Labour organisation existed in three different forms between the thirties and sixties. It began with a union as part of the Congress of Industrial Labor Organization (CIO), was then an employees co-operative before returning to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW or simply ‘Mine Mill’). The two major union organising periods in Wells were prior to 1937 and 1946. These two years saw major labour strikes that, in many ways, instead of bringing workers together in the labour movement, made workers disenchanted with the unions.
The strike in 1937 began in May when the first miners walked out from Island Mountain Mine. The strikers saw the lightning rod as an issue of seniority while the labour organizers were seeking official recognition for the union.
Much to the shock of the strikers, men were fired when they walked off their jobs and Island Mountain Mine closed down. The Cariboo Gold Quartz Mine followed suit, closing operations May 25 to July 15. The Cariboo Gold Quartz Company also refused to deal with the C.I.O. or any representatives from outside unions.
The strike slowed the Wells economy to a near standstill and as the strike wore on, the miners were getting angry and bitter over the dispute. Little strike pay was available, and the strike caused great financial hardship for many families who were forced to seek employment elsewhere or ask for credit to be extended to them from the local merchants. The mine companies were willing to hold out indefinitely, while the miners could not.
In the June 26, 1937 issue of the Toronto Financial Post, an article titled Early Settlement Is Seen In Cariboo Strike Areas stated “R. R. Rose, managing director, (of Cariboo Gold Quartz – ed. note) told the men that the mine would be reopened if lOO men would sign an agreement to return to work.”
Reportedly, within a few hours time, 70 signatures were obtained. Work finally resumed by July 15, 1937, with about half the crew. The strike was essentially lost and over by the end of July with very little accomplished. By August, the mines were once again fully operational. There were hard feelings between supporters of the C.I.O. and the people who just wanted to work. Howard Harris, a resident of Barkerville during the strike, mentioned in a conversation with Sandy Mather in March, 1983 “…there was a terrible lot of bitterness afterwards… Yes, it upset that town for quite a while…” The financial loss to the Wells’ miners was estimated at $104,000.
Over the next few years, production continued to increase at the Cariboo Gold Quartz Mine. After the best month of production in February 1942, the fortunes of the mines rapidly dissolved. Wages were frozen by government regulations and further hiring or mining development was forbidden as efforts were being focust on the war. Due to rising costs and low prices, the gold mining industry struggled to make a profit.
The mines faced a second strike in 1946 as part of a province-wide labour movement. This strike was more successful than the last and the union did achieve recognition and some better working standards across the Province. However, this meant very little in Wells. The mines were already beginning to face difficulties, and many worker left town to find work elsewhere.
Both mining companies in Wells never did regain their former glory after the effects of the second strike and the Second World War.