The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
About a year ago, this column described some of the labour union activity in Guelph and Wellington, and in particular, the local impact of the Nine Hour Movement of 1872.
That campaign represented a peak for union activity in this county. During the 1890s, several unions gained a foothold in Guelph. But in the smaller towns of Wellington, union organizers achieved scant success until after the Second World War.
The United Steelworkers of America attained a notable accomplishment in the late 1940s, when they signed up a majority of the workers in the Beatty Brothers plant in Fergus.
Outside Guelph, this was by far the largest employer in Wellington County. Equally interesting was the firm’s reputation for paternalism. William G. Beatty, the second-generation head of the firm, ruled the plant with an iron hand and tried, successfully for decades, in extending his influence over the lives of both his workers and his town.
Beatty felt personally affronted by the desire of the workers for a union. In his mind he treated them like members of his family, doing all he could for their welfare. During the war years, he established an employee’s committee, which was to represent the workforce in any discussions with him.
But in the post-war climate, that kind of thinking was history. The workers had a desire to gain more control over their lives. They wanted wages and benefits to be clearly spelled out, not left to the whims of the boss. Steelworker organizers termed the employees committee a “yellow dog union.”
An American import, and part of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), the United Steelworkers had come to Ontario in the late 1930s, after success in organizing semi-skilled workers in the metal trades south of the border. The union gained a strong foothold in Guelph in the 1940s, and the organizers saw the Beatty plant as a desirable prize in their bailiwick. Steelworker organizers Charles Pinson and Keith Ross of Guelph spent a lot of time establishing the Fergus local.
Relations between Fergus Local 3789 and the Beatty firm got off to a rocky start, but with the intervention of a conciliator, union and management put their signatures to a contract in the spring of 1950. One of the contentious points was paid holidays. The union held out for eight instead of six. The contract was to run for two years, but wages in the second year had been left for future negotiation, to take effect on May 1, 1951. Inflation was then rampant, and neither side owned a crystal ball that could predict conditions beyond a year.
With prices rising, the Beatty workforce began grumbling about low wages after Christmas. It was clear that Local 3789 would be looking for a sizable increase. Negotiations opened in April. W.G. Beatty and Albert Menzies offered a proposal in April 1951, but Local 3789 president Ken Denny and his executive rejected it out of hand.
With no visible progress after several weeks, the workers became increasingly restive. Charles Pinson made several trips to the two Beatty plants, urging the men to continue working and allow the negotiations to proceed. Denny and Pinson had already applied to the Department of Labour for a conciliator.
Most did not want to wait. On May 4, the Friday after the existing wage schedule expired, the men walked out of the factories, and swarmed to the old town hall for a mass meeting at 9am. Someone from the floor moved that the company be given until May 31 to settle wages or there would be a strike. Support was overwhelming.
To back up their point, the men presented Beatty and Menzies with an ultimatum that, effective May 4, they would no longer work overtime. After venting their frustrations, many of the workers returned to the factories at noon, and others drifted in during the afternoon. Beatty and Menzies fumed in their offices, but there were no repercussions for the walkout.
The Department of Labour advised Menzies the half-day walkout was illegal, because the contract was still in force and negotiations were continuing. The walkout and rally of May 4 did not put pressure on management, as the men had hoped. Rather, Beatty and his senior staff dug in their heels. Talks dragged on through May and got nowhere.
On Friday evening, May 31, Local 3789 members gathered at the Fergus arena for a strike vote.
Pinson, Denny, and other union officials tried to keep order. They advised their men that, while negotiations were proceeding a strike could not be called, but they could vote to strike, with the walkout deferred until such time as they could legally strike. The workers were in no mood for idle talk: they voted by 92% to strike.
Many of those at the meeting believed they should honour the commitment they made at the earlier meeting on May 4: to stop work if there was no wage settlement by the end of the month.
Negotiations by that point had reached a standstill. Both Local 3789 and Beatty Bros. had appointed members to a conciliation board, but the provincial representative had not arrived. It was a season for strikes, and the Department of Labour did not have sufficient officials to do the job. Officials at Queen’s Park said a man would arrive in Fergus on June 1.
As promised, the conciliator, named Fenwick, arrived the next morning, a Saturday. He led a marathon session, lasting almost nine hours, and by Saturday evening it appeared that an agreement had been reached. At the last minute, though, management balked at the wage settlement. Fenwick saw that it was useless to continue. He picked up his papers and returned to Toronto.
The labour trouble at Beatty Bros. had the side effect of dividing Fergus. Local 3789 members and their families formed one side, augmented by those who thought the Beatty firm had exercised far too much influence for too long.
But the Beattys also had their admirers: they had kept the business open and reasonably busy through the Depression, and had given Fergus many benefits that improved the quality of life for everyone.
Some thought the Steelworkers had communist influences, and others thought that Charlie Pinson was a troublemaker, stirring up strife in their tranquil town. Unions may be fine in Guelph, some said, but they were unnecessary in Fergus.
The town was abuzz all day Sunday with reports and rumours about the failed conciliation effort of Saturday. Beatty workers tramped through the plant doors as usual on Monday morning, June 4, and very few were in good humour. In the afternoon, at the call of some of the union officials, they dropped their tools and walked out to attend another mass meeting, this one at Victoria Park. Rumours and recriminations had been circulating all day around the factories, and the union leaders believed it best to hold a mass meeting of Local 3789 to give a full report on the progress of negotiations.
After an hour or so of shouting and yelling about their frustrations, the workforce returned to the factories. When they reached the factory doors, they saw a typewritten notice prepared a few minutes prior: “All persons who walked out without permission this afternoon are hereby suspended until further notice.” It bore the signature of A.A.P. Menzies.
Was it a strike or a lockout? That depended on who you talked to. The Department of Labour called it an illegal strike, and technically, that was probably correct.
But it really didn’t matter. For the first time in its history, Fergus witnessed a large-scale labour disruption.
[To be continued…]
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 12, 2003.