The Labour Movement in Wells

The 1937 strike by workers of the Island Mountain Mine and Cariboo Gold Quartz Mining Company (CGQ) was characterised by bitterness between the workers and the employers. A dispute prior to the start of the strike spurred the action.  An Island Mountain mill crew disagreed with management over seniority issues. They disliked that a new man who came to Wells from university could be installed into a higher position than the experienced mine workers. A couple of days later, the mill crew walked off their job and were fired. In The History of Wells, Sandy Mathers argues that this dispute provided an American labour union, the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), a chance to conduct labour action in Wells and extend their reach into British Columbia’s mining communities.

In late May, 118 employees from Island Mountain started striking for higher wages and recognition by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Instead of yielding to the strikers’ demands, Island Mountain delivered a shock to them by closing down the mine and firing the workers. At the same time, CGQ had a strike on their hands. However Mr. O.H. Solibakke, one of the directors of the company, felt CGQ would be in “good shape as we carry $150,000.00 in STRIKE INSURANCE. Probably we are the only mine in Canada that carry” insurance.

The workers’ enthusiasm for the strike began to wane early on in the action. This might have been due to lack of strike pay from the union. In August 1937, the British Columbian newspaper Labour Truth criticized the CIO for refusing to support Canadian miners financially and for sending the union dues to American affiliates. To survive, strikers had to find alternate jobs or get credit from a local merchant. According to a letter by Solibakke in late June, even with the lack of passion from the workers, the strike leaders wanted to continue with the strike and prevent the mine from reopening. Unfortunately for these leaders, Solibakke wrote that “men were signing up in increasing numbers to [go] back to work. If he [Mr. R. R. Rose, the managing director of CGQ] gets sufficient men to reopen at 100 tons per day, the work will resume.”

By early July, even union men were interested in coming back to work, but they wanted police protection. The need for protection was echoed by CGQ management who thought that strikers were “bitter and disgruntled over [the] dispute and fear[ed] there may be violence” if the mine restarted operations. The bitterness and the potential for violence was illustrated by a threat on the wife of a man who did not want to strike. A striker told her “that will do for you lady… [you may] find yourself in the bottom of Jack of Clubs Lake with a string around your neck attached to a stone that will keep you there.”

By July 15th, CGQ opened at half capacity with a small crew. Across the lake, Island Mountain was still closed. Solibakke believed this was because CIO had “organized about 100% [of the workers] and this is where the officials of the Union worked.”

The 1937 strikes in both CGQ and Island Mountain would not lead to any meaningful change and both mines would become fully operational again by August. In the same month, Solibakke wrote that CGQ would “collect something like $60,000.00 in strike insurance. THIS IS WHAT BROKE THE BACK OF THE STRIKE.” CGQ would have a less sunny disposition at the end of a strike in 1946, which was part of a province-wide labour movement and was successful in that the union received recognition and work standards were improved. Many Wells miners did not benefit from these advances, though. Knowing that the mines were experiencing difficulties, they had left town to find other work.  CGQ and Island Mountain would never regain their former glory after the effects of the second strike and the Second World War.

Please note: This blog post was based Sandy Maters’ The History of the Wells and the Strikes at the Mines historical sketch by the Wells Historical Society & Museum.

Posted in Mining, Wells History.