1418 Old time labour history
Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Trade Union Fights for Its Life in Wartime Western Canada
by Ron Verzuh
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022
$34.95 / 9781487541125
Reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer
Old Time Labour History; or About Underwear as the Subject of Working-Class Politics
Labour history was once all the rage. Less so now. The field garners attention the more it crosses over into other identities. Old time labour history — the study of workers’ organizations, politics, and struggles — attracts few academic readers compared to examinations of how the experience of class relates to other designated identities, such as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Who, among university students and professors, wants to read about workers walking picket lines and forming labour bodies in which communists clashed with social democrats over who should control the trade union podium? Workers themselves, I suspect, and many social activists in a variety of causes, might well be a more receptive audience for old time labour history. The problem with this potential readership, however, is the political context of our times. So alien are the politics of the left in our current period, with its undeniable evisceration of radical and revolutionary sensibilities, that this raises a question about how seriously the positions and practices of parties adhering to such beliefs will be taken in a world where they appear to have been “cancelled.”
At precisely the point that we desperately need to be thinking about the mobilization of workers, then, we ironically have fewer and fewer histories addressing this subject. The present cries out for a politics of class struggle. Workers remain central to the project of resisting a capitalism increasingly impaled on crises arising out of contradictions of its own making. As Amazon workers battle to build unions against the odds, young workers confront job prospects in which precarious employment seems inevitable, and actually existing labour organizations face daunting challenges encompassing deindustrialization and the malaise of a seemingly unending pandemic, those in positions of privilege with respect to research skills, knowledge of archives and past literatures, and the wherewithal to write histories resonating with the needs of the present, appear less and less likely to engage frontally with how all of this has come about. Few authors seem concerned about what the past that conditions this present might mean for a future in which, if the fight goes out of labour, we are all likely to be big-time losers.
Among provinces in Canada there are not many that can best British Columbia in terms of old time labour history. Early battles at the 19th-century coal face; the militancy of socialist workers in the labour revolt of the First World War and 1919 era; the struggles of resource workers in the 1930s and 1940s; the rough and tumble anti-injunction battles of the 1960s; and the Solidarity uprising of public sector and other workers in 1983 – BC has been a cauldron of class struggle and the tumultuous politics accompanying it.
Trail, British Columbia, has made major contributions to this history of radicalism and working-class resistance. It is the site of what was once a massive industrial complex, the lead, zinc, and fertilizer works of the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada (CM&S) established in 1906, and later known as Cominco. The West Kootenay town was, at its height, home to over 5,000 smelter workers, producing thousands of product tons daily. These workers, many of them immigrants, were cajoled and coaxed by corporate managers and trade union militants alike. They were offered up the carrot of paternalism and the stick of coercion by CM&S and its company union, as well as the promise of solidarity and ceaseless struggle by communist-led labour movements and rabble-rousing organizers. Among them were iconic figures of Canadian radicalism like ‘Slim’ Evans and Harvey Murphy. Trail’s trade unions witnessed epic battles between the Communist Party (CP) and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), as the Cold War was fought out in the Canadian labour movement. The vanquishing of the former Moscow-aligned leaders of the trade-union left helped to usher in the bureaucratization and domestication of Canada’s labour movement. This, in turn, conditioned the ultimate scaling down of class struggle politics that animated so many earlier bitter workplace conflicts, this historic opposition structuring in turn a willingness to entertain rebelliousness in the wider electoral arena.
Ron Verzuh’s Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada bucks the many current temptations to bypass this history of the making of class politics. It is not that Verzuh is uninterested in a range of subjects, including the leisure history of Trail and the ways in which the left utilized the cultural dimension to advance its oppositional politics. Interspersed throughout the pages of this book are accounts of what films were playing at the local cinema and how Communist organizers mobilized support through Paul Robeson concerts and screenings of the Mine-Mill sponsored 1954 iconic production of class struggle in the American southwest, Salt of the Earth.
Smelter Wars is nonetheless an unvarnished story of the struggle to sustain trade unionism, pitting workers against bosses. In this chronicle of conflict, labour has been represented by the Western Federation of Miners; a company union established by CM&S President, S.G. Blaylock, the Workmen’s Co-operative Committee (WCC); the Red-led local of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers; and the trade union favoured by the CCF and New Democratic Party, the United Steel Workers of America. As a seesaw of competing bodies, in which the battle for the hearts and minds of labouring people involved ongoing corporate machinations, as well as the contrasting radicalisms of the Communist Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Trail’s working-class history is a microcosm of the rivalries and resistance, successes and failures, that punctuate Canadian labour’s modern story. Organizing the workers at Trail, as Verzuh reveals in a study constructed out of the available secondary sources and a close reading of the daily press, was a herculean task in which the establishment of unions representing the interests of the workers was resisted at every step by a powerful corporation.
A prolific writer with a past as a labour journalist, Verzuh grew up in Trail. At age 18 he followed his father and uncles, second-generation Croatian-Canadians, into smelter work. An undergraduate degree at Simon Fraser University, bristling with radicalism in the late 1960s, filled his head with “notions of class consciousness and class struggle” (p. xvi), prompting Verzuh to return to Trail’s smelter. The allure of wage labour was apparently less endearing and enduring than the attractions of earning a living by writing and reading: Verzuh left the smelter only to return to its history later in his life. This book is an offering of understanding, an explanation of how his parents and their generation came to the lives they lived in Trail.
Verzuh appreciates that such people were comfortable and relatively secure and that a battling union won his parents this material well-being, and himself options unavailable to so many others. He perhaps pays too little attention to the hidden injuries of class, registering in ways that might have been shielded from third-generation immigrant children. About the environmental despoliation inflicted by CM&S/Cominco on the West Kootenay region and beyond, into the United States, Verzuh says a little, but not enough. How this has registered in the long-term health of Trail workers and residents is understated at best. That a company producing fertilizer at one point denuded the hillsides surrounding Trail with its toxins is an irony that surely deserves more sustained commentary than appears in this book.
The story of Trail and its massive smelter begins at the turn of the 20th century, with a youthful McGill University-educated mining and metallurgy student, Selwyn Gwillym Blaylock, stepping off the train at Trail Creek Landing, embarking on a lifelong-career at Consolidated Mining and Smelting. But the history that captures Verzuh’s attention really begins in 1938, when the Communist Party dispatched Arthur H. “Slim” Evans to Trail to win the town’s workers to the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, notoriously known as a “Red” union and affiliated with the new centre of mass production unionism, the American-based Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The often-jailed Evans, whose organization of miners in Princeton, British Columbia earned him the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan, led the famous On-to-Ottawa Trek of unemployed Canadians. He found Trail resistant to his organizer’s charms. CM&S paid relatively well and fear of losing waged employment lingered as the Great Depression showed only slight signs of lifting. Company-sympathetic hooligans stole Evans’ truck, ran it into a ravine, and put it to the torch. Police arrested the Communist organizer on a drunk-driving charge. He was sentenced to seven days in the local lockup, and his agitating days in Trail were over. Round one in the smelter wars went to Blaylock and the WCC.
Evans’ defeat was not without accomplishments. A core of militant supporters remained loyal to Local 480 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union. Some secured places within the WCC, the better to undermine it and pave the way for a more genuine and militant trade unionism. The stage was set for the self-proclaimed “reddest rose in Labour’s garden” to make his way to Trail (p. 64).
Harvey Murphy, won to communism in the 1920s and groomed by the Party’s head, Tim Buck, came to Trail in 1943, fresh from an eleven-month incarceration in a Defence of Canada Regulations internment camp. He had stints among the unemployed of Ontario and Alberta’s miners under his organizer’s belt, as well as a prodigious ego matched only by his sensual appetites. Wartime conditions and a climate favourable to independent workers’ organization ultimately led, in mid-June 1944, to CM&S being forced to recognize Local 480 of Mine-Mill as the bargaining agent of its workforce. Blaylock, however, never relented in his opposition. Murphy, for all of his acumen as an organizer, faced a Sisyphean struggle as director of the western district of Mine-Mill’s jurisdiction. Consolidating the 1944 Trail victory, as Verzuh shows, was no easy task. Local 480 confronted a barrage of anti-communist propaganda and the complexities of a reconstituted workforce. Women, brought into the smelters to do men’s work during wartime only to find themselves displaced with the end of hostilities and the return to the gendered ideology of the breadwinner wage, were one part of the complicated picture. So, too, were Italians, a historic presence in Trail, and the Roman Catholic Church, with which they and many Slavic immigrant groups were affiliated, a potent force in the intensifying anti-communism of the times.
That anti-communism revved up in the immediate post-Second World War years. The defection of Soviet cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, in 1946, signalled publicly that the wartime alliance of Western capitalist nation states and the Soviet Union was abruptly over. A new Cold War, with menacing nuclear weapons now in the picture, was in the making. Trail’s CM&S had a hand in the threatening new context, with the company’s ultra-secret Warfield 1943 heavy water plant assisting in the Manhattan Project’s making of the atomic bomb. With all aspects of society caught up in the ideological campaign that pitted the capitalist West against the Communist Soviet East, the trade unions were not immune from the contaminating fallout. By 1948 the Cold War was in overdrive in the Canadian labour movement, with Red-led unions like Mine-Mill and unambiguous Communists like Murphy targeted by leaders at the pinnacle of the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL), such as Aaron Mosher. Mosher was particularly irked that unions like Mine-Mill were sending well-known Communists, camouflaged (in his terms) as labour organizers, into Canada from the United States. He was adamant that the country not become what he likened to a playground for communism.
At an April 1948 Victoria banquet, in which the largely social democratic, mainstream trade union tops gathered, Murphy made a rhetorical splash that proved a historic blunder. Having clearly lost a bout with the bottle, the Mine-Mill leader denounced his counterparts at the head table, descending into a diatribe about “phonies” and “red-baiting floozies.” Murphy announced to the entire room that “if Mosher was going to kiss the boss’s ass, he better be sure to pull his pants down first” (p. 149). The exact phrasing Murphy used has been parsed by many a commentator — I have heard of a number of renditions, from the more polite to extremes of earthiness — and Verzuh’s discussion of the “underpants speech” explores how this outburst turned the Cold War tide in the late 1940s.
For all that was made of Murphy’s risqué remark, such language in labour circles of the time was not all that outlandish. Trade union organizers, as well as the figureheads who dispatched them, were no shrinking violets in the 1940s, be they communists, social democrats, or adherents of more conventional politics. Few would have been truly aghast at Murphy’s rude, but not entirely shocking, comment. Nonetheless, it provided the anti-communist leadership of the Canadian trade union movement ready ammunition to fire at their enemies on the left. They suspended Murphy as a director of Mine-Mill for a two-year period, the union being an affiliate of the CCL. In the years to come Mosher and others utilized CCF organizers to rout communist-led unions in BC, which were often targeted to be raided. The United Steel Workers of America led the red-baiting witch-hunt.
Verzuh provides a unique account of how, in Trail, this clash of CCF-CP forces was beaten back or moderated, a Steelworker raid on the Mine-Mill local dominating the late 1940s and early 1950s. Central roles were played behind the scenes by a leader of the Women’s Department of the Communist Party, Becky Buhay, while on the ground, in Trail, women in Mine-Mill’s Ladies Auxiliary, Local 131, worked ceaselessly to defeat the Steelworkers’ raid. Local 480’s support of a left-wing CCF political candidate, H.W. “Bert” Herridge, displaced some of the anti-communist hyperbole, demonstrating that Mine-Mill’s leaders were not entirely consumed by sectarian animosities. Herridge, who returned the favour by refusing to repudiate Local 480’s leadership as nefarious reds, was of course then assailed for his ostensible communist sympathies. As Mine-Mill in Trail hung on, beating back the Steelworker raid, its capacities to counter the bosses in these years were no doubt hampered by incessant anti-communism and the disruption unleashed by the mainstream labour movement. The Red leadership of Mine-Mill survived, “albeit watered down by the Cold War” (p. 230).
Murphy, an irascible character whose larger-than-life presence in Trail registered in negotiated contracts that secured workers wage gains and improved conditions, was both respected and at times vilified. His personal foibles (and they were legendary) were never far from the surface of local knowledge, at the same time that they were usually put aside when the chips were down with employers.
In 1966-1967, under the direction of the Communist Party, Murphy and a cohort of stalwart followers in Local 480 negotiated the merger of Mine-Mill and the Steelworkers, securing for themselves, as well, positions (and lucrative pensions) in the previously reviled USWA bureaucracy. Many Mine-Mill loyalists opposed this reconciliation of the two trade union foes, and at gatherings into the 1980s Communists who orchestrated the fusion would be greeted with howls of derision from militants who resented the about-face, the epithet “Steel Hog” flung at them with verbal vitriol.
Verzuh, the labour journalist, takes no side in this longstanding war, be it in the way of analysis or politics. He stands with the workers and the outcomes they lived with, recounting this old time labour history of the smelter wars in Trail with the ultimate insistence that their significance lies in the extent to which they “helped shape a community and influence a movement” (p. 246).
It is hard to deny that, but difficult, as well, to leave the story there. As Verzuh notes in a brief epilogue “a labour history that seriously embraced some form of socialism as the better road to progressive social change” might well play a role in rekindling “the spirit of struggle and resistance that Mine-Mill Local 480 displayed in Trail so many decades ago” (p. 251). Given the current state of the labour movement, it is no longer possible, if it ever was, to simply pose the issue as one of for/against unionism. Rather, as Smelter Wars makes abundantly clear, even if it tends to shy away from the difficult answers, being for trade unionism, as necessary as that is, does not address what kind of labour movement, a necessary institution of defence for workers, is desired, what types of organizations of working people offer possibilities for advancing social justice. The old time labour anthem, Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?” has, for decades, been complicated by the stark reality that the fight to secure collective bargaining rights for workers is but the beginning: “Come all you good workers,/ Good news to you I’ll tell/ Of how the good old union/ Has come in here to dwell.” Beyond this start, however, lie layers of differentiation. What kind of union? Which politics will guide it? How is struggle to be sustained? Can workers’ lives at their places of employment be made better at the same time as their lives outside of such workplaces are addressed in ways that improve humanity’s prospects in our current age of seemingly relentless, impending catastrophe? These and many other questions are left open-ended in this study, whose value lies in bringing to the fore a riveting chapter in old time labour history.
Bryan D. Palmer, a historian of labour and the left, is the author or editor of 25 books in these areas of inquiry, including Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia (Vancouver: New Star, 1987). He is former editor of Labour/ Le Travail (1997-2018), and a past Canada Research Chair in the Canadian Studies Department at Trent University (2001-2015). Palmer lives in Warkworth, Ontario. His most recent publication is James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-1938 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2021). Editor’s note: Bryan Palmer also reviewed On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement, by Rod Mickleburgh (Harbour Publishing, 2018) for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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