Can little Bill Smith lick the heavyweights of labor?
In the rough and raucous war of the transport unions this obscure Ottawa leader has jumped into the ring against the terrible twosome of Hoffa and Banks. Some predict the meanest and most far-reaching struggle in our labor history
PETER C. NEWMAN
CANADIAN labor news today is dominated by men like Hal Banks and Jimmy Hoffa who are known to the police as tough, ruthless characters, and to the general public as high-living union bosses who talk and act like Edward G. Robinson imitating the late Al Capone. But before 1960 is out, a relatively unknown, deceptively mild, but equally formidable figure with the prosaic name of Bill Smith may be making this country’s most exciting labor headlines.
Smith is a normally quiet little grasshopper of a man who has unexpectedly squared off against both Hoffa and Banks and, unlike most
of the unionists who have tangled with them, has determinedly taken the offensive. Smith wants to build up his own organization — the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers — at the expense of international unions, particularly the brand represented by Banks’s Seafarers and Holla’s Teamsters.
Smith’s brotherhood until this year confined most of its activities to bargaining with the Canadian National Railways for the thirty thousand express clerks, freight staff's, roundhouse workers and the other non-operating employees that it represents. It has not been in the news very much because the unions that bargain for the non-operating employees of both national railroad systems have a single negotiating committee. This committee is headed by Frank Hall, whose Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks represents on the CPR roughly the same groups that Smith has on the CNR.
But before the end of 1960. Smith may be far better knowm than Hall — perhaps as well known even as the notorious Hal Banks himself.
Banks’ Seafarers’ International Union has, since 1949, been the bargaining agent for the majority of Canada's fourteen thousand merchant seamen. Now’. Smith is charging that Banks’s organization is “not a union but a protection racket run for the benefit of its leadership'' and he has vowed that his brotherhood will capture the right to bargain for Canadian seamen.
"We aim to drive Banks out of this country,” says Don Secord, secretary-treasurer of the brotherhood, “and we'll do it by a year from now.”
The feud between Smith and Banks has been boiling up along Canada's waterfronts for the last six months. It could explode into the most violent inter-union war in Canadian labor history with the opening of inland navigation next spring. The clash of muscle and money already has put more than a dozen men in hospital and six others in jail. Eighty court charges have been laid, including assault, theft, false pre-
tense, contempt of court, and possession of offensive weapons.
The wrangle between Smith and Jimmy Hoffa has not yet burst into a major conflict, but Smith has pledged himself to recruit Canadian truck drivers aw'ay from the Teamsters. In a small but possibly significant local skirmish, Smith's brotherhood recently beat out the powerful American union as the bargaining representative of the twenty-eight drivers employed by Husbands’ Transport in Kitchener, Ont. Last summer the Canadian union had dealt Hoffa a far more serious blow. As part of his grand strategy to win jurisdiction over “everything that moves” in North America, Hofl'a a year ago boasted that he would rule the new St. Lawrence Seaway by helping to enlist the nine hundred men who maintain and operate the waterway into Banks’s union, allied with him for that purpose. After five months of intensely competitive recruiting by organizers for both Banks and Smith at every Seaway lock, Smith’s brotherhood handily won bargaining rights in a government-supervised vote.
At the same time. Smith ordered his recruiting teams to board the coastal ships operating out of Vancouver and sign their Seafarers’crews for the brotherhood. The four hundred sailors on about a hundred vessels owned by fourteen B. C. firms already have voted to switch their allegiance from the S1U to Smith, depriving Banks of half his westcoast membership.
The main battle between the two unions, for the bargaining rights of the crews on the Great Lakes carriers — now represented by Banks — will break out with the 1960 shipping season. “If Smith monkeys with the Lakes, he'll get the most horrible defeat of his life,” warns Banks, who calls Smith's attacks on his union "unwarranted raiding.” Banks and his Seafarers were themselves suspended by the Canadian Labor Congress last spring for refusing to stop raiding the membership of the National Association of Marine Engineers. The suspension has left Banks’s union wide open to harassment by Smith's brotherhood, since it is now' outside the no-raiding provisions
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Smith's rank and file don't back away from his powerful foes
continued from page 17
agreed to by the Congress membership.
Smith claims he is waging war on the Seafarers solely to rid the labor movement in Canada of its least desirable element. "This is a straight fight between honest unionism on one side, and Banks on the other," he insists.
The two feuding labor lords appear to be unevenly matched. Banks is well over six feet, with bearlike shoulders that make him seem shorter. He looks his forty-nine years. His right hand is zigzagged with scars indicted by the knife of a drug-crazed Filipino seaman. A permanent lump on his forehead and a bullet crease on his right hip are mementos of past battles. Banks served three and a half years in San Quentin prison in the early Thirties for passing bad cheques while on probation. He was also charged with but later cleared of several more serious crimes including child steal-
ing, before he arrived here from the U. S. in 1949. He came with the government's blessing to displace the Communist-dominated Canadian Seamen's Union, then staging a trade - crippling world strike against this country’s merchant fleet. Banks won out over the Communists but imposed his own kind of iron rule on the union. During the past decade his stormy career has included a conviction for smuggling; he was recently denied Canadian citizenship.
Banks runs his union from an office which occupies the entire top story of the Seafarers' headquarters in downtown Montreal. It’s paneled in subdued woods and looks like a Hollywood set for a film about Wall Street tycoons. By contrast. Smith does most of his work in modest quarters at his brotherhood's Ottawa headquarters, perched on an ancient leather chair, his one-hundred-and-fifty-threepound frame too short for his legs to reach the floor. He is apologetic to almost everybody, except when he gets excited. Then he trots about the office and, punctuating his remarks with muffled exclamations of “By Jesus!", intones long harangues about the evils of corruption in management and rival unions. “We're not shining knights,” he admits. “But faced with the choice of being inactive or taking up a position against people like Banks and Hoffa, there is only one choice we can make.”
A less idealistic but equally compelling reason for Smith’s current attack on Banks is that the brotherhood has been
losing more and more members due to the automation of the CNR’s office and rail procedures. Some thirty thousand Canadian railroad jobs — the equivalent of two Avro shutdowns—have disappeared since 1952.
To emphasize its intention of recruiting in all categories of unorganized workers in Canada. Smith's union changed its name in 1958 from the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and Other Transport Workers to the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway. Transport and General Workers. The brotherhood has now become the fastest-growing labor organization in Canada, even though its total membership is not yet back at the 1952 level. As well as recruiting three thousand new members during the past year in his own jurisdictions. Smith has been negotiating merger agreements with two unions of shipyard workers in Vancouver and Halifax, and sections of the National Association of Marine Engineers. These and other expansion plans could give Smith an extra thirty thousand members during the next five years, doubling the present size of the brotherhood, and make him the head of Canada's second largest labor organization, behind the seventy-five-thousand-member Steelworkers' union.
Another area of grov/th forecast by Smith would be at the direct expense of Hoffa’s International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Nearly forty thousand truckers, delivery men and warehouse workers are members of Canadian Teamster locals. Apart from the issue of union honesty which Smith insists underlies all his raids, his fight with Hoffa springs from the fact that before the 1956 merger of the Canadian Congress of Labor with the Trades and Labor Congress into the Canadian Labor Congress. Smith’s brotherhood and the Teamsters had held similar jurisdictions over truck drivers. "We were organizing highway transport in this country long before the Teamsters were prepared to spend one red cent on them," says Smith.
I. M. (Casey) Dodds, the Canadian head of the Teamsters, has charged that Smith's brotherhood is "fired up by the verbosity of its own exuberance," and claims to have Hoffa’s personal assurance that the resources of the Teamster international will be available to stop Smith. The Teamsters' treasury reserves exceed fifty million dollars. The purse of Smith's Brotherhood, at the end of 1958 held assets totaling $986,000. “We're not unaware of the tremendous power behind the Teamsters, but we’re not afraid of it," says Don Secord, the brotherhood's treasurer.“The only way we will ever succeed over men like Holla and Banks is by retaining our ideals. We cannot meet them on a business basis.”
Some leaders in Canadian management suspect that a victory for Smith over Banks and Hoffa would bring with it an even tougher brand of unionism. If Smith won the bargaining rights for this country’s sailors and truck drivers, he would be able to shake a very heavy club indeed at the public, and he’s not a man above shaking clubs. Smith and Frank Hall were labor negotiators in the con-
Bill Smith says: “Of course we should be more powerful than management”
tract wrangle that culminated in the nineday railway strike of August, 1950. The dispute, involving a ten - cent - per - hour wage raise and a reduction to the fortyhour week cost the railways an estimated forty million dollars and came close to paralyzing the country’s economy. Six hundred Alberta oil wells had to be capped and thirteen thousand Nova Scotia coal miners laid off because the freights weren't running. Food had to be barged into Victoria, sugar was rationed in Halifax and a mercy train with medical supplies was sent to isolated Atikokan, in northern Ontario.
Smith is currently involved in negotiations with the CNR that could lead to a strike vote—the sixth since the war.
While fighting Banks and Hoffa is taking up much of Smith’s time and energy, his main concern remains the relationship between his brotherhood and the CNR. During their contract talks, Smith and Donald Gordon, the CNR president, often have strained each other’s tempers to the point of deskthumping, but there is, beneath their incompatibility of purpose, enormous mutual respect, ‘i have a high regard for Smith, especially for his integrity in holding true to his undertakings,” Gordon admits.
”1 don’t give a damn whether management likes me, but I do like to feel that I command their respect,” says Smith. “Gordon has been as fair and understanding as possible in exceedingly difficult - circumstances.”
Unlike most union leaders in affected industries. Smith does not oppose automation, provided some way is found of spreading its benefits to laid-off workers through re-establishment aid. When the growth of the brotherhood recently brought the need to expand the head office accounting system. Smith installed IBM machines instead of hiring the eighteen clerks that would have been required.
To help his rank and file understand the social implications of such forces as automation. Smith budgets one "sixth of the union’s total revenues for the operation of an active education department. Five full-time brotherhood employees work with the education committees set up in every local. Half the cost of any book on labor-management that a brotherhood member wishes to buy is paid by head office. This stress on education reflects Smith’s feeling of inadequacy over having left public school at Oakville, Ont., without completing Grade VI.
At thirteen Smith became a five-dollara-week messenger boy for the Union Bank, in Toronto. Two years later, he joined the Grand Trunk Railway (nowpart of the CNR) as an engine wiper.
On his fifteenth birthday his sister introduced him to a hosiery mill sorter named Jane Ward, whom he married four years later. They rented a small apartment and had a child, then without warning Smith was laid off.
Although the railway rehired Smith eighteen months later, this experience with unemployment turned him into a militant unionist. "For the first time." he recalls, “I had the feeling of belonging to a class of society — the working class, and, as such, I felt that we had to organize, because we w'ere being exploited.”
During eighteen years with the CNR, Smith never rose any higher than a stores clerk; partly because he was devoting most of his energies to union activities.
In 1942. A. R. Mosher, the outspoken labor leader who had headed the brotherhood since its formation at a Moncton Oddfellows’ Hall in 1908. hired Smith at one hundred and seventy-five dollars a month as a full-time organizer in charge of the Maritime region. His first major assignment was to enlist the drivers of the three bus lines which brought most of the workers to the Halifax dockyards. He signed up the men, but when management refused to negotiate, pulled them off their jobs, effectively tying up most of the city’s essential war work. The British Admiralty complained to the Canadian government, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King ordered Mosher to get the drivers back into the buses. Mosher agreed but could not reach Smith to relay the message. ”1 didn’t want to be in a position of disobeying, so I disappeared,” Smith recalls. He hid in his room at the Nova Scotian Hotel without answering Mosher’s many calls. Two days later, when the bus-company owners capitulated to his demands, he phoned Mosher.
"Get those men back!” Mosher spat into the long-distance wire.
“They’re back,” Smith calmly replied.
“What did you get?”
"All we wanted.”
Smith later organized employees of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel and became the union’s chief negotiator with the CNR. He was elected to the Brotherhood’s twelve - thousand - dol lar - a - year presidency in 1955, following the sudden death of H. A. Chappell, the Winnipeg freight clerk who had succeeded Mosher. The brotherhood’s 1955 and 1958 conventions confirmed the election without opposition. “Smith is popular in the sense that nobody could beat him for the presidency,” says brotherhood treasurer Don Secord, “but you’d have great difficulty in finding a member of the union who knew him well enough to like him in a personal sense.”
Smith does not drink or dance, and often manages to book himself on an out-of-town business trip to avoid office parties. He takes no vacations, but does spend frequent three-day weekends fish-
kig at a friend’s North Bay cabin. Gardening about his seventeen-thousanddollar bungalow in Ottawa’s Elmvale Acres is his only hobby. He reads at least three books a week, and watches the Friday night television fights to provide subject matter for his painfully forced small talk.
Smith has arranged for the brotherhood’s annual staff meetings to be held at Chateau Montmorency, the Dominican monastery near Quebec City run by Father Lévesque, the former dean of Laval University’s School of Social Sciences, because “it has the proper atmosphere of dedication.”
Smith claims labor should be more active in politics. On his orders, the meetings of brotherhood locals begin with the senior executive present reciting aloud Article II of the union’s constitution which states that one of the organization’s basic aims is “. . . to support the principle that our country’s natural resources and means of production should be developed primarily for the satisfaction of human needs, rather than for private profit.”
Why cynics mock him
This incantation embodies Smith’s political beliefs. He is disillusioned with the CCF because he claims it has failed to attract a significant representation of the labor and agricultural vote, but believes his objectives could be achieved by the new political party now being organized by Stanley Knowles, executive vice-president of the Canadian Labor Congress.
Smith’s professions of idealism are mocked by the more cynical leaders of Canadian labor, but intensely admired by those who work for him. Harry Crowe, the history professor who resigned from United College in Winnipeg in a row with its principal that caused such a stir in Canada’s academic world last winter, recently joined the brotherhood as director of research. “The final reason why I decided to come to the brotherhood rather than to continue the academic life,” he says, "'was that 1 was so impressed by the dedication of Bill Smith.”
J. C. Weldon, a McGill University professor who specializes in labor relations, describes Smith and his brotherhood as “models of what a union and its leadership should be in a period when there is corruption in some factions of organized labor.”
Smith contends that too many unions are now being operated by their executives as profitable business organizations. "When unions become big business and not social movements,” he says, “it becomes a question whether or not they should continue at all.” At the same time. Smith is appalled by charges that organized labor has grown too big and too powerful. “Of course we should be more powerful than management.” he insists. “We speak for more people.. In_a democracy, the thought that millions of workers are less powerful than a handful of bosses ought to be disturbing to everyone.”
The realization of Smith’s own ambitions for greater power depend on the outcome of his current struggle with Hal Banks. The fight has been a violent one.
Maclem Carson, the six-foot, two-hundred-pound former hockey referee who was the brotherhood’s chief west - coast organizer, claims several of the SIU seamen who switched to the brotherhood have been savagely beaten up. Three limousines full of Bank’s organizers were apprehended by the Vancouver police last July on their way to a gathering of Seafarers who had voted to join the brotherhood. A search of the cars revealed a shotgun, half a dozen sawed-off baseball bats and two bicycle chains. Eight of the men were convicted of possessing weapons for a purpose dangerous to the public peace, and five were sentenced to two months in jail. “There’s no question,” says Carson, the brotherhood organizer, “that the Seafarers would like to see the law of the jungle replace our civilized way.”
“We don’t operate on violence,” Hal Banks retorts. “Thirteen of our guys have gone into hospital, but not through violence on our part.”
Banks accuses Smith of using Communists and Communist tactics in his raids on the Seafarers. Two of the brotherhood’s temporary organizers admit they sold subscriptions for the Communist Pacific Tribune a few years ago, but insist they have long since broken all connections with the party.
Smith reduces all of the issues between himself and Banks to what he calls “the difference between a democratic union and gangster dictatorship.” The final authority in both Banks’s union and the brotherhood is exercised through local meetings, but the Seafarers’ constitution provides for the establishment of “emergency” committees empowered to act on behalf of the members. This, and many other practices, the brotherhood charges, has allowed Banks and his executives to circumvent the wishes of the rank and file. The brotherhood also claims that the Seafarers are forced to pay dues that can total as much as one hundred and eighty-eight dollars a year for a new member, while the brotherhood’s dues are a straight three dollars a month. Bank insists that the higher charges are made necessary by the special characteristics of a maritime union.
In the months ahead both sides in the waterfront vendetta between Smith and Banks may be using increasingly rougher tactics. Once again Canada’s seamen are the pawns in a feud that could paralyze our much-vaunted Seaway and leave the export goods on which our economic welfare depends rotting on the docks, it