What Kind of Unionism: Struggles among Sydney Steel Workers in the SWOC Years, 1936-1942

Article excerpt

Ron Crawley, "What Kind of Unionism: Struggles Among Sydney Steel Workers in the SWOC Years, 1936-1942," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 99-123.

Introduction (1)

THERE HAS BEEN an impressive amount of historical investigation of class conflict in industrial Cape Breton. Most of the attention has focused on the seemingly irrepressible coal miners and the dramatic struggles which they waged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Understandably, the Sydney steel workers have received less attention, with most research focusing on key historical moments in the period before the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) such as the 1904 and 1923 steel strikes. (2) There has been relatively little published historical work on steel workers in the post-1935, CIO era. (3) This paper contributes to filling this void by examining the rise and growth of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in Canada until its metamorphosis into the United Steel Workers of America (USWA). It focuses on the Sydney local which remained the strongest and most militant within SWOC. Intra-union conflict as well as struggles between the steel workers and the steel corporation are examined. This is done as a way of revealing the union-building process which is characterized by internal tensions and conflict as well as worker solidarity against external threats.

It is tempting to portray intra-union conflict within SWOC as primarily between conservative union bureaucrats (the bureaucracy) and a militant rank and file. Each were certainly evident within SWOC and there were ongoing struggles between SWOC leaders and rank-and-file militants. However, this dichotomy does not take into account the diversity of ideologies, practices, and policies among both bureaucrats and rank-and-file members. Nor does it differentiate between the levels of union leadership and their relationship with segments of the union membership. (4) It does not acknowledge the complexity of such organizations and, in particular, how union members debate constantly about what constitutes their interests and how best they can be protected and advanced.

However, to ignore the role of rank-and-file militancy and the problems it produced for many of SWOC's highest officials is also a mistake. It is therefore problematic to argue, as does Phillip Nyden, that SWOC officials not only maintained an adversarial approach to management and encouraged a high degree of rank-and-file participation in the union, but that "the grassroots worker movement and union were synonymous" and that one could not distinguish between a " `rank-and-file reform movement' and a more conservative union leadership." (5) It was not until the late 1940s when relations between the USWA and the steel companies were stable, he argues, that the union's leadership began to play "a social control role" with regard to the rank and file. (6) Nelson Lichtenstein offers a slightly more critical view of SWOC's leading officials by arguing that they recognized that militancy was sometimes necessary, but they "mistrusted such sentiments when they shaped union activity after negotiation of a binding collective-bargaining agreement." (7) Furthermore, according to Lichtenstein, the close monitoring of, and intervention in, local union affairs was a standard practice within SWOC and designed to contain "irresponsible" actions as well as corruption. (8) Lloyd Ulman also supports a more critical view of the SWOC leadership, pointing out that it resisted the pressure from rank-and-file members to have union elections for positions above the local level and to hold regular conventions. (9) As the historical evidence presented in this paper shows, there was also resistance from high-level SWOC leadership to inter-local rank-and-file councils and meetings that would promote and maintain the horizontal links between rank-and-file members. Instead, the SWOC leadership wanted to maintain tight control of the organization by purging the union leadership above the local level of any dissidents and emphasizing the hierarchical relationship between themselves and the locals. …