How the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen fought the Grand Trunk Railway in the strike of 1910

‘Fight to a Finish’

By Ian McKechnie

Those of us attending elementary or high school in Kawartha Lakes during February of 2008 will no doubt recall the CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) strike which dominated local headlines for much of that month. “The libraries and arenas were shut down, and fortunately for students the snowplows were off the roads,” the LCVI Tatler reported in its 2007-2008 edition. “No snowplows + lots of snowstorms = a February filled with a snow day almost every week.”

While students might have relished a few days off school, those who relied on cleared roads to get them to work chafed at the inconvenience caused by the strike.

Now consider what the situation was like almost a century before, when members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen walked off the job during the Grand Trunk Railway strike of 1910. Few people owned a car, so train travel was their only means of transportation, and many local businesses relied on the G.T.R. to facilitate freight shipments. Although the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) had been running trains through Lindsay for six years, it paled in comparison to the mighty G.T.R. A strike involving the latter’s sizable employee base in Lindsay, then, was significant.

Brakemen and conductors were frustrated by GTR President Charles Hays’ apparent refusal to budge on the question of wage increases. Class distinctions in Canadian society were much more defined a century ago than they are now, and Hays occupied the very upper rungs of wealth — he was what we might today call a member of “the one per cent.” (Two years later, in 1912, Hays would book first-class passage on the ill-fated Titanic, a voyage he would not survive.)

“The present strike,” editorialized the Fenelon Falls Gazette, “like all past strikes, forces on public attention the fact that private individuals, forming only a small part of the population of the country, are at liberty to throw everything into confusion and occasion heavy loss to the rest of the people, and that the sufferers have absolutely no means of redress.”

The strike began on July 18, 1910. Later that week, passenger services into Lindsay were vastly reduced, and all freight traffic stopped because the GTR failed to find temporary workers to fill in for striking trainmen. The GTR-owned freight sheds on Victoria Avenue South were shuttered and workers there refused to accept shipments; indeed, many local businesses had already turned to the CPR to ship their goods out of concern that a strike was imminent. Excursions were cancelled, and those on strike wore banners that read “CPR West” to remind those with long-distance travel plans that they had virtually no choice but to temporarily make use of Lindsay’s CPR facilities.

“Fight to a finish” became the slogan for members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen in Lindsay and across the whole GTR system. “This putting up a poor face to the public is about played out,” said one unnamed union member when interviewed by Lindsay’s Watchman Warder newspaper. “During the past ten years the company has taken out over $36,000,000 [of] their revenue and used it on improvements, where it should have come out of the capital account.” He added, “we feel that some of these millions should have been directed towards the pockets of the men who by long and faithful service have earned it for the company.”

Given the railway’s prominence on both the national and local scene, public sympathy initially rested with the GTR. As the strike wore on, opinion shifted and people began to realize just how unfair the latter’s conduct was. “The Grand Trunk has made a mistake in allowing the strike to go as far as it has gone, and it will make another mistake if it continues to refuse to arbitrate and finally succeeds in running all its trains with non-union men,” editorialized the Fenelon Falls Gazette. “In the latter event it will be boycotted by organized labour of every description.”

Officially, the strike lasted until 6 p.m. on Aug. 4, 1910. Following discussions between GTR conductors and trainmen, GTR upper management and William Lyon Mackenzie King, the federal Minister of Labour, a compromise was reached that apparently satisfied both sides. That evening, members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen gathered in their meeting hall above Tangney’s furniture store on Kent Street, where the mood was cautiously optimistic, according to the Post. “We will all be on to work in the morning,” said one conductor in response to a question posed by a Lindsay Post reporter. Train service slowly resumed, even as local union members continued to hold meetings in peaceful protest of what they saw as shortcomings in the terms of the agreement with the GTR. (One such meeting was graced with the presence of noted American socialist, Benjamin F. Wilson, and, to everyone’s delight, a freezer full of ice cream from a sympathetic merchant.)

It was mid-August before life returned to normal on the GTR. “It will not be long before the old order of things will prevail and the inconvenience and trouble caused by the strike will be forgotten,” asserted the Post. What wasn’t forgotten, though, was the role the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and other unions like it played in fighting for the rights of workers.

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