By: George Vair
The story of the 1949 Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU) strike is an appalling story in the history of the Canadian labour movement and indeed Canadian history in general. It is a story about anti-union shipping companies, who demonstrated a blatant disregard for the law, about a corrupt rival International union that was known for its unlawful violent activities, about a federal government and the RCMP, who aided and abetted these forces and about a Canadian labour movement, who yielded to the pressures of the American labour movement, and betrayed their Canadian brothers.
Yet, it is also a story of determination, solidarity, and heroism of the Canadian merchant seamen and the members of other unions who supported them. The Canadian Seamen’s Union was a democratic union, a union that addressed the concerns of its members for safe working conditions, civilized accommodations and a livable wage. In the late 1940’s, economist H.A. Logan described the CSU in these terms:
It has brought the industry up from a condition of long hours, low pay, lack of ventilation and safety inspection… It has won collective bargaining rights for the crews of the majority of Great Lakes vessels and of some on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards: it has obtained improved feeding and sleeping conditions and brought the four-hour watch system to the merchant fleet…(1)
The CSU was born out of the struggle against the barbaric working and living conditions that existed onboard the Canadian Merchant Fleet and it was the union of choice for the Canadian seamen. Regrettably, the seamen’s legal right to have the union of their choice was never respected. First organized in September 1936, the CSU existed for a mere fifteen years (1936-1951).
When Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, the CSU promptly announced their support for the war effort and pledged not to strike during the conflict. The CSU President advised the government: “We are quite prepared to see that the transportation industry, insofar as water transportation is concerned, operates without interruption.” The Canadian Seamen spent the war years crossing the dangerous North Atlantic, delivering supplies to the troops in Europe. During the war years, sixty-seven Canadian merchant ships were attacked by the enemy, resulting in the deaths of 1,146 Canadian seamen.
Following the war, the union opened negotiations with the shipping companies and the seamen were optimistic about their future. They assumed the sacrifices they made during the war years would put them in a good position to make gains in the post war period. The shipping companies had other ideas. Instead of coming to the bargaining table in good faith, the companies demanded major concessions, accused the union of being infiltrated by communists and attempted to have the union decertified in favour of a company dominated union. These tactics never worked for the shipping companies as the seamen refused to sail with members of the company union, and when votes were held, the seamen choose the CSU ninety-nine percent of the time. All this led to the 1946 Seamen’s strike, which ended in victory for the union when they won the eight-hour day.
When the CSU again opened negotiations with the shipping companies, in 1949, the companies had a new scheme to get rid of the union. While demanding major concessions from the CSU the shipping companies were, unbeknown to the union, negotiating behind their back with the corrupt Seafarers International Union (SIU). The SIU was based in New York and were affiliated with the American Federation of Labour. Their presence in Canada was limited to one small Vancouver Local. They had been kicked out of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) in 1947 for attempting to raid CSU Locals in Vancouver by signing backdoor sweetheart deals with the employers.
The TLC recognized the CSU as the only bona fide trade union for seamen in Canada. However, the union was too grass roots and militant for the shipping companies and the federal government. Their goal was to destroy the CSU. They began by offering backdoor sweetheart contracts to the SIU, who were more than willing to oblige. The arrangement was that the CSU would be forced on strike; the SIU would then break the CSU picket lines and provide the crews to take over the ships. Further, the shipping companies had assurance from the president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, (ILA) Joseph (“King Joe”) Ryan—also based in New York—that the longshoremen would cross the CSU picket lines and work the ships. All this had the approval of the Canadian government.
This must have been more than the companies could have dreamed of. They could now force the CSU on strike and sign sweetheart contracts with the SIU. The SIU members would then break the CSU picket lines and take over the ships and the longshoreman would continue to handle the cargo. The shipping companies, along with the federal government, could stand back, claiming their hands were clean and portray the dispute as a fight between two rival waterfront unions.
In March of 1949, the shipping companies put forward a demand that they knew would force the CSU out on strike. The companies demanded the removal from the contract of the hiring hall. This concession was totally unacceptable to the union as it would mean the end of the CSU. When the union discovered the shipping companies were signing back-door agreements with the SIU they had little choice but to implement strike action. CSU President, Harry Davis, immediately polled the National Executive Board, and on the evening of March 31, 1949 Davis put out the call to strike all deep-sea vessels flying the Canadian colours.
Immediately, CSU members responded by refusing to sail vessels in twenty-six countries, including Britain, South Africa, Australia, British Guiana, Ceylon, New Zealand, Italy, Holland, and many more. In Canada, the seamen struck vessels in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Saint John and other ports. The CSU received strong support, with longshoremen around the world declaring the ships “blacked” and refused to load or unload the ships cargo. Sixty percent of world shipping was affected. Canadian longshoremen belonging to the ILA, however, immediately received orders from their International President in New York—“Work the struck ships or pay the consequences.”
The SIU sent in forty-year old, Iowa-born, Harold Chamberlain Banks (Hal Banks) to head-up the Canadian operation. Never mind that Banks was a convicted felon and had spent three years in San Quentin, the Canadian government welcomed him into Canada with open arms. How could a convicted felon enter Canada? The government would explain that there must have been a typographical error on the form Banks filled out. The question, “Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence?” was missing on his application.(1)
Driving a white Cadillac convertible, Banks arrived in Montreal in the Spring of 1949—where he set up his Canadian Headquarters. He wasted no time in getting down to business, setting loose squads of goons, armed with sawed-off shotguns, axe handles and bicycle chains, to break the CSU picket lines. Seven strikers were shot in Halifax and many others were beaten with axe handles and bicycles chains. Two CSU members were found floating in Vancouver harbour. CSU pickets in other Canadian ports would soon feel the wrath of the SIU tactics.
The plan was simple; the armed goons would arrive first to break the CSU picket lines, then SIU scabs would move in and take over the ships. CSU members were then blacklisted and professional public relations firms were used to discredit and marginalize the union. The SIU continuously referred to the CSU as “the Stalin dominated CSU” and claimed the SIU simply wanted to return the Canadian Merchant Marine to Canadian seamen and take it out of the “clutching hands of the Kremlin.” This was a very successful tactic in 1949. “McCarthyism” was at its peak; it was a time of fear, confusion and paranoia. There was no doubt that some of the CSU leaders had been members of the communist “Labour Progressive Party,” but there was never any evidence to suggest there was any outside influence or that the leadership worked for anything except the betterment of their members.
The Canadian seamen were a hardy bunch. Most had been on their own from a very young age, had lived a dangerous existence during the war years and had walked the streets of some of the most dangerous ports in the world. They were very capable of looking after themselves and not easily intimidated. But they would prove to be no match for Hal Banks and his army of goons, who were aided and abetted by the shipping companies, the Canadian government and the RCMP.
As previously stated, the story of the 1949 CSU strike is an appalling story in the history of the Canadian labour movement. This paper is not intended to tell the history of that strike, which has been adequately covered elsewhere. In 1978, John Stanton—a British Columbia labour lawyer—authored a book entitled Life and Death of the Canadian Seamen’s Union and in 1986, Jim Green produced Against the Tide. Green’s book details the story of the CSU from its birth on the Great Lakes in 1936, to its activities during the war years, to the 1946 and 1949 strikes and to the final death blow to the union in 1951. In 2005, Vancouver-based photographer and filmmaker, Elaine Briere, produced a documentary film entitled Betrayed. It tells the story of the merchant seamen in their struggle to save the merchant fleet and the disgraceful actions of the Canadian government during the 1949 strike. Donald Brittain produced the documentary Canada’s Sweetheart—The Saga of Hal. C. Banks for the National Film Board. That documentary portrays Banks as the gangster that he was and how the Canadian government aided and abetted his illegal activities. Numerous other articles have been written about this important period in Canadian labour history. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is limited to telling the story of what took place on the Saint John waterfront and the principled and heroic stand taken by the leaders of the International Longshoremen Association, Local 273, during the 1949 CSU strike.
When the CSU issued their strike call it affected three ships that were tied up in the Saint John harbour. The “Federal Trader” of the Federal Commerce and Navigation Line had just arrived from Jamaica. The “S.S. Cottrell” of the Elder Dempster Line was tied up at Pier 9 with a load of cargo from South Africa. The third vessel was the “Ottawa Valley” with a load of raw sugar for the local sugar refinery. The CSU representative in Saint John, Edward Reid, said the strike affected about one hundred seamen aboard the three vessels—about thirty-five per ship. Reid said the men were instructed to stay aboard the ships in a “sit-down” strike. There were, also, about 175 other union members in the city. They were “on the beach” awaiting jobs. Reid said these men would be setting up picket lines where the three vessels were tied up.(2)
Meanwhile, Hal Banks announced that the SIU had signed agreements with the Canadian Flag Committee of the Shipping Federation of Canada. He said the agreement with the deep-sea owners was a firm legal contract and would take in all deep-sea vessels operating out of all East Coast Canadian ports.(3) The CSU President, Harry Davis, denounced these agreements as illegal sweetheart contracts. He said the Shipping Federation had a legal duty to bargain with the CSU and that his union was prepared to sign a one-year renewal contract based on the same terms as the current contract. Davis said it would not cost the Shipping Federation a cent.
The Saint John labour movement immediately rallied around the CSU. At their regular monthly meeting, on April 1st, The Saint John Trades and Labour Council passed a resolution pledging, “all out support for the CSU in their strike against the Shipping Federation of Canada.”(4) William Carlin, president of Saint John Local 273, of the ILA, declared that his Local would respect CSU picket lines. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m sticking behind the CSU” said Carlin.(5) The New Brunswick Federation of Labour also announced their support for the striking Seamen. In Ottawa, TLC president Percy Bengough condemned the actions of the SIU, accusing them of raiding one of their affiliates.
The support of the longshoremen was critical for the CSU. “King Joe” Ryan, however, was determined to see that it did not happen. The ILA president immediately sent a letter ordering all longshoremen to fulfill their obligations to their employer and cross the CSU picket lines. In most ports the ILA leadership complied with Ryan’s order, despite strong resistance from some rank and file union members. But in Saint John, Ryan’s letter received a different response. “Cross a legal picket line? Never!” swore ILA Local 273 president William Carlin. Carlin went further. When the SIU showed up in London, England, with a telegram from the president of the ILA, Halifax Local, J.J. Campbell, stating that, “the CSU had no support among Canadian longshoreman,” Carlin countered with a telegram of his own. “Rank and file ignore Campbell’s orders to work struck ships,” he wrote, “and refuse to cross CSU picket lines. My members in Saint John are solid behind me in support of the CSU. We refuse to cross CSU picket lines despite company pressure.” He then called Campbell a liar, a scab and a strikebreaker.(6) Carlin was backed up by his vice-president, Frank Crilley, and Business Agent, Louis H. Doyle, who advised Local 273 members not to cross the CSU picket lines.
The Steamship Checkers, members of ILA Local 1571, also announced their support for the CSU. In a prepared statement released to the media, the Local stated: “Although Local 1571 is affiliated with the American Federation of Labour it is also affiliated with the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada and feel it is their duty to support this Canadian union in its present trouble.”
In New York, Ryan said he was not surprised by Carlin’s statement. He declared he would take action to make the Local work with the rest of the International or pay the consequences.(7) He would not say what the consequences would be, but this was no idle threat. In 1937, an ILA local in Montreal had gone on strike against the wishes of the ILA president. Ryan traveled to Montreal, revoked the local union’s charter and chartered the scabs in its place. Despite the outrage of the Montreal Trades and Labour Council, the strikers were blacklisted on the waterfront and had to find work in another profession.(8)
Unlike Halifax, the first week of the strike was relatively quiet on the Saint John waterfront. Eleven of the struck ships were tied up in Halifax and in early April the SIU sent in its army of goons. A four hour pitched battle ensued on the Halifax waterfront as the goons, armed with sawed-off shot guns, axe handles and bicycles chains, cleared the CSU picket lines, allowing the SIU scabs to board some of the struck vessels. Seven of the CSU members suffered gun shot wounds and many more were seriously injured. One of the SIU goons—thirty-eight year old Henry Pilgrim of Montreal—would later be charged with attempted murder. The CSU strikers attempted to fight back with rocks and water hoses, but they were no match for the SIU goons, who were assisted by company and city police.
Meanwhile, tensions in Saint John escalated when rumors circulated that thirty-forty SIU goons were holed-up in the small town of McAdam. The men had arrived by train on a special car from Montreal. The car had been unhooked at McAdam and the men were staying at the CPR Hotel.(9) Aware of what had taken place in Halifax and anticipating a similar attack on their picket lines, the Saint John strikers decided to take preemptive action. On the evening of April 5th, the SIU goons would receive some unwelcome visitors. According to the RCMP, twenty-five to thirty men carried out what was described as “a sneak attack.” The attackers moved swiftly into the hotel, beat up as many of the SIU goons as they could find and left. The RCMP said hotel room doors were broken down and the men were dragged from their beds into the hallways, where they were beaten with baseball bats. The owner of a local hardware store reported that two men had entered his store that afternoon and purchased his entire stock of baseball bats. Five of the SIU men had to be treated in hospital at nearby Harvey.(10)
Twenty-five of the CSU strikers were taken in for questioning, but all were released without charges. The CSU claimed to have no knowledge of the attack. However, one of the beaten men, William Norfolk, was able to identify CSU Business Agent, Eddie Reid, as one of the assailants. Reid was immediately arrested and charged with assault, causing bodily harm.(11) On April 8th, Reid appeared in the McAdam courthouse and pleaded guilty to the charge. He was fined $100.00, plus court cost or two months in jail. Reid paid the fine and left immediately, returning to the picket line in Saint John.
Tensions remained high as rumors circulated that the men in McAdam were preparing to move on to Saint John. Reports indicated that they would be arriving in Saint John on April 9th, onboard the 6:40 a.m. train. Waiting at the depot for the train’s arrival were a number of the CSU strikers and a large number of other union supporters. There also was a large police presence. However, none of the SIU men were on the train. Apparently, they had seen enough of the Saint John seamen. On the evening of April 8th, they had checked-out of their hotel and boarded a train for the return trip to Montreal.(12) Hal Banks would later claim that these men were simply a decoy, to divert attention away from the SIU members that were being transported to Halifax to take over the ships in that city.
As the strike entered its twelfth day, a spokesman for the officers on the three strike-bound vessels announced they would not co-operate with the SIU. S.H. Beer, chief officer of the S.S. Cottrell, said he was speaking for seventy-two percent of the officers aboard the strike affected ships in Saint John. He said his officers would not sail with SIU crews. But the Marine Engineers Association, the organization that represented the officers, condemned the officers’ statement. In Vancouver, H.H. Makie, business agent for the association, said the statement was contrary to the policy of their union. “If the owners request us to sail with the SIU, we will,” declared Makie.(13) The solidarity of the officers was appreciated by the CSU, but of little practical consequence.(14) The support of the longshoreman was the key to winning the strike. Despite pressure from the companies and threats from New York, the Saint John longshoremen continued to honour the CSU picket lines.
Meanwhile, Eddie Reid announced the crews aboard the three struck vessels would be leaving the ships. He said, as far as possible, the union wanted to avoid trouble and that injunctions had been issued in Halifax to remove the crews from those ships. He said he wanted to avoid possible injunctions here. A three man security watch would remain aboard the vessels.(15)
Another vessel—the CSU manned “Lady Nelson”—was scheduled to arrive in Saint John on April 12th , from the British West Indies. It was owned by the Canadian Steamship Lines and the CSU said they would picket the ship as soon as it arrived in port. However, it was discovered that the Lady Nelson had been diverted to the more friendly SIU port of Montreal, where SIU scabs were standing by to replace the CSU members.(16) The longshoremen in Montreal had been following the directions of the International union and were crossing CSU picket lines, loading and unloading the struck vessels.
The Saint John waterfront remained relatively quiet for the next couple of weeks, with the Canadian Seamen maintaining picket lines at the three struck ships and the Saint John longshoreman respecting their lines. As the month of April drew to a close, however, things would start to heat up.
The SIU had been successful at breaking the picket line in Halifax; now the expectations were that the SIU would be launching a major assault on the picket lines in Saint John. On April 26th an RCMP patrol boat pulled alongside the S.S. Cottrell. The pickets, assuming the boat was carrying SIU scabs, attempted to board the ship, but were repelled by RCMP officers who were on the dock. During the brief scuffle one RCMP officer suffered a cut on his head and another endured a broken nose. One seaman was treated in hospital for minor injuries. As a result of this incident a number of the seamen would end up in court facing charges of unlawful assemble and creating a disturbance. The RCMP claimed that no SIU members were aboard their boat.(17)
Meanwhile, the International union was turning up the heat on the local longshoremen. Speaking from his office in New York, President Joseph Ryan said the International Executive Board was dealing with the issue of Local 273’s refusal to follow ILA policy. He said the Executive Board was reluctant to revoke the local’s charter, as the local was one of the oldest locals in the union. Ryan said he expected that Carlin would come to his senses and line up with the Longshoremen’s International program. But he added, “Some strong action will have to be taken if Carlin persists in his drastic action. We may have to disenfranchise the local and grant a new charter to the loyal members.”(18)
The threats from the International Union were not the only pressures being put on the Saint John longshoremen. Now they were facing additional pressure to work the struck vessels. The Saint John Board of Trade, the Saint John City Council and the local media were putting the blame for the loss of revenue and damage to the port’s reputation squarely on the shoulders of the Saint John longshoremen, and in particular on the union’s leadership of William Carlin, Frank Crilley and Louis Doyle.
Both the Saint John Board of Trade and the East Coast Operators of Canadian Flag Deep-Sea Vessels purchased half-page ads in the Saint John Evening Times Globe and the paper itself was running front page editorials condemning the union leadership. One ad from the Saint John Board of Trade read in part:
Canadian Registry ships are no longer coming to the Port of Saint John, but are being diverted to other ports.
The reason is that the waterfront workers here will not handle their cargoes while waterfront workers elsewhere will do so. This cost to the workers here is large sums in lost wages, hurts business generally in the City, and seriously damages the reputation of the port with shipping people all over the world.
Why, then, are they not working? Is the union lead-ship not following the expressed wish of the members? It is vital that all members choose responsible leaders who carry out their wishes.
According to the Saint John Evening Times Globe, Saint John was the only Canadian port where longshoremen were continuing to refuse to handle cargo on ships affected by the strike.1 The month of April would see a drop in cargo of 200,000 tons, resulting in losses to the community of over $1,000,000. Port official stated that at least fifty-four vessels had been diverted to other ports and that it was costing the struck vessels a thousand dollars for each day they remained tied up in port.(2) The Saint John City Council passed a motion urging the men to work the ships and Mayor E.W. Patterson expressed “deep concern” at the refusal of the Saint John longshoremen to load and unload the ships affected.(3)
As Saint John was the only port on the East Coast where the picket lines were still holding and that an anticipated assault on their line was forthcoming, the CSU put out a call to their members from across the country to come to Saint John. But the authorities would respond “in kind” and by the last week in April over two hundred RCMP officers would join the city police on the Saint John waterfront.
The first real trouble started around midnight on April 28th when the union received word that a chartered plane had landed at the Pennfield air strip, loaded with SIU scabs. Pennfield is situated approximately one hour west of the city. Upon hearing this news, a number of the strikers immediately headed for Pennfield, in an effort to intercept the scabs before they had a chance to meet up with their police escort. Unfortunately for the strikers, they were too late. They only made it as far as Spruce Lake, where they ran into an RCMP roadblock. An RCMP car pulled up behind and the strikers were trapped. When they stepped onto the roadway they were greeted by an estimated two hundred steel-helmeted RCMP officers and city constables, armed with hardwood axe handles.(4) The strikers never stood a chance. Some escaped into the woods, but most of the strikers could not avoid the carnage of the axe handles. Nine of the strikers were injured, of whom two would end up in hospital, listed in serious condition. Eighteen of the strikers were arrested and charged with causing a disturbance and would spend the next few weeks in the St. John County jail.(5)
The roadblock was removed and four moving-vans, loaded with the SIU scabs and RCMP officers, were on their way to the Saint John waterfront. At 2:00 a.m. the convoy arrived at Pier 9, on the west side of the harbour, where the S.S. Cottrell laid dockside. On the dock were approximately forty to fifty seamen maintaining a picket line and the usual seventy to eighty police officers. The first van contained RCMP officers who quickly formed a wall between the vans and the sheds. The doors of the other vans opened and the SIU scabs made their way aboard the S.S. Cottrell. Some of the picketers attempted to intervene, but they were quickly beaten back by the on duty police officers. The scrimmage lasted only a few minutes, but many of the twenty-eight strikers, who were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, had to be treated for cuts and bruises at the police station.(6)
Shortly after 2:00 a.m. the lines were unhooked and the S.S. Cottrell made its way into the current and disappeared into the darkness. To add insult to injury, as the ship left the dock, the SIU scabs lined the decks and waved to the seaman who were being rounded up and arrested. The only consolation for the striking seaman was that the ship was forced to leave port with the same cargo it had arrived with, thanks to the solidarity of the Saint John longshoreman.
When dawn broke on the morning of April 29th, tensions were high on the CSU picket lines as it was anticipated an attempt would be made to move the other two struck vessels. With so many of the striking seamen behind bars, their numbers on the picket line had been substantially reduced. It was reported, however, that an additional twenty-five strikers had just arrived from Montreal and would be joining the line.(7) There was, also, a much smaller police presence, but this would soon change.
Around noon a large squad of steel-helmeted police arrived, armed with hardwood axe handles. Just as the police arrived on the docks, a move was made to unhook the Federal Trader from her moorings. Some of the strikers attempted to intervene, running down the dock toward the ship. This resulted in the officers aboard the ship cutting her lines and the ship drifted out into the harbour. The police squad then went to work on the strikers. The mayhem, that lasted about twenty minutes, resulted in the arrest of another twenty-four strikers. The seamen bravely fought back in an effort to protect themselves, but they were greatly outnumbered and their picket signs were no match for the hardwood axe handles of the police. Thirteen of the picketers had to be taken to the hospital to repair their cuts and bruises. Two were so badly injured that they were admitted.(8)