July 4, 2018

The Bienfait Miners' Strike: Book Review

Peter Miller

For anyone in the labour movement, it’s good to take time to read some inspiring labour history to give you some fire to get organizing! Endicott’s book is perfect for this inspiration.

The book analyzes the Saskatchewan miners’ struggle of 1931, organized with support from the Workers Unity League. The Mine Workers’ Union of Canada, affiliated to the Worker’ Unity League, was connected with the Red International of Labour Unions. It’s main organizers were inspired by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and were militants in a labour central focused on class struggle, instead of collaboration with the bosses and their governments. The union organized workers based on industry instead of craft, and combined political demands for things like non-contributory unemployment insurance, with bread-and-butter economic demands for working members. The union was also much more democratic than other unions at the time, with regular mass meetings and democratically elected strike committees.

Annie Buller speaks to the miners the day before the police riot
Coal miners in Saskatchewan faced horrific conditions. They worked too many hours, were forced to buy from company convenience stores at higher prices, the company residences they lived in leaked both rain and snow, and their working conditions were extremely dangerous. Foreign born workers from Eastern Europe faced heavy discrimination. In September 1931, facing wages even less than the year before, coal miners in mines around the town Bienfait went on strike.

The coal owners refused to recognize the militant Mine Workers’ Union of Canada local 27, and complained repeatedly to their pals in the Saskatchewan government. They pushed for the RCMP to repress the strike, and the RCMP made the strike deadly by murdering three striking miners, Nick Nargan, Julian Gryshko, and Peter Markunis, during a parade organized by the union on September 29th, 1931.

The courts, the governments, the coal owners, and the newspapers conspired against union members after the incident. The Canadian Labour Defense League was forced to raise 100,000 dollars in funds to defend organizers facing fabricated charges. Annie Buller and Sam Scarlett, both Communist Party members, received jail time along with other organizers. Annie Buller was sentenced to a year of hard labour for ‘inciting a riot.’ She defended herself with eloquence in court, expressing her loyalty to the working class. Organizer Martin Day, his partner and three children were deported by the Federal Government in 1932 for his union organizing. Many of the main organizers of the strike in 1931 were blacklisted for their sacrifices to the working class, and could not work again in a coal mine until there were labour shortages in the 1940s.

Endicott shows that while the striking mine workers did not win in 1931, they ‘spread the seeds’ for victory in the future. Consistent organizing, community support from the Ukrainian Labour Temple, and further strikes led to winning union recognition, better wages and better working conditions for all mine workers, unionized or non-unionized, in Saskatchewan.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the history of the labour movement in Canada. The author’s extensive research gives the striking miners of 1931 the respect they deserve. Endicott pays tribute to Annie Buller, Sam Scarlett, and all the other organizers in the Workers Unity League that fought for better working conditions at the coal mines. He also reminds us to never forget Nick Nargan, Julian Gryshko, and Peter Markunis who gave their lives to the class struggle and were murdered by the RCMP, and by extension the mine owners and the government.

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