With Nanaimo’s history steeped in coal mining, the 1913 miners’ strike stands out as a significant event.
Mining in the area began in the 1850s and up until 1912, there had been a number of attempts to form a miners’ union, according to Nanaimo-based historian Lynne Bowen.
Strikes that were initiated by different organizations between the 1870s and 1890s fizzled out, but the seeds for the 1913 strike were sown two years earlier.
“The United Mine Workers of America, who had never been involved before, were getting to be very strong in the States and they came in here in 1911 and started to organize – I’m not absolutely clear whether it was all secret or not. I think people were feeling that the time [to strike] had come and they were prepared to come out,” Bowen said, adding that actual figures from newspapers of the time point to numerous workers signing up with the union.
The United Mine Workers of America promised strike pay if workers picketed. That, combined with a number of safety issues in the fall of 1912, prompted the strike.
Mines were filled with methane and committees would check for the gas. While a number of these gas committees would report this to employers, management wouldn’t always take it seriously.
“One of the men on the [Extension mine] gas committee got fired and he went up to Cumberland, B.C., got a job till they found out his name was on the blacklist, so he got fired and at that point the miners in Cumberland decided to have a ‘holiday,’ which is euphemism for, ‘We’re not going to work for a day,’” Bowen said.
Management locked out workers and that was the spark that ignited the strike as workers at Nanaimo, Jingle Pot and virtually all the coal mines on the Island eventually followed suit.
By the summer of 1913, all miners were on strike but despite this, work was still being done with the use of scab labour. Special police – who walked the streets pushing people around – were hired by the provincial government at the behest of mayors of various towns to protect the replacement workers, leading to tension.
“The summer of 1913 was very hot and people’s tempers were short and everybody that was involved with the mines was living on very little money and the riots started,” Bowen said. “It started in Cumberland and Nanaimo and then Extension and eventually into South Wellington and Ladysmith.”
In response, the provincial government enlisted 1,000 militia members in August 1913 in an effort to quell the riots.
“When the militia came in, they arrested a whole bunch of strikers,” Bowen said. “One man was killed, a lot of the [buildings on the surface] at Extension were burned. The manager’s house was burned and martial law took over for the next year.”
Two things led to the dissipation of the miners’ strike, according to Bowen.
One was the advent of the First World War and the second was due to the organization that played a role in the strike in the first place.
“The United Mine Workers of America [had] two big strikes going on in the States; in Colorado and in Pennsylvania in Ludlow. The UMWA tells the people up here, ‘We can’t give you strike pay anymore,’” said Bowen.
The militia members were called away to join the war effort and striking miners were blacklisted, with many forced to seek their fortunes in Alberta.
Just like the others, the strike from 1913 eventually fizzled out but left an impression.
“It’s a pivotal point as far as unions and coal miners are concerned on the Island and there are still academic papers being written about it,” Bowen said. “A lot of people feel very strongly that this is where labour got militant. More people feel strongly that it was a class war, so I guess that’s why it still seems important.”