MACHINISTS ON STRIKE
The Labour Dispute between John Bertram & Sons Co. Ltd. and the International Association of Machinists, Valley City Lodge 1740: February 2, 1948 – August 22, 1948
By Beryl Haslam
With the ending of the war in 1945 and the return to peace-time production, unions throughout North America feared that their hard-won victories of the war years would be lost and that employers would again be able to dictate terms to their workers. The year 1945 saw a wave of crippling strikes in the US as labour fought to retain and build on its war-time gains. Encouraged by the success of its US counterparts, the union at the Ford factory in Windsor, also struck for higher wages – and while the pay increase was minimal, it was successful winning legal recognition of its union. The next year, Stelco, in Hamilton, followed suit. This strike, lasting 81 days, disrupted the city and brought out nearly 20% of the industrial workforce, when Stelco workers were joined by men from Westinghouse, Firestone and the Hamilton Spectator. The Bertram strike of 1948, while local, can also be viewed in this context of continental post-war industrial discontent.
John Bertram & Sons had done well in the war, its heavy industrial machinery had been in demand. Even with the shift to peace-time production, the company began 1946 with many unfilled orders; indeed, by the beginning of 1947, there was a substantial backlog of work, enough to keep the heavy machinery plant operating to capacity for 6-8 Months (Annual Report, 1946). As the end of 1947 approached, the time was drawing near for the renegotiation of the machinists’ annual contract which was due to end on January 31, 1948. Accordingly, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), Valley City Lodge 1740, notified the management that it wished to commence negotiations and, on November 19 and 25, the union presented its list of the 30 demands for renegotiation. And so began the events that led to the seven-month strike at John Bertram & Sons.
Of the three unions at Bertram’s, only the contract of IAM Lodge 1740 was up for negotiation. The two other unions – the International Moulders’ and Foundry Workers’ Union (local 269) and the Patternmakers’ Association of Hamilton and Vicinity – had separately negotiated contracts. The IAM was anxious to start negotiations in good time to avoid the recurrence of the delay in signing that last year had cost the workers the pay increase between the start of the contract on February 1, and its signing on March 4, 1947. The list of 30 demands was wide ranging but the most important were the clauses concerning amendments to wages, seniority, job security and holidays: these demands included an increase in wages – a general increase of .25c an hour for all employees (with .25c on maximums, .40c on minimums); on seniority – that men should not lose their seniority if transferred to another position, as would likely happen in any reorganization involved in retooling for peace-time production; that there should be adequate notice of layoffs and compensation for loss of work – the union complained that frequently notice of only hours (or even less time) was given before workers were laid off; the number of statutory holidays with pay be increased to match other unions, with double pay for working holidays.
On December 1, 1947, the chair of the IAM Lodge 1740 negotiating committee made a formal request to open negotiations with the object of amending the collective bargaining agreement. The procedure for negotiation was laid down by the Labour Relations Board Act of the Province of Ontario. In its 1944 contract with the IAM, as required by law, Bertram’s had acknowledged the legality of the union and its right to appoint negotiators. But the union also had obligations, and the legislation laid down procedures to be followed by both sides in the event of a failure to reach agreement. In the five meetings, from December 3 to December 23, between the union negotiating committee – W.G. Carson (chair), E.H Horsley, G. Venus, W. Cunningham, R. Lowell and L. Deeley – and representatives of Bertram’s management were unable to find common ground.
At the meeting, on December 17, E.R. Hoare (personnel) outlined the company’s counter proposal of a wage increase of .10c an hour. It was noted in later documents that at this meeting it was felt that the union response implied a threat to go on strike. After the December 23 meeting, having failed to make any progress, the IAM negotiating committee declared its intention to apply for conciliation, the next step as outlined in the provincial labour legislation. On January 1, 1948, the union informed the company that it had applied for a conciliation officer to arbitrate the case.
The procedures laid down in the Labour Board Relations Act (Ontario) provided for intervention by the Ministry of Labour if, after 30 days, the company and union were unable to reach agreement. Under these provisions, a conciliation officer would be appointed and, if he failed to resolve the dispute, then the case would be submitted to a conciliation board. It was emphasized, however, that during the process of conciliation strike action would be illegal. If the parties could not reach an agreement, the board could impose compulsory arbitration. Furthermore, if the union was to call an illegal strike, it could be sued in a civil suit by the employer. Thus, the question that came to dominate the 7-month strike concerned its legality. Had the negotiating committee called an illegal strike, as Bertram’s claimed, or was it acting within its rights – moral, if not legal?
These then were the rules, but always there is a history of relations – good or bad – between the contending parties that impacts negotiations. This was not the first time that the services of the conciliation officer had been used, as the impasse over the contract of 1947 had necessitated his involvement. The union would accuse Bertram’s of unfair practices and bad faith, but it is difficult to say whether these accusations were justified or just another volley in an adversarial situation. No doubt, an added complication was the presence on the IAM negotiating committee of W.G Carson, who had been reinstated at Bertram’s after his dismissal was overturned by a labour tribunal.
The lines of battle, already drawn, were further clarified at the meeting, on January 8, 1948, between the negotiating committee and management. The committee claimed that not only was it roundly abused by Garside (for Bertram’s) but that he had issued an ultimatum to the effect that unless Bertram’s counter proposals, including .10c an hour across the board, be accepted, and that Local 1740 ceased conciliation proceedings, there would be no contract after January 31, 1948. Writing to Hoare (personnel officer), on January 12, in what was mostly a conciliatory letter, Carson asked that Garside’s ultimatum be withdrawn, noting that it restricted the union’s choice of action. Hoare’s reply, on January 16, agreed to a further meeting but only if the union could come up with suggestions that could lead to a settlement; he advised that these must be different from the demands of January 12. In response, Local 1740 took the matter to its membership and a called a meeting, on January 18, where the letter was read. A motion from the floor moved that Bertram’s ultimatum be rejected, and that work should cease after January 31: the resolution passed with 89% of union members voting in its favour. However, it is not clear whether the vote to strike was taken in the presence of a Labour Board official as required by the legislation. These are the facts as related by IAM Local 1740.
It was against this background of an impending strike that two conciliation meetings were held on January 21 and 22, 1948, under the supervision of W.W. Dunn. The company was represented by C.A. Fisher, T.G. Fechnay and E.R. Hoare; Local 1740 by W.G Carson, E. Horsley, C. Deeley, G. Venus, W. Cunningham and R. Lowell. When no settlement had been reached by the second day, Dunn recommended taking the next step by setting up a conciliation board. On January 30, in the interval before the board convened, union and management representatives met to discuss the impending strike, and still there was no movement towards reconciling differences. D.S. Lyons, vice -president of Lodge 1740, insisted that the union had legitimate reasons for striking, while the company warned that a stoppage would result in work orders drying up and men being laid off, as of February 2.
The first meeting of the conciliation board, on February 22, 1948, was conducted by Louis Fine, chief conciliation officer. But when he met with company representatives, he learned that the negotiating committee had been dismissed from Bertram’s, according to the union, for threatening to call an illegal strike. Bertram’s, however, claimed that the negotiating committee had been sacked because it had used its influence and persuaded the meeting, on January 22, to vote for a strike – and such intervention was illegal. From this point on, the focus of the dispute and stumbling block to reconciliation, became not only the legality of the strike but the dismissal of the union’s negotiating committee. The union saw this move as a challenge to its very existence. If its right to choose its representatives was denied, and thus unable to protect the interests of its members, the IAM would be redundant.
In truth, the strike was contrary to the rules laid down by the Labour Relations Board Act. It was illegal to launch a strike before all avenues of conciliation had been exhausted, and clearly, the conciliation board had barely started let alone completed its work. In fact, the union as part of its contract had accepted these obligations. But, on the other hand, one contract had ended before another had been agreed. What were the men to do? Over the next few months all efforts at negotiating foundered on the refusal of Bertram’s to reinstate the dismissed men, and Local 1740’s resistance to engaging in talks until the men were reemployed. In an attempted compromise, in late April, Garside offered to negotiate with a new committee, even including three of the dismissed men, but only on the understanding that they would acknowledge in writing that they had knowingly called an illegal strike. Carson, Deeley and Horsley, however, would not be reinstated at any price.
Meanwhile, the impasse continued. Over the months, both sides attempted to sway public opinion from the company’s adverts in the Dundas Star, signed by H. G. Bertram himself, to the letters and circulars from both parties addressed not only to the employees but to all householders in Dundas. The opening shot in the war of words was delivered by H. G. Bertram in a full-page advert in the Dundas Star, March 18, 1948. Under the heading,” What is the Responsibility of a Committee?”. Again, the president of Bertram’s reiterated the company’s position that the strike was illegal and that all avenues of conciliation had not been exhausted, and that the men responsible for the strike had acted illegally. Furthermore, he warned that the loss of wages, and contracts for the company, would have dire consequences for Dundas. In a later piece as the strike dragged on, the president claimed that the company might be forced to sell off its machinery – a threat that the union greeted with derision, observing that Bertram’s was more profitable as a going concern. For its part, the union retaliated to his “propaganda” with its own assessment. In “The Union Wants the Public to Know the Facts” (no date), Local 1740, not only challenged the veracity of H. G. Bertram’s version of events but pointed out that in focusing on the legality of the strike the actual causes – pay, seniority, security – had fallen off the table.
No doubt, Bertram’s hoped than public opinion might pressure workers to defy the union and return to work. As a company town, the stoppage at Bertram’s must have had a serious impact on the town’s economy – not only on the workmen themselves but on the town’s business community. In all, 600 men were off the job as pickets manned the gates to the Bertram and Pratt and Whitney plants. Although some men had found work in neighbouring towns, and union strike pay was helping eke out family budgets, the hardship must have been palpable.
As permitted by the legislation, in late July, John Bertram and Sons, applied to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to bring a civil action against Local 1740 for having called an illegal strike (Dundas Star, July 21, 1948). Maybe this action had the effect of moving things along because along with the subsequent report that the scheduled hearing was postponed came the rumour of a possible return to work. Representatives of the union and the company met in the Queen’s Park office of the Hon. Charles Daley, Minister of Labour, and, on August 22, 1948, seven months after the strike had begun, a settlement was reached. The terms of the settlement included the rehiring of the discharged six members of the negotiating committee at their former status; an increase of .15c an hour to all wage rates, with a possible .10c raise to be determined by negotiation; paid statutory holidays to be increased from two to eight annually; seniority provisions to be allowed to continue as previously.
The next day a meeting of the union, supervised by Louis Fine, met at the Music Hall, in Dundas, where the settlement was ratified by 98% of the vote. Tribute was paid to Mayor Hunter, who had been instrumental in getting the Labour department involved, and to the Chief Constable, Alex Jack, for the way he had discharged his duties during the strike. No doubt in a bid to reassure the membership and attempt to heal some of the mistrust and win support for the agreement, Carson assured the meeting that, “the Bertram Company gave every evidence of being willing to carry on future industrial relations on a very fair and equitable basis”.
It had been a long and bitter struggle, and all involved had suffered: some more than others. In its Annual Report for 1948, Bertram’s recorded that operating profits were down to $51,317.06 from $551,477.72 in 1947 as a direct result of the strike. Nonetheless, the outlook was optimistic, and the company reassured its shareholders that the backlog of orders was sufficient to keep the company running to capacity for the first eight months of 1949.
Had the sacrifices been worth it? Certainly, both sides had had to make compromises. The real victory was perhaps more enduring – it was the recognition of a principle, namely, the right of the union to exist and to choose its representatives in its dealings with management.
We do not know, however, what the future would have held for industrial relations as, in 1951, John Bertram and Sons was sold to Russell Industries Ltd.