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.

hese 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.

Link to the Social Progress Gallery