His name was Eddie Crimmins
And he came from Port aux Basques,
Besides a chance to live and work
He had nothing much to ask...
And yet, he starved, he starved, I tell you,
Back in nineteen twenty-four,
And before he died he suffered
As many have before.
When the mines closed down that winter
He had nothing left to eat,
And he starved, he starved, I tell you,
On your dirty, damned street.
opening lines in Echoes From Labor's Wars, a collection of
poems published in 1926 by local poet Dawn Fraser, speak
to the bitter labour disputes that rocked Cape Breton
Island in the 1920s. By this time, the British Empire
Steel Corporation controlled the island's mining and
steel industries. Poorly managed and suffering losses
to some of its traditional markets, the company decided
to reduce costs by imposing wage cuts of up to 37 per cent.
It also decided to rid its operations of union sympathizers.
These two issues emerged quickly as lightning rods in the
growing dispute between the company and the coalminers.
The company met strenuous resistance from the tightly
knit coal communities. As a noted historian of the region
observed, "the unions benefited from a network of local
loyalties, such as the widely shared Scottish background of
the coal miners and their support for labour parties,
co-operatives and workers' control in industry" (David Frank,
Canadian Encyclopaedia, p. 398).
Three dramatic strikes totalling over two million striker
days shook the foundations of the mining communities between
1922 and 1927. During these "labour wars" depicted in Fraser's
poems and reported in newspapers across Canada, the police and
militia were used against the miners, several union leaders were
arrested, and coalminer Bill Davis was killed by company police.
In 1925, miners and their families starved when the company cut
off credit at the company stores. Labour launched a nationwide
Nova Scotia Relief campaign to send food and clothing to the
struggling, but determined, mining communities.
These conflicts had a lasting impact on Cape Breton. The miners
won union recognition and to a degree restored their standard of
living. Not long after the conflict ended, steelworkers in Sydney
also achieved union recognition, and the provincial government
passed legislation protecting the right to collective bargaining.
A government commission investigating the troubles in Cape Breton
criticized the company for its poor labour policies. Responding to
public criticism of the military's deployment during the strikes,
the federal government placed new restrictions on the use of the
military in civil disputes.