The Buchans Miners' Strike of 1941
In 1941 the Buchans Workmans' Protective Union (BWPU) presented the Buchans Mining Company (BMC) with a list of 41 grievances on a variety of issues, including wages, living conditions, and mine safety. On 8 August, to the surprise of the workers and the union executive, the Assistant Chief of the Newfoundland Constabulary arrived in Buchans, accompanied by 75 officers and carrying an injunction ordering the men back to work.
The injunction was issued under the authority of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act (1940), and the Defence (Control and Conditions of Employment and Disputes Settlement) Regulations (1941). These were special wartime measures, designed to avoid or cut short labour disputes which threatened to slow wartime production of goods and services.
In accordance with the 1941 Regulations, a trade dispute board arrived in Buchans on 15 August and the men returned to work. There had been no notable clashes or disturbances up to this point, but tempers flared and trouble seemed imminent when ten union organizers were issued summonses after the back-to-work order had been followed. The Crown eventually withdrew the charges and the trade dispute board, the union and the company got down to negotiating the strike issues.
Occupational Safety Hazards
On several issues regarding safety in the mines, the board ignored or dismissed the workers' claims. For example, when miners alleged that it was common practice for men to work alone underground, out of the sight and hearing of others, the tribunal found the issue unimportant.
Miners also urged that the company discontinue the practice of contracting out the job of timbering the mine (erecting heavy wood structures to brace the walls and ceilings). Because the timbering crews were on a bonus system, they argued, the job was often rushed, creating dangerous underground conditions. On this, the tribunal made no recommendation.
The union also presented several grievances concerning living conditions in the company town, including complaints about the bad condition of the living quarters and the lack of proper sewerage facilities. On these, the tribunal agreed with the company that because the life of the mine was then expected to be very short - it was expected to close in 1946 - such repairs and improvements would be unwarranted.
The union also lobbied to have more commercial competition in the community, to break the grip of the company store. The tribunal stated that the company was in a position to determine whether the town could accommodate such competition.
On the matter of wages, however, the tribunal took a different tone. The workers requested an increase of ten cents an hour in addition to the average 37 to 39 cents they were then receiving, and the company countered with an offer of five cents. The union also wanted time-and-a-half paid after nine hours, and for Sundays to be designated as overtime. These requests the company refused, stating it was not in a financial position to meet them.
Investigating the matter of hours, the tribunal was surprised to find that the average working day in Buchans was around 14 hours, which it attributed to the town's isolation. The tribunal recommended that, in light of wartime inflation, the workers be given a cost -of-living allowance of sixty-seven cents a day (an increase of about seven and a half cents an hour over nine hours). Representatives of the company, the union and the government were to review the cost-of-living issue on a quarterly basis and make recommendations based on their findings.
Also, the tribunal recommended that time after nine hours be designated overtime, to be paid at a rate of time-and-a-half. Since a review of the books indicated that 1940 had been a record year for the company, it could hardly object to these recommendations.
Result of the Strike
The Buchans strike of 1941, and the settlement eventually arrived at by the trade dispute board, obviously had mixed results from the perspective of the workers and their families. On one hand, the recommendations regarding wages and overtime clearly benefited the workers, even though some of their original demands in this regard were not met. Also, the tribunal's investigation brought to light conditions and practices which had been kept out of the public eye for some time.
On other matters, however, little or nothing was done. Safety, living conditions, and company control were still major concerns, and these problems would persist throughout the life of the mining industry and the town.