Wednesday, 5 December 2012

This Day in the History of the International Labour Movement

December 5, 1955 

On this day in history the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were dissolved. Founded on December 8, 1886, the AFL was one of the earliest federations of labour unions in the U.S.[1] Founded as an alliance of craft unions, for roughly half a century the AFL was the only unifying agency of the labour movement in America[2].

At the AFL’s Convention in 1935 the question of whether union organization should be based on craft or industry became a divisive issue. An industry-based resolution was presented which emphasized the importance of industrial organization. The resolution was rejected, prompting eight unions to defect. From these eight unions the CIO was born[3].

During the 1940’s the U.S. saw a rise of conservatism in national labour policies which did not favour organized labour. In 1947, to make matters worse, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress voted to enact the Taft-Hartley Act. The Act amended the generally union friendly Wagner Act. One reason for the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act was to disempower unions, which had been growing rapidly in both membership and strength[4]. The CIO joined with the AFL in opposition to the Act. The AFL and the CIO put aside their differences and, in 1955, both organizations were dissolved. They merged together to form the AFL-CIO, which remains intact today[5].

This brief history of the AFL-CIO is one of many testaments that unions are stronger when they stand together. As large and numerous as the differences between the AFL and the CIO may have seemed, the organizations realized they were bound by a commonality of interests and embraced solidarity. Anyone would be hard pressed to argue that either organization would have been better off standing alone. Had they stood alone, it’s anyone’s guess whether either would still be standing today.

December 5, 2007

Fifty-two years later on December 5, 2007 there was another historic event in labour history when the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa held a one-day strike over concerns for working and safety conditions. Workers were concerned about the safety conditions of the mine for a long time, with union officials stating that the companies who owned the mines had shown a lack of concern for safety conditions dating back to the Apartheid era. This was the first industry-wide miners' strike in the history of post-Apartheid South Africa[6].

The mines of South Africa account for 7% of the nation’s GDP. With economic importance of such a large scale, the lack of decent working conditions being provided for the miners is but another example in a long history of the exploitation of miners.[7] Such exploitation is not limited to South Africa and has been a global trend. Canada has not been immune to these practices.

On May 9, 1992, in Nova Scotia, the Westray Mine tragedy shocked the nation. Westray was mining coal when methane gas escaped from a seam and exploded. Twenty-six miners were killed. Two months before the mine opened, Liberal MLA Boudreau warned that the Westray mine set to open was one of the most dangerous mines in the world. Not only did Westray open the mine despite the dangers, it did so without bothering to adequately train its miners.

In Westray’s eagerness to get saleable coal, workers without sufficient coal mining experience were put to work in the mines. The workers were not trained in safe work methods and basic safety measures were either ignored or performed inadequately.

The regulatory framework in Nova Scotia requires that nearly all workers in underground coal mining hold a certificate of competency. Section 11 of the Coal Mines Regulation Act (1989) sets the amount of education and work experience necessary for the certificates. The company is responsible for training miners. In a post-explosion investigation, the Department of Labour concluded that the mine "had no program that was appropriate to the needs of that mine."

In its rush for profits, Westray ignored or encouraged many unscrupulous practices, including having miners work 12-hour shifts and using non-flameproof equipment in ways that violated conditions set by the Department of Labour.[8] Given the tragedy that occurred, perhaps the most egregious company practice was to disconnect methane detectors because of frequent alarms[9]. In reporting on the explosion Justice Peter Richard said: “The Westray story is a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect."

Westray’s goal was to forge ahead, get the coal and sell it quickly, and the company had no qualms about exploiting its miners to meet these ends. The company’s mandate took precedence over safety. As a result of Westray’s greed, 26 miners are no longer of this world. The exploitation of miners is a tale as old as mining. One day we hope to see a final chapter to that tale.

[1] J. Sakai, Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat (Morningstar Press, 1989), 3rd ed.
[2] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labour Movement in the United States, Volume 2: From the Founding of the AFL to the Emergence of American Imperialism (New York: International Publishers, 1955) 132-133.

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