serve the interests of humanity, but only if the jackals of big business within the labor movement are decisively ousted. That is why

Trail’s hush-hush atomic plant has a warning sign*—"No Admittance Without Authority” — uniformed guards, RCMP and an elaborate screening system partly directed by the FBI. But an avowed Communist runs the union that runs the plant

the fight of Mine-Mill is the fight of every trade unionist in Canada.”

The key man in the B. C. District of the MineMill union is its B. C. director, paunchy, huskyvoiced Harvey Murphy, the province’s Number One Communist and one of the top Party members in Canada. He has always managed to run his District of 21 locals (of which Trail is the most important) as a one-man show. He is not an elected officer, but is appointed to the job by the parent International Union which is controlled by the Communist Party in the U. S. He edits the B. C. District union paper which consistently echoes the Party line, and he appoints the paid International union representatives who are almost always Party members or Party followers.

Murphy is a likeable, shrewd tactician with a thorough grasp of trade union principles and a dramatic oratorical style which has swung many a union meeting his way. More than one attorney has said he’d make a good corporation lawyer. He is a graduate of Moscow’s Lenin Institute where Communists from many countries took special training in espionage and Party doctrine. He has a sense of humor and a liking for rye whisky and no-limit poker which he plays atrociously, for, ironically, he has no poker face when it comes to cards.

He has few interests outside the union and his henchmen dislike going to movies or hockey games with him because he’s apt to take his eyes off the screen or blueline at crucial moments to talk shop. He is more than normally suspicious of his fellow men, a characteristic which was illustrated in Trail one dull Sunday. Murray Cotterill of the rival Steelworkers suggested that Murphy bury the

hatchet and have a drink with him to kill the boredom. Murphy agreed but when Cotterill produced a bottle he demurred, popped out of the hotel and returned with another Party member.

“Drink this,” he said, handing his fellow Communist the proferred glass. The man drank and showed no ill effects. After that Murphy agreed to accept the Steelworker’s liquor.

Murphy has always surrounded himself with men who are amenable to suggestion from him. Some of these are Party members. Others are simply men who, without joining the Labor Progressive Party, have pretty consistently followed the LPP line. They have been associated with the various Communist “front” activities, have appeared on LPP platforms or platforms of various “front” organizations (the latest being the Canadian Peace Council) and have been favorably mentioned in the Party press.

He Wouldn’t Walk the Party Line

Few men have been able to block Murphy, even temporarily, but a notable exception is a lean, gangling Saskatchewan-born smelterman named Clair Billingsley. A man with little formal education but agood deal of native tenacity, he has been the principal thorn in Murphy’s flesh for five years at Trail. Originally he was a strong member of the Murphy-controlled union. Now he is president of the Steelworkers local which is challenging Murphy’s union at Trail.

In 1945, not long after the Mine-Mill union had been organized in Trail, Murphy realized that Billingsley could be an asset to him. He was active in community work and the Red Cross and held

the respect of the workers. Murphy made him a full-time International representative.

From then on, Billingsley was under constant pressure to join the Labor Progressive Party. The president of the Trail local, Fred Henne, who is no longer active in the union, was a member of the Party. So were many of the executive. Billingsley attended one International meeting in Spokane where everyone except himself was addressed as “Comrade.” The union office was stacked with Communist literature and the president of the Trail LPP virtually made it his headquarters. A party caucus before each union meeting decided policy.

But Billingsley steadfastly refused to join the LPP and was finally fired. Officially, the union was cutting staff. Unofficially, Billingsley was told, “You wouldn’t go down the line with us so we dumped you.” Later Murphy gave the job to Fred Henne.

Billingsley set about to oi'ganize anti-Communist resistance in the Trail local. It wasn’t easy. The tight Red core kept the general membership apathetic by fostering long, bickering meetings. In spite of this, Billingsley got in as president in 1947, kept working and by 1949 had cleaned the Communists out of the local executive and raised the Trail membership from less than 1,000 to 2,900.

But Murphy was still director of the parent B. C. District and the appointed officers—including Fred Henne, the new International representative at Trail—were still loyal to him. Wlxen the elected job of secretary became vacant between elections, Murphy made an interim appointment of his own. Murphy’s district paper attacked Billingsley and his executive. And Murphy told Billingsley: “You’ll never have a union here until you have blind obedience and unquestioned discipline.”

In 1949 Murphy tried to force a strike in Trail, ostensibly to gain higher wages, but actually to attempt to reinstate four Communists fired by the company for distributing reprints of a Canadian Tribune diatribe against it. An arbitration board upheld the company. The Trail local refused to strike and the men got other jobs. But the International held that they could still retain voice and vote in the union without payment of fees. Billingsley was faced with the spectacle of two dairy

workers and a taxi driver attending his meetings and voting for Party resolutions.

He realized that the only way to clean house properly was to get non-Communists in control of the entire B. C. District—men who wouldn’t take orders from Murphy. For two successive years the non-Communist bloc at Trail and Kimberley put up their own nominees for president of the district only to have them withdraw just before election time, leaving the field to the Communists. Finally, in 1949, Billingsley decided to run for president himself. He won handily. But Murphy quickly declared the election null and void on a technicality: the Trail local was behind in its per capita payments to the International office.

A new nominating convention was called and this time the Communists put up a stronger contender in Ken Smith, the full-time secretary of the district. Smith is not believed to be a Communist but he has always followed Murphy’s lead. Billingsley could not afford to stump the province but Smith—a full-time union employee—could. Billingsley won by a landslide on his home ground but in the over-all voting Smith beat him by 19 votes.

Steelmen Bolt Red Union

Six months later the Canadian Congress of Labor, parent body of Canadian industrial unions, in a general house cleaning of Red labor groups, expelled Mine-Mill. The CCL’s counterpart in the U. S.—the CIO—followed suit. A three-man committee of the CIO, after a long investigation, told why:

“The policies and activities of Mine-Mill are consistently directed toward the achievement of the program and purposes of the Communist Party rather than the objectives and policies set forth in the CIO constitution.”

The union’s paper had consistently followed every twist of the Party line since the Thirties. Sworn testimony by an ex-Party member and a union executive showed what the investigators termed “the shocking character of the direct control by the Communist Party of the leadership of the Union and, through them, of the Union itself.” Ninety per cent of the staff of the parent U. S. union was manned by Communists or their adherents. A four-man Party steering committee consulted with the Party, from national leader William Z. Foster down, and determined union policy. And the key man, the CIO found, was Maurice Travis, expelled from the Steelworkers in 1941 for Communist disruption, and now secretarytreasurer of the International union.

In January, 1950, the CCL and CIO gave the Steelworkers jurisdiction in the mining field. Billingsley and his executive decided to get out of the Communist-run union and stay in the CCL by joining the Steelworkers. In a surprise move, he and his executive and almost all the shop stewards ■—86 in all—bolted the union, joined the newly formed Steelworkers local, and took a full page ad in the Trail Times to tell about it.

Now the fight was on. Murphy flew in from Vancouver, called a meeting and got a new executive functioning. Top Steelworkers organizers flew in from Toronto. Organizers for both unions met shift trains on the hill brandishing membership cards—blue for Steel, yellow for Mine-Mill. The new Steel union signed up 500 men in the first 24 hours. Herb Gargrave, the Steelworkers organizer for Trail, locked the cards in a bank vault to forestall raids by the rival union. Both unions began to buy radio time and newspaper space. Trucks with loud-speakers patrolled the streets. Rival pamphlets flooded the town.

Murphy had two arguments: First, he said his union had been martyred by the CCL because it had refused to go along with the CCF party which the national body supports. Secondly, Mine-Mill was the only one legally empowered to bargain for wages with the company and contract time was coming up.

That month —February, 1950— the Mine-Mill union held its annual Canadian wage policy conference in Trail. Forty prominent members from across Canada, many of them Communists or Party liners, poured into the smelter town. Murphy tried to import a group from Tacoma, but they were stopped at the border. The Steelworkers on their side had a gang in Spokane to move in if there was trouble. Beckie Buhay, Educational Director of the Communist Party in Canada and one of the 10 top Party members* arrived in town and began working on pamphlets.

The Steelworkers stayed at the Crown Point hotel, the Mine-Mill men at the Douglas. Several tall young men in sports jackets and flannels arrived and were instantly identified as members of the RCMP. The Steelworkers stayed close to their room, for fear of provoking a clash, making only one foray a day—to the liquor store for provisions. One brawny Steelworker invaded Murphy’s headquarters, grabbed him by the coat lapels and promised to toss him out the window if any Steelworkers got mauled, as they had in Sudbury where a similar dispute is in progress. But there was little trouble.

Now a fantastic thing occurred. Maurice Travis, the top Communist in the International Mine-Mill union, suddenly arrived in Trail from the United States to help plan strategy. Travis, permanently barred from entry into Canada, is not exactly unobtrusive. He is a huge man over six feet and weighs around 250 pounds. He has a shock of black hair and a patch over one eye which was kicked out in a fight with Steelworkers in Bessemer, Ala. He was traveling with an equally burly bodyguard. In spite of this, he was able to cross the border undetected and stay at the Douglas Hotel in Trail for four days. A camera fan, he had been spotted by a Steelworker when he stepped out of his compartment on the train to photograph the mountains. The Mounties found him in conference with Murphy and other union heads in the hotel room and escorted him to the border but laid no charges against him for illegal entry.

Within one month of their arrival in Trail, the Steelworkers had persuaded 2,200 men out of 4,000 to sign application forms—a Canadian labor record for speed. To make sure of their members, they had them perform three distinct acts: first, sign

a membership application and get it witnessed; second, sign an authorization for the company to check off union dues from their paychecks; third, if they had been in the other union, to sign a form authorizing the company to cancel checkoff of dues to Mine-Mill.

Continued on page 57

How a Red Union Bosses Our Atom Workers

Continued from page 9

March 11, the union, sure of its majority, applied to the B. C. Labor Relations Board for certification as official bargaining agent for Trail smeltermen.

To Bert Gargrave, the peppery Steelworkers’ organizer, the Board’s decision seemed to take a maddeningly long time. There were three hearings in April, each a week apart, and in the meantime Murphy’s union was busy. Organizers visited each man who quit and by midApril had 433 of them back again.

Meanwhile, letters, wires and petitions poured into the B. C. Labor Minister and the Board, urging a decision in favor of the Communistcontrolled union. Every Communistinfluenced union sent one, as well as individual members. “I’m being lobbied to death,” the labor minister was heard to remark at one point. In addition, some non-Communist unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, who have no wish to see CCL strength grow in B. C., decried the “raiding” tactics of Steel. On April 29 Murphy further strengthened his position by opening bargaining negotiations with the company. On May 6 the Labor Board denied the Steelworkers’ application.

The Board merely said that the union had not proved it had a majority of members “in good standing.” It gave no further explanation of why they weren’t in good standing nor did the Board or the B. C. labor code define specifically what the phrase meant. The Steelworkers appealed the decision at once. Six weeks later the Board announced that the appeal had been denied.

In the meantime, two things had happened which further weakened the Steelworkers’ position:

First, Murphy had shrewdly applied for certification of both Trail and Kimberley locals as a single bargaining unit. This was granted by the Labor Board. As the Steelworkers had not campaigned in Kimberley, it was solidly Mine-Mill and thus Murphy was able to strengthen his weak Trail local with the heavy Kimberley majority. The new certification also meant that Steel would have to wait 10 months, under B. C. law, before it could re-apply. Billingsley and his group were stymied.

Second, Murphy had held swift negotiations with the company and had a new contract which he hailed as one of the finest agreements in Canada. Actually it was one of the poorest. When other unions in B. C., including the Steelworkers, were getting 10-cents-an-hour raises for their

men, the company was able to settle with Mine-Mill for six cents, in spite of the fact that its percentage of profit —$41 millions net on a sales turnover of $120 millions — was among the largest in Canada. Mine-Mill accepted the company’s initial offer with scarcely a murmur and did not even take the matter to conciliation—a tactic which had won a better contract than first offered in negotiations between a local of the same union and the same company in Calgary.

It was this agreement that caused the CCL to charge the company with aiding and abetting the Communist union’s cause. The charge was denied at once by the company president, R. E. Stavert, who called it “irresponsible and misleading.”

The Steelworkers claim, and the known facts seem to support them, that CM&S has saved money by continuing to deal with Mine-Mill. But there is little evidence that it has taken sides in the dispute, although some Steelworkers consider a recent utterance by Peter Dewdney, CM&S lawyer, as a straw in the wind. Dewdney opposed a resolution at a Young Progressive Conservative convention which was framed to help the Steelworkers’ cause. It urged that the labor board start giving written reasons for its decisions. Dewdney said the party shouldn’t get mixed up in the dispute, but the resolution passed anyway.

The Mine-Mill union has been lauded in some staunchly non - Communist quarters. Fred Smelts, an official of the B. C. Electric Railway Company who is one of the two management representatives on the five-man Labor Board, gave a good-humored address to the union’s convention last December in which he said: “If every union and every employer took the same attitude of give and take as Mine-Mill, the lives of the board members would be easier.”

And James Byrne, Liberal member for the federal riding of East Kootenay, has praised the Red-run union in the House of Commons. “It commands the respect of the community and of the company,” he said, adding that it bargained “without the blessing of any political party.” Byrne was ignoring the Communist control of the MineMill union, to which he once belonged, and was referring to the CCF policies of the Canadian Congress of Labor, a factor which hasn’t been ignored in B. C.

For, whatever the outcome of the Trail dispute, the repercussions may have some effect on B. C.’s political future. If the Steelworkers make gains in the province’s mining areas, they could affect the delicate political balance of four or five provincial ridings by backing CCF candidates against the Liberal-dominated Coalition.

In Trail, for example, a former CCF seat is now held by Welfare Minister A. D. Turnbull, a department head at CM&S. A union-backed campaign could conceivably unseat him. Bert Gargrave, the Steelworkers’ organizer in Trail, was considered the government’s hottest and most effective critic on the CCF side of the B. C. Legislature until his defeat in the last election.

The government-appointed B. C. Labor Board isn’t talking but there are two reasons why it might technically see fit to deny the Steelworkers’ application, and both of these have been unofficially passed on to the Steelworkers. One is that the union’s constitution does not give it jurisdiction over the non-ferrous mining and smelter field. However, no other labor board on the continent has seen fit to make this point. The other is that the Steelworkers collected no money from new members. But the board itself has certified several Steel locals in Vancouver which did not levy a fee on new members.

In an effort to establish whether their members were in good standing on date of application, the Steelworkers had four of them sue the union on this point. It took a B. C. Supreme Court justice just 11 days to rule that all four members were in good standing, thereby contradicting the Labor Board verdict which hinged on the phrase “in good standing.” But the Labor Board is not bound by the courts and has not changed its decision or re-opened the case. The Steelworkers have now asked the courts through a writ of mandamus to order the Board to re-open the hearing. At this writing no decision has been reached.

In the meantime, the Mine-Mill union is in control at Trail—though membership has dwindled to less than half of the Trail working body—and the Communists are in control of the Mine-Mill union.

The executive of the local is dominated by Party members or sympathizers, many of them men who were defeated by Clair Billingsley and his group when they swept the Communists out of local control. AÍ King, president, Kitch Bannatyne, vice-president, and Les Walker, financial secretary, have all been staunch and indefatigable party liners. As always, they take their orders from Harvey Murphy.

Key shop stewards scattered through the various departments at Trail are also in the Party or working for it. Through this network the Communist Party can get the fullest possible details of the exact layout of the world’s largest smelting operation and of one of the continent’s handful of heavy water plants.

Murphy has already announced his next move. In negotiations with the company, opening this month, he will press for the “Rand Formula.” This will mean that every worker in Trail and Kimberley must pay dues to the Mine-Mill union, whether or not he belongs to it. This would strengthen not only the local union but the also financially weakened International. This, in turn, will serve to tighten the grip of the Communists on mine and mill workers wherever the union has jurisdiction.

One such spot is at the Eldorado uranium mine in the Northwest Territories. This has caused enough concern in the U. S. that it has been suggested that the Steelworkers move in at Eldorado, too, and push the Communist union out. So far the Steelworkers have declined. For some time they expect to have their hands full trying to straighten out a messy and complicated situation in the smoky little smelter town in the Kootenays. -fc