Today’s Air Canada wildcat strikes, which led to widespread delays and cancellations at Toronto’s Pearson and Montreal’s Dorval airports, surprised many Canadians. That it could all begin with a seemingly minor issue – the suspension of a number of workers who sarcastically applauded Labour Minister Lisa Raitt as she debarked from a flight last night – is, however, familiar when compared to the “wildcat wave” that was in full swing throughout the summer of 1966.
Indeed, the events of the last 36 hours are reminiscent of several large events that swept the Canadian industrial scene throughout that hot summer of labour unrest. In this post, I’ll take us back to that wild summer of unrest, and help show that the Air Canada wildcat strike is hardly a unique phenomenon.
The “wildcat wave” of 1965-66 was without any statistical precedent. The comparatively quiescent labour movement suddenly exploded with roughly 575 strikes over those two years, with somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of them being illegal wildcat strikes (the statistics are notoriously opaque). I can’t do justice to it all in a short blog post, but I can give two stories that show how two very large case studies started.
SUDBURY – 14 July 1966
The spark was lit 2,200 feet below the surface in the Levack Mine (map), a remote and undesirable outpost of the International Nickel Company near Sudbury, Ontario, when a group of low-seniority young men opened their lunch pails in July 1966. Due to rising tensions between their union, Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers, and their employer over a recently expired collective agreement – languishing in Toronto-based conciliation hearings – they were forbidden to gather on the job. Their foreman stopped them from gathering, told them to close their lunch pails and carry on to work without eating; as the few “old hands” explained to the newer workers, this was a severe provocation. Miners worked “collar to collar,” or surface-to-surface, and work assignments were always to be given underground while they took an initial break. This was violating a twenty-year old tradition.
The miners refused and were sent to the surface. Word spread, the entire shift throughout the mine began returning to the surface, gathering at the cages that would return them to the surface: taunting foremen, banging lunch pails, singing songs and chants. By the next morning, word had spread, picket lines thrown up, and the union had lost control. It would take almost a month of significant union and police efforts to bring these young workers under control, and lead to enduring changes in union discipline within one of Canada’s most important trade unions.
Why did they strike? It was about sandwiches, but that is not all – that was the spark. There had been tense contract negotiations throughout 1966, a union that was seen as perhaps being weak (the United Steelworkers of America had only won the right to represent workers instead of the communist Mine Mill union in 1962 and had faced a re-vote in 1965), work-to-rule was ongoing, and graffiti throughout the facility argued “No contract, no work – – July 10.” Young people were gathered together, several had been brought in from Newfoundland en masse and were living together, growing angrier and angrier at a company that was perceived to be exploiting them, and the situation was ripe on many levels for an explosion. So here, we must understand the wildcat as part of a broader phenomenon: growing anger, structural issues, and ongoing concern.
Thanks to the role of youth, it was a unique event. As one anonymous striker reported to a researcher, “It was like a festival – there were a lot of people around the gates – there were a lot of ‘Newfies’ … around with their guitars and there was drinking and singing and dancing in the streets.” While the strike eventually ended with a mass vote of the workers to return, the contract made Inco workers better paid, although some gains would be lost in their drive to make sure everybody got rehired.
HAMILTON – 3 August 1966
Young workers took a militant lead elsewhere. Indeed, that same month, almost sixteen thousand members of Steelworkers Local 1005 wildcatted at Hamilton’s Steel Company of Canada (Stelco). Young workers had similarly been concentrated in an undesirable low-seniority position, and after being provoked by a foreman, ignored their stewards in walking out.
Stelco was dramatically expanding through the 1960s, growing from 7,258 employees in 1960 to 11,762 on the eve of the wildcat strike in July 1966. Young workers were thus getting hired en masse, and then put into the crappiest, lowest seniority positions en masse – a pressure cooker of tension and resentment. Tensions were growing throughout 1966, a bargaining year. The usual pressure for a settlement was compounded by fears surrounding technological change and automation. Low-seniority men, who would have the most to lose in automation-related job loss, felt this tension acutely. On the warm summer evening of 3 August 1966, negotiators met with the provincial Conciliation Board, a central instrument of postwar labour legislation designed to cool down tensions. It would not work here.
That night, young men gathered in the lunchroom of the Hot Strip Finishing Department, a unit comprised largely of low-seniority men. They were heatedly discussing the negotiating team’s progress, decrying their lack of information. As tensions rose, one young worker burst in. A foreman had told him that “you guys haven’t got the guts to walk out,” he declared, setting the room off. “Let’s show the f——!,” the young men declared, as they began shutting down equipment, and gathering others together. A union steward came over to tell them to “go back and settle it the union way” to no avail, as members streamed out of the plant and quickly set up picket lines. The first picket line was about 200 men strong and grew, especially after the overnight shift arrived and honoured it. Through the night, the line grew to about 3,000 members. Union leaders publicly declared the strike illegal, denouncing it as “irresponsible” and “futile,” and ordered members back to work, but were ignored.
This was, needless to say, an enormous industrial action. Some 10,992 workers were now on strike. Workers continued to honour pickets. The local president, John Morgan, came down to the lines himself to make his stance clear: the men had to return to work, the lines had to dissipate, and that penalties would be severe if they did not listen to him. “We’re fed up with you, we don’t want you,” shouted one picketer, and several physically assaulted Morgan. Hamilton Police placed a tearful Morgan into protective custody, before 300 officers (out of a total police force of 420) broke the picket line to allow management into the plant. Afterwards, picketers even managed to stop a freight train from entering Stelco through the force of their numbers. The street scene was remarkable. About five hundred men now milled around in front of Stelco, moving in and out of nearby restaurants and bars. Cars were burned. Thirty-three mostly young men were arrested for variously obstructing or assaulting police, or causing a disturbance. At one point, picketers sat down en masse, obstructing traffic.
It would take another five days for the wildcat to end, thanks to a majority vote of union members (many of whom decried the role of young workers). Police eventually restored order, the action moved off the streets, and a City Clerk-supervised vote at the Civic Stadium (today’s Ivor Wynne) saw 4,319 members favouring a return to work, 1,142 against, and hundreds more leaving without voting. Wives held the line while the Local held its largest union meeting in recent history.
Wildcats aren’t new. But in a context of growing pressure on the job, both from management and government (especially acute in the case of Air Canada), small provocations and sparks can unsurprisingly lead to massive eruptions. While today’s Air Canada’s strike was not on the scale of the Hamilton or Sudbury explosions, it does remind us of an earlier period where such labour unrest was relatively common.