Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Benevolent Leader or Tyrannical Icon?

Wow. This is my 500th entry. And I have had over 76,000 views. Thank you to everyone who has supported the Vancouver Vagabond, without you it would be nothing.

“There is no individual in British Columbia respecting whom public opinion is so hopelessly divided as over Honourable James Dunsmuir. . . . If short-range critics and sycophantic friends in his entourage are now at hopeless variance, what likelihood is there of the masses forming a correct view of him?” So said the Daily Province in 1908 and that question remains unanswered to this day.

In a tradition inherited from his father, James Dunsmuir saw workers as part of a family who were watched over by a stern patriarch who had their best interests at hear. (This reminds me a lot of B.T. Rogers of Rogers Sugar - here is the link to that entry ) Even as late at the 1970s, people remembered acts of kindness shown by James as well as his dislike for pomp and how he could talk with his workers on a first name basis. This attitude inspired loyalty in the Wellington men and dozens pulled the hearse containing Robert Dunsmuir's body through the streets of Victoria in 1889.

Such deference was natural back in that time. And remember that Robert Dunsmuir had once been one of those men - he had risen from the position of worker to mine owner. I also think that this whole attitude of a benevolent patriarch may have come from the days of landowners and peasants in Europe where the lord of the manor was responsible for the people living on his lands. Like a father and his children. These workers also elected their employers into office and if they should strike, that was seen as an act of ingratitude and rebellion against a wise parent.

Of course, that attitude could never exist in today's society. Today's employees consider such personalized relations as dependence. As well, many of today's workers seem to feel that the employer - who may have worked long hours and sacrificed a lot to get their company where it is - should not be allowed to take high wages.
By the time that James started taking over the company in the 1880s, workers were developing new attitudes. Some of them were rejecting condescending benevolence and were insisting on independence and dignity. And safety.

Coalmines were, and in some ways still are, dirty, noisy, dark and dangerous places. The gaseous Vancouver Island mines were some of the most dangerous in the world.

This risky work was done by some unusually independant-minded people and this setting attracted or bred some of the most militant labour. In 1890, a Wellington miner wrote “that we are not slaves, but a free people, and, as such, we cannot allow ourselves to be tyrannized over.” Not all workers agreed but the more radical began to see themselves as exploited and capitalists as evil. As owner-manager of B.C.'s largest firm in British Columbia and the province's richest man, Dunsmuir was an easy target.

Dunsmuir was adamantly opposed to unions of any kind and was more than ready to fire any person he found organizing one. And he wasn't alone in his actions. While the U.S. took a belligerent stance, employers in Vancouver in 1903 formed an employers' association that advocated firings, blacklists and employment of strike breakers.

The Dunsmuirs used these tactics as well as others to control their employees. Just like their Canadian counterparts, the Dunsmuirs persuaded the provincial government to send in the militia to keep peace while strikebreakers continued to mine coal during a strike. Every dispute in the Dunsmuir empire related to a demand for the company to recognize a union. However, no Dunsmuir ever agreed to that.

There were two major strikes during James' management. The first was from May 19, 1890 to November 1891 and centred on wage roll backs in depressed market conditions and the eight-hour day movement. The provincial government cooperated with the Dunsmuirs by sending in the militia during this strife.

The second major strike happened from March 11 to July 4, 1903. Employees were upset over the firing of union organizers and demanded union recognition. During this upset, the federal government intervened. They had established a royal commission to discover why there were so many industrial disputes in British Columbia.
Labour solidarity eroded since most of the miners lived in company owned houses and, when they went on strike, they were evicted. The miners would drift back to work as they realized that there would be no concessions from the employers. Most of the militant workers hated the Dunsmuirs but their anger was also focused on the strike breakers.  It all came down to power.

If the Dunsmuirs agreed to all of the striking workers' demands, it would be seen as a sign of personal weakness and where would it stop? Nevertheless, after the 1890-91 strike, work hours were reduced to eight and half and by 1900, the Extension workers had their eight hour day. These decisions though were not concessions to militant labour in a strike setting but rather a gift from a paternalistic manager who was aware of the international trends. Dunsmuir also imposed labour contracts that specified wages and working conditions for set periods.
Information was gleaned from the website Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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  1. Very well done. America is having issues today with Unions as they want every business to have unions. It is a power grab. Here in Nevada you can't get a job in a casino unless you are a union member or know someone who is who can get your foot through the door. Wages are fantastic but it is difficult to get employed

    1. I think that when unions first started they were needed. However, they have gotten too powerful and don't seem interested in properly representing the workers any longer. Now it is all about making the employer pay, sometimes unjustly so.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.