The Miners Strike Out: The Lethbridge Coal Miners' Strike of 1906
Streisel, Luke, Alberta History
In December of 1906, nearly 500 men from the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&I) coal mines in Lethbridge went back to work for the first time in over nine months. (1) This marked the end of one of the bitterest periods in southern Alberta's labour history--the Lethbridge coal miners' strike of 1906. The strike was particularly long and was punctuated with violent episodes on the part of the strikers. Throughout the year both the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 547 and the AR&I stubbornly held to their original positions until the federal government stepped in to mediate an end to the dispute.
Throughout the strike both sides suffered in the public eve for their seeming unwillingness to compromise, but, because of the violence associated with the walkout. the union's image suffered a far worse blow than did the company's. Though the strike ended with a settlement agreed to by the union, the results of the strike were ultimately detrimental to the UMWA in Lethbridge. While some terms were beneficial to the miners, when the strikers returned to work, the AR&I was the real winner.
On February 18, 1906, Peter Patterson, a Fernie, B.C., organizer for the United Mine Workers' of America, met with coal miners in Lethbridge and 363 miners joined the union, establishing UMWA Local 547. (2) This was not, however, the Lethbridge miners' first experience with organized labour. In 1897, in response to a 17 per cent wage cut, Lethbridge coal industry workers organized the first coal strike in Alberta history. (3) From 1898 to 1902 many Lethbridge miners had belonged to a radical, and sometimes violent, labour union known as the Western Federation of Miners. (4)
In 1906 the Lethbridge miners had been without a union for four years and, because of fear of company reprisals and doubts about American control of the union, it took the UMWA some effort to convince them to join. According to the Lethbridge Herald, "Mr. Patterson admitted that the miners hesitated about entering the union for some time, fearing a lockout, but he intimated to them that the union was intended for their protection and not to cause trouble." (5) The Lethbridge miners were also assured that, "Although the Canadian unions are affiliated with the UMWA of America they had their own officers, and the organization was Canadian." (6)
Immediately after organizing UMWA Local 547 in Lethbridge, Peter Patterson met with P.L. Naismith, the local general manager of coal operations for the AR&I, and requested that the company not terminate the employment of men based solely on their union membership. The Lethbridge local then developed a list of demands to be presented to the mine management in the hopes of improving wages and working conditions.
The demands presented were not extravagant and primarily involved areas of common interest to working men, including reasonable work conditions and fair rates of pay. The list specified that a work day for underground employees be limited to eight hours in length. F.H. Sherman, the head of the Canadian district of the UMWA, supported the eight-hour work day by explaining that, "the ventilation of the pits was not properly looked after. The men were compelled to breathe gases which although not explosive, were very injurious, consequently the health was impaired." (8) Mine workers were sometimes forced to work less profitable seams, meaning they had to work harder for less product, and men were also sometimes removed from the mine to perform lower paying surface labour for the company.
The demands of the UMWA included several sections related to wages that insured no matter what labour a worker was engaged in for the company he would be guaranteed a minimum wage of $3.00 per day. (9) The underground miners were paid based upon the total weight of saleable coal they could bring to the surface. They brought up a mix of material which was then screened to remove smaller particles and then weighed. …