Monday, 14 January 2013

On this Day in the History of the International Labour Movement

Reesor Siding Strike


On January 14, 1963 Canada saw one of the bloodiest labour disputes in its nation’s history. What has since gone down in infamy, the Reesor Siding Strike of 1963 involved a contract dispute between Lumber and Sawmill Workers’ Union (LSWU) and the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company. Though reliant on the LSWU’s logs for its operations, the Company nevertheless sought to impose harsh terms on the union, expecting the union to accept a wage freeze and to work seven days a week for two straight months during the Company’s busy season. Of all the companies in the area dependent on lumber, only the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company expected its workers to work seven days a week. When the union rejected the company’s demands and conciliation failed, 1515 union members walked off the job[1].

The strike was weakened from the start. The union’s bargaining position was compromised by the fact that about a quarter of the Company’s lumber was supplied by local area woodcutters. The union asked the woodcutters to join the strike as a way to increase the pressure on the Company. Not unlike the union, however, the woodcutters were depending on the revenue from their provision of lumber to the Company for their own livelihoods. As a result, they refused the union’s requests. The unfair demands of the Company had effectively created a situation where the positions of the union and the local woodcutters were opposing and intractable.

To remedy their weakened position, some union members began to sabotage the lumber of the local woodcutters.  On February 11, in excess of 400 striking union members arrived to dump logs that had been stockpiled by the local woodcutters. The woodcutters, however, had anticipated some action along these lines and had come prepared to face the strikers. When the strikers arrived they were met by 20 armed woodcutters who began firing on them. Three of the union members were killed in the violent confrontation. Eight more were wounded. The tragedy roused the provincial government to intervene and the strike was then settled through arbitration[2].

This tragedy demonstrates the grave consequences that can result when there is a lack of strong anti-scab laws protecting the rights of a worker to his or her job. If employers are not able to bring in replacement workers the employer must bargain more earnestly, treat workers with due dignity and respect, and settle disputes. The labour relations regime is reliant on each side to a dispute coming to the bargaining table to resolve conflict. An absence of anti-scab laws provides employers with an obvious disincentive from bargaining and can create a poisoned labour relations atmosphere that may be prone to violence. Cognizant of these dangers, in 1993 the Ontario government introduced anti-scab legislation. Under the Conservative leadership of Mike Harris, however, the province’s anti-scab laws were repealed a mere two years later[3].

As the Reesor Siding incident demonstrates with deadly poignancy, the potential for destruction that such a lack of law brings is too substantial to ignore - though this hasn’t stopped some employers from trying. Employers have often argued against anti-scab legislation, asserting that such laws put a chill on investment. There is little evidence to support this claim. Indeed, there is strong evidence to the contrary. For instance, after anti-scab laws were introduced in Ontario, the province actually saw an increase in investment and employment[4]. It is possible, then, that not only is the protection of workers’ jobs good for workers it is also good for business.

If even one person is harmed on either side of a labour dispute the harm is far too great, if only because the harm could be avoided through responsible legislation and a basic respect for workers’ rights. 

 


[1] Osborne, Brian, “Commemorating Nations’ Workers” The Case of the ‘Reesor Siding Incident’, from Heritage From Below, ed. Iain JM Robertson (Ashgate Publishing Company, Vermont, 2012) at p. 183. Online: http://books.google.ca/books?id=zhbexIbWyPYC&pg=PA189&lpg=PA189&dq=reesor+siding+strike&source=bl&ots=fjLHgK7W98&sig=XQnzMzDYFTXFluzsHK-d0zfToSs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=qRfuUPOqF8qK2gWo2ID4Aw&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBDgU#v=onepage&q=reesor%20siding%20strike&f=false
[2] Supra 1 at p. 189.

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