THE COMPANY STORE: JAMES BRYSON MCLACHLAN AND THE CAPE BRETON COAL MINERS 1900-1925
Volume 11 Number 6.
If you think Cape Breton is a depressed area now, you must read this description of it in the first thirty years of this century. The coal miners toiled for fourteen-hour days, for a pittance in wages, lived in company-owned houses, were members of a company-controlled union, studied in company-financed schools, walked on company-built streets, used company-controlled water and electricity, called on the services of company-paid doctors, and shopped on credit at the company store. The cost of all these services was deducted from their weekly pay envelope, so they were always in debt to the company. And the company, from BESCO to DOSCO, did not love its workers. This was no paternalistic, community-based corporation dedicated to small profits and the well-being of the people it employed; this was a multinational corporation, headquartered in Montreal, profiteering during World War I and demanding their employees take pay cuts in the 1920s. There were seven strikes between 1904 and 1925, none of which won any notable concessions and most of which were ended by a combination of goon squads, a weak and company-influenced provincial government, a biased judicial system, a treacherous union (the United Mineworkers of America, led by John L. Lewis), a cold Cape Breton winter, destitution, privation, and starvation.
This book is also the story of the hero and spokesman for the miners, James B. McLachlan, a miner blacklisted for union activities in Scotland and in Cape Breton as well. He was a union organizer and secretary-treasurer of the United Mine-workers of Nova Scotia and its successors, a Communist Party member for a while in the twenties and later a supporter of the CCF. His is the only human story that emerges from the book. The miners are generally anonymous, and the accounts of mergers, negotiations, and deals would threaten to become tedious if the story of social conditions were not so appalling and the marches and strikes and riots so exciting.
Mellor's account is completely biased in favour of the miners. If he brought no preconceived ideas to his research, the criminal treatment by the company of its employees has turned Mellor into a convert to socialism. At least he uses the rhetoric: the government of Nova Scotia is the "puppet" of the British Empire Steel Corporation, union leader John L. Lewis is described as "licking the hand that starved the Nova Scotia miners into submission," and a Nova Scotia Provincial court is "the kangaroo court that railroaded them into penitentiary for union activities."
The author has detailed documentation for his story. There is a formidable bibliography, a comprehensive index giving the readers access to specific topics, and black-and-white photographs from the Glace Bay Miners Museum and private collections. I could have wished for a diagram of a coal mine to complement the excellent description given on page 84. This book is a welcome addition to the history of the labour movement in Canada. I have to criticize the author for ignoring the part the women played in this period: he describes them either as self-sacrificing wives and mothers or else as frivolous spendthrifts getting their husbands in debt at the company store. There is room here for another book. Recommended for public and school libraries.
Catherine R. Cox, Moncton H. S., Moncton, NB.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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