Fergus council had to mediate 1951 Beatty strike

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.


(Note: This is the second part of the story of the 1951 labour troubles at Beatty Bros. in Fergus.)

The events of the afternoon of June 4, 1951 produced a virtual shutdown of Beatty operations in Fergus due to labour trouble. The firm and the town had never experienced anything like this before.

Most of the workers had a newfound sense of power. Groups lingered outside the factories, and others congregated downtown. Officials of the United Steelworkers were less than enthusiastic about the impasse.

Technically, the strike was illegal. A conciliation board headed by Judge J.C. Reynolds of Kingston was still at work on the case. Union leaders knew this, and preferred to call the situation a lockout.

W.G. Beatty and A.A.P. Menzies of the firm disagreed, pointing to the open doors, and the fact that office employees, foremen and a few workers opposed to the strike were on the property.

Picket lines went up on the evening of June 4 at the Hill Street main plant, at the Grand River plant (now the Fergus market building), at the old Fergus town hall, used by the firm as a warehouse (west of the parking lot of the Melville United Church), and at the Elora arena, which the Beatty firm had rented for the summer for storage.

W.G. Beatty’s mood alternated between fury and anguish. He was simply incredulous that his men would behave this way. He sat down and penned a note to the News Record: “Kindly permit me to make the following statement. On June 4th, Beatty employees had more reasons to appreciate what Beatty management has done for them and less reason to walk out than on any other day since 1874, when the firm of Beatty Bros. Limited was founded.”

While Beatty was drafting those words, the union members were holding another mass meeting. Charles Pinson and Keith Ross, the union officials from Guelph, tried to persuade them to return to work – they did not want the Steelworkers to gain a name for reckless and illegal behaviour at this stage.

Eventually, the men approved a motion to stay away from work for one additional day for each one that Beatty and Menzies enforced their suspension.

Pinson and Ross persuaded the men to abandon their picket signs and cease picketing the plants. Instead, the Steelworkers mounted what they called a “security guard,” to look after the best interests of the union. They made no effort to stop anyone from entering the plants.

Nevertheless, the presence of the men around the doors of the plants did disrupt operations. Union truck drivers refused to serve the plant, and railway crews, unionized for decades, would not switch cars to the Beatty sidings out of respect for fellow union members.

Word of the dispute spread quickly. Reporters for the Toronto papers arrived later that day, expecting to report a dramatic confrontation. Instead, all they saw was that the Beatty office was working, and a few men were sitting around near the plant, most of them in motor cars. Determined to get a good story, the Star and the Telegram vied with each other to stir some excitement.

The Telegram talked the men into retrieving some of the signs used the evening before, and snapped pictures of them picketing. They dropped the signs when the photographer put his camera away. Not to be outdone, the Star reporter himself lettered a sign reading, “Beatty Bros. Want to Starve Our Children,” and persuaded a union member to hold it, with the promise that he would get his picture in the paper.

Most of the men had given little thought to the consequences of a work disruption. They had no strike funds of any kind, either for legal expenses or for strike pay. Many of the wives shuddered at the thought of maintaining their households with no regular income.

Less than 24 hours after the disruption started, several downtown merchants cut off credit to Beatty employees.

The firm was in a better position to withstand a lengthy strike than the employees. On the other hand, there was every incentive to settle. The firm was operating at full capacity, and a lengthy strike would mean that many employees would seek jobs elsewhere.

Albert Menzies and others in management realized that a long strike could benefit Beatty’s competition.

As the situation unfolded during the day of June 5, Reeve Willard Smith came up with a novel idea. He convened a special meeting of Fergus council for later that evening.

The five-man Fergus council of 1951 included three Beatty employees. One was Ken Denny, who was also president of Local 3789 of the Steelworkers. Eric White worked in the office, in the personnel department. Reeve Willard was a factory employee, but one of the few opposed to the strike. He had refused to walk out the previous day, to the loud derision of his colleagues. Deputy Reeve Jack Richardson operated a garage, and Wilfred Ford owned one of the Fergus drug stores.

All had a major stake, in one way or another, in the labour disruption.

Councillors first discussed the dispute among themselves, and then invited management and union representatives to meet with them separately. Discussions continued the next day, June 6, and lasted into the night.

Council met again the morning of June 7. By then it appeared that pride and stubbornness were largely to blame for the work stoppage.

The two sides had come very close to agreement on a wage schedule. In the afternoon, council hosted a negotiating session between the two sides in the basement of the Fergus library. Six hours later, a little after 7pm, they emerged from the session with an agreement.

The company representatives were George Beatty, Albert Menzies, John Gifford, Eugene Landoni and Charles Howes. Wisely, they left old W.G. Beatty at the office. His old fashioned, paternalistic attitude could offer nothing to resolving the impasse.

The union team consisted of Charles Pinson, Ken Denny, Wilson Ransom, Mel Nixon, Harry Hamilton, Jim Maxwell, Jan Vet and Chester Hewitson.

Denny, as union president, was the only councillor to take an active role at this point, other than Reeve Smith, who chaired the session. The union men announced that there would be a ratification vote the following afternoon, Friday, June 8, at 4pm.

The Toronto Globe and Mail published a report on the unusual mediation process led by the town council. Wire service accounts sent the story to newspapers across the country.

Local 3789’s meeting in Victoria Park drew most of the membership, and they overwhelmingly approved the settlement hammered out the previous afternoon.

Starting wages would climb by 12 cents, to $1.06 per hour. Other increases ranged from eight to 15 cents per hour. The number of paid holidays increased from seven to eight.

It was a large wage increase, but the cost of living was rising fast.

A second motion passed at the meeting was to expel the members who had continued to work during the disruption. The proposal exempted Willard Smith: as reeve of Fergus, he had been largely responsible for the quick resolution of the dispute.

On the whole, the strike/lockout need never have happened. It resulted from the intransigent position and posturing of W.G. Beatty, and the lack of experience with labour disputes of the rank-and-file Steelworkers members.

Many residents blamed Charles Pinson and the other United Steelworkers officials, for stirring up the trouble. In actual fact, they deplored the course events took.

There were several later labour disruptions at the Beatty factories, but none took quite the course of events in 1951, when the municipal council worked effectively to resolve the dispute by bringing the sides together for the benefit of the community.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 19, 2003.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015