SUDBURY: The city that lost a war between unions
No matter which of two international unions won this winter's long and vicious war in Sudbury, everybody knows who was the first loser. As one union leader put it, “It will take a miracle to overcome the hatred in Sudbury"
DAVID LEWIS STEIN
THERE WILL PROBABLY never again be a labor struggle quite like the union war fought in Sudbury this winter. It began as a division among the 17,000 members of the largest union local in Canada and ended by frightening and dividing a city of 80,000. It was a conflict of ideas: men so far right they can be called fascists fought communists, while moderate unionists in the middle fought both extremes and each other. too. It was a conflict of loyalties: coworkers, friends, and even families divided and fought. And, because of the kind of place that Sudbury is, it was a war of particular passion and bitterness.
Sudbury is built on top of a basin-shaped body of some of the richest ore in the world. The city is a pinwheel of modest brick and stucco subdivision bungalows shooting off from a prosperous dowmtown hub of department stores, loan companies, movie theatres and small hotels with swollen beverage rooms. The city's prosperity rests upon the 17,000 union men who work for hourly wages in the Falconbridge Nickel Mine and the seven mines and two smelters of the International Nickel Company. Their union is, or has been, the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers, one of the last two big Communist-led unions in Canada. This winter Mine Mill finally faced a showdown with the United Steelworkers ot America for labor CONTINUED OVERLEAF
power in Sudbury. In February, I moved to Sudbury to make a record of the showdown.
In 1949, Mine Mill had been expelled from the old Canadian Congress of Labour and its jurisdiction had been awarded to Steel. For thirteen years the two unions had battled each other in isolated mining camps across northern Ontario and western Canada, but as long as Mine Mill held the loyalty of the 17,000 members of its local 598 in Sudbury — more than half the union's Canadian membership — Mine Mill could not be destroyed. Last September Steel came to Sudbury to raid Mine Mill's local.
MINE MILL BROUGHT HIGHER WAGES, BUT . ..
Under Ontario labor law, the mechanics of a raid are quite simple. If he can, the raider signs up and collects a dollar from forty-five percent of the resident union's members. During the last two months of the resident union's contract with the company, the raider applies for “bargaining rights" for the men covered by that contract. The board then holds a hearing to listen to both unions present their cases. Rut the board can, and usually does, order a prehearing vote to determine what the workers w'ant. This fall Steel was raiding Mine Mill locals at Inco’s Port Colborne. Ontario, and Thompson, Manitoba, operations and at Falconbridge in Sudbury. but the hard core of Mine Mill's strength was the block of 15,000 workers at Inco’s Sudbury operations. At the end of November. Steel applied for bargaining rights for the Inco workers. At the beginning of February, the Ontario Labor Relations Board ordered that a vote be held at Inco on the last two days of February and the first day of March. A few' days after the dates of the vote were announced, I arrived in Sudbury.
I found the city bristling with signs of the union war. On every street corner there seemed to be at least one billboard advertising Steel (I later learned that Steel had leased twenty billboards. although local advertising men had advised that the saturation figure for the area was thirteen). On walls, restaurant tables and cars I saw small stickers saying such things as Mine Mill is My Union and Only Inco Wants Mine Mill—Nickel Workers Want Steel. The downtown crowds seemed to be evenly divided between men. women and even some children wearing yellow and black Steel buttons or red, w'hite and blue Mine Mill buttons. In the Sudbury Star I read full-page ads from both sides and on television I watched both sides make nightly reports and propaganda pitches.
Walking the streets and listening to as many people as w'ould talk to me — and there were many who would not — I learned that just about everyone was frightened by the union war. The chief of police was afraid of violence and kept a number of constables in plain clothes — he wouldn't tell me how' many — stationed in hotel beverage rooms in case trouble broke out. It had. the Saturday before I arrived, and several hotels closed down their beverage rooms early in the afternoon. The editor of the Sudbury Star was afraid of offending subscribers, and told me he did not intend to write any editorials endorsing either side. The mayor was afraid of losing votes. He was a union man himself on leave of absence from
Inco for his term of office. He said he intended to vote in the union war but he had “no comment” to make on which union he intended to vote for. The businessmen were afraid of a strike. Instead of talking about what their union could get from the company, the workers were quarreling about what they could get from their union. The merchants were afraid the union that won might be forced to strike in order to make good its promises. The clergy were afraid of communism but they were more afraid of being accused of meddling in union affairs. Catholic priests were under orders from the bishop to say nothing about union affair^, and most Protestant ministers kept silent voluntarily. Nonunion citizens had good reason to fear being caught on the wrong side of a union war. Mine Mill's roots in Sudbury are deep and strong. Before Mine Mill came in, working conditions at Inco were appalling. There are still hundreds of miners in Sudbury who tell stories of the days when there were always three shifts at Inco — “one getting hired, one working and one getting fired” — and men stood for hours in the snowdrifts waiting to go down into the mine. When Mine Mill signed its first contract with Inco in 1944, miners were earning 81c an hour. Now they get $2.33% an hour. To most rank and file members of Mine Mill, any outside attack on their leaders is simply “red baiting.”
In fact, though, there are many clear connections between Mine Mill and the communist party. Harvey Murphy, the president of Mine Mill's western district and the man generally considered to be pulling the strings in Sudbury, was a member of the communist party until 1957 when he quit for “the good of the union.” William Longridge, the secretary-treasurer, was once a communist party member in Alberta. Ray Stevenson, the educational director, ran as a communist candidate in Timmins in 1949. Mel Colby, now on the staff of the Mine Mill Herald. was formerly with the Canadian Tribune, the official communist weekly in Canada. All these men now say they have no political affiliations. But they have consistently opposed any attempt to insert into their union constitution a clause that would bar communists from holding executive office.
... IT ALSO BROUGHT COMMUNIST AGENTS
There were probably never more than 200 communists in local 598 at any one time. But during the peak years of their power — from 1952 to 1958 — they formed an effective political machine and no one could hope to hold office in the local without their support. A turnout of 100 to a union meeting was exceptional during those years and the communists, with their allies, were able to siphon union funds into such communist front causes as the Canadian Peace Congress, The Canadian Tribune, The World Federation of Trade Unions and the Canadian Soviet Friendship Society. In 1955, the local sent $1 1.000 to the U. S. to pay for defense of Mine Mill leaders accused of conspiracy in filing affidavits that they were not communists.
But communist influence in Mine Mill was always confined to the leaders. The communists made little CONTINUED ON PAGE 67
CONTINUED ON PAGE 67
Who is against whom
e battle for 17,000 men: above, Mine-Mill; below, Steelworkers
continued from page 22
Communism was an issue. A bigger one was wages
effon to spread their ideology among the ank and file members. In Sudbury I met members of all political parties and even some devout Catholics who were able to •apport Mine Mill fiercely without feeling they were also supporting the communist party Also, even known communists won the loyalty of the men by working long and hard for the union. “When Harvey Murphy calks to the company." one Mine Mill supporter told me. "he is not talking communism."
About a week after I arrived in Sudbury,
I went to hear a lecture by l.co Brodeur, one of the spokesmen for the far right that the presence of the far left inevitably brought forth. The lecture was part of a “course on communism" sponsored by the Northern Workers Adult Education Association. Brodeur, a thirty-eight-year-old professor of modern French literature told me he had "discovered" communism four years ago and since then has read everything he could on the subject. Now he finds communists everywhere. “Hardly anyone in Canada doesn't have at least one communist idea.’’ he told his audience of about 100 at one point. “Take the word capitalism. What are your reactions to it? See what I mean?"
Steel made little mention of communism in its official propaganda but one night at a meeting for Steel's volunteer organizers. I was handed a copy of the seventeenth edition of the Torch which turned out to he three mimeographed pages of personal attacks on Mine Mill leaders. It was put out by “The Ethnic Groups of Sudbury” and it embarrassed many Steel supporters. One of them, who also happened to be a World War II navy veteran, told me that the Torch was "pretty close to fascism to my way of thinking.”
Communism was clearly an issue in Sudbury, but if it had been the only issue. Steel would never have gained a foothold in the city. What divided most of the men 1 spoke to was simple economics — which union could win them the highest wages, the most efficient grievance procedure and the host pension plan. They were haunted by memories of the only time they had gone on strike, and in order to understand how they chose sides last winter, it is necessary to go back, briefly, into the history of Mine Mill.
The union began quarreling with officers of the old Canadian Congress of Labour in the late forties and was expelled from the Congress in 1949. A year later, the American half of the union was expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organiza-
lions for following “policies consistently directed to achieving the program and purposes of the communist party.” In Canada and the U. S., Mine Mill’s jurisdiction was awarded to Steel. But in Sudbury the twin expulsions went almost unnoticed. The members of local 598 were half of their union’s entire Canadian membership, and they felt they were strong enough to stand alone — even against Inco. In the fall of 1958, their complacency was shattered.
On September 24 of that year, the workers at Inco went on strike. By the time the strike was settled three days before Christmas, their union was humiliated and almost broke. They had won a six percent increase in wages but as one disillusioned miner told me, "all it meant more in my cheque every week was $2.”
In the spring elections for officers of the local, Mike Solski, the local’s president, and all but three of his officers were defeated by a reform slate headed by Donald Gillis, a shrewd, tough timber repairman from the Falconbridge mine. Gillis and the fourteen members of his executive were pledged to bring Mine Mill into the Canadian Labour Congress, the federation of trade unions that had been formed in 1956.
On the night Gillis was sworn in by the national president of the union, Mike Solski rose from the floor to challenge the chair. Gillis had to hand over the meeting to his vice-president and debate an obscure point of parliamentary procedure with the man he had just defeated for office. "I won that one,” Gillis recalls, "but I knew right then that it was going to be open war.”
The war was still going on when I was in Sudbury. To regain control of the local —and the local’s treasury — the national officers of Mine Mill tried everything from turning Gillis’s meetings into free-swinging brawls to splitting his executive. But Gillis refused to be cowed and his executive remained united by one idea — bringing Mine Mill into the CLC. Gillis was reelected twice over candidates supported by Mine Mill’s national office and continued to negotiate with and receive help from the CLC. This summer he held a final series of three meetings with CLC officers, and the national office became so desperate to win back the local that they provoked two acts of open violence. I have read and listened to too many conflic'ing accounts of what was said and done on both occasions to attempt any more than a brief outline of what took place, to show how the men in Sudbury divide themselves according to where they stood “on the night
they seized the hall,’" and where they sat during “the arena riot.”
The national office seized local 598’s hall when Tom Taylor, a member of Gillis’s executive, publicly charged that the meetings Gillis had had during the summer with CLC officers were really a plo’ to secede from Mine Mill and deliver th local over to Steel. Ken Smith, the nationa president of Mine Mill, formally charged Gillis with secession and — as he had the power to do under Mine Mill’s constitution — formally ousted Gillis and his executive and sent an administrator acid gang of his supporters to take possession of the 598 hall on the last Saturday in August. Gillis and his executive were o. their way to a union banquet in Port Col borne. They rushed back and early Sunday morning found the street outside the union hall jammed with a mob of their own supporters. Every window in the hall had been smashed. Gillis climbed to the roof over the entrance to the hall to address the men — “I knew if 1 told them to they'd go into the hall,” he told me several months later, “and there would have been bloodshed for sure” — and for the next two hours argued with police that his men should not be made to leave when the administrator and his supporters were allowed to remain inside the hall. But the administrator refused to come out and Gillis’s men refused to leave. Finally, at 5:30 in the morning, the sheriff read the riot act threatening the men with possible life sentences in prison if they did not. disperse within thirty minutes. Most went home but a small group remained warily on guard until Monday morning when Gillis obtained a court order to padlock the hall and the administrator with his supporters left under a police escort. Chief Justice J. M. McRuer later awarded the hall—and the local’s treasury—to Gillis.
A week later Gillis announced that William Mahoney, the national director of Steel, Larry Sefton, the director of Steel’s district six, which takes in Sudbury, and Claude Jodoin, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress would address a meeting of local 598 members in the Sudbury Arena. He also announced that Ken Smith. Mike Solski and other national officers would be barred from the meeting. On the evening the meeting was to take place, a crowd of Mine Mill supporters gathered around the cenotaph and Mike Solski spoke to them. Then they marched to the arena. When Smith tried to walk in the door with them, fighting broke out. The police were unable to clear the
jammed doorway and lobbed a tear gas bomb into the crowd. The men scattered. When they came back a large number were able to get into the arena — but without Smith and Solski. They sat in a solid block, chanting "We want Smith” and so disrupted the meeting that when Mahoney, Jodoin and Sefton — who had entered the arena with a police escort — tried to speak they were drowned out. An hour after it began. Gillis was forced to adjourn the meeting.
The next day Steel opened an office in Sudbury and began signing up members. Ontario "Terry” Mancini, a burly, efficient organizer from Sault Ste. Marie, was put in charge of the raid. Ken Smith took a room in the Coulson hotel and took charge of Mine Mill’s defenses. As the fight between Mancini and Smith grew. Gillis faded into the background. When I met him most of his supporters had already signed up with Steel. He was still hacking away at the national office in newspaper ads and in his television “reports to the members of 598” but the real fight had moved beyond him.
Both Mancini and Smith brought teams of professional organizers into Sudbury and made ample use of radio, television, newspaper ads and leaflets distributed at plant gates to spread their propaganda. But the real war was waged by the men on the job. By the time I arrived in Sudbury 1,000 men had volunteered to become Mine Mill “captains” and 800 workers had signed up as "volunteer organizers" for Steel.
In the smelters, where the men work together, large numbers came over to Steel almost immediately, but in the mines where men work in isolated groups. Steel made slower progress. Men who volunteered to organize for Steel faced a rough time. One of them, Henri Corcoran, the small, wiry boss of a blasting gang at Inco’s Creighton mine, told me that he signed up with Steel the day after the arena riot but didn’t start wearing his Steel button until several weeks later. "Word got around anyway that 1 was signing men to Steel," he said. "Some people started calling me names like traitor and union buster. One day a gang of Mine Millers stood around in the lunch room and spat all over my lunch pail. The next day I covered my pail with Steel Stickers and they came by and covered it up with Mine Mill stickers. I just put on more Steel stickers and I got more stickers than they do and after a while they stopped. Some guys tell me they want to fight me at the plant gates. But I tell them 'I’m just a little fellow and I don’t fight.’ But they don't scare me. I keep right on doing what I have to do.”
Corcoran’s wife was “all for Steel” but his family was not directly involved in what he was doing. Steel made no attempt to involve the women in the campaign. But Mine Mill, with the slogan “a union without the women is only half organized” organized a women’s committee early in January, and whole families were dragged into the fight.
Bob Sterling, a Mine Mill captain, told me the union war had "completely changed my life.” His wife Gail was. at twenty, the youngest of the fourteen members of Mine Mill's women's committee. Sterling was twenty-four and he had been married for eighteen months. "Before this thing started.” he said, "we were just enjoying our first year of married life. We used to go out visiting people and to movies and shows and on Sundays we always had someone over for dinner. Now our social life has stopped completely. I’m out almost every night on union business and when I’m not out my wife is and I'm home minding the baby. Since August, we've had two Sundays alone together. We’re
facing things now that most couples don’t face until five or ten years after they’re married.”
Sterling was one of the scrutineers during the vote. There were three sets of scrutineers — from Steel, Mine Mill and local 598 — and one deputy returning officer at each polling booth and with the traveling poll that sometimes drove up abandoned railway tracks to reach remote Inco power stations.
Reporters were barred from the polling booths during the vote, but from Sterling and other scrutineers I learned that the
voting was quiet, orderly and heavy. The labor board imposed a seventy-two-hour quiet period on both sides before the actual balloting started and by the time scrutineers began gathering in the ornate gold and white ballroom of the Nickel Range Hotel early Tuesday morning, most signs had been taken down or covered up and most of the buttons had disappeared. During the three days of the vote, men who had not spoken together since August shared thermos bottles of coffee and played cards during lulls. They were not allowed to take any notes but most kept mental
track of how many men had voted at their polls and the unofficial count showed that seventy percent of the men voted on Tuesday, ninety-four percent had voted by Wednesday, and ninety-nine percent by the time the last results had straggled into the Nickel Range at three o’clock Friday morning.
At 9:30 the next morning. Arthur Brunskill, the registrar of the labor board and supervisor of the vote, loaded the sealed ballot boxes into a moving van under a police escort and brought them to Toronto for safe keeping. Mine Mill has charged
Steel with forgery in obtaining signatures on membership cards, fraud in obtaining dollar bills to go with the signatures, and with conspiring with Gillis. The labor board will have to consider the charges before the ballots can be counted. If the charges prove true, the labor board can order the ballots destroyed and award the decision to Mine Mill.
A few hours after the ballot boxes left Sudbury, 1 dropped in at the offices of Mine Mill and Steel. Except for a few haggard professional organizers still working with pencils to prove the extraordinarily heavy vote had favored their side, the offices were deserted. “The men.” a Steel organizer told me, “have gone back to their wives.”
Outside the union offices the city seemed somehow less tense. There were almost no buttons or stickers to be seen and in the stores, the crowds seemed to be moving less briskly than they had a few days
earlier. Even in the beverage room of the Coulson hotel — Mine Mill’s unofficial headquarters — the miners drinking beer seemed to be talking more freely among themselves than they had twenty-four hours earlier. The vote was over.
As for how long it will take to heal the wounds in Sudbury, I heard estimates that ranged from "a few months” to "at least a generation.” But perhaps the best prediction came from Mike Solski. He was one Mine Mill leader whom no one ever accused of being a communist and even the most ardent converts to Steel conceded that, in his day, he had been “a good union man.” Midway through an explanation of Mine Mill's labyrinthine legal manoeuvres to prevent the counting of the ballots, Solski interrupted himself to thrust his tired, sour face across his desk and tell me, "Nobody is going to win this thing. It will take a miracle to overcome the hatred in Sudbury.” jç
Winners—and losers—in every corner