Smelter Wars: BC History Documents the Wartime Battle to Build a Union in a Small Industrial City

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More than the history of a union, Smelter Wars is a cultural study of a community shaped by the dominance of a world-leading industrial juggernaut set on keeping the union drive at bay. Read the full blog post by author, Ron Verzuh, here:

Trail, British Columbia, home of one of the world’s largest lead and zinc smelters, was the location of a historic but little-known union organizing drive by a small band of determined trade unionists during the Second World War.

My book Smelter Wars tells the story of how those trade unionists overcame the smelter owner, a company union, an anti-union church, and the daily newspaper to form Local 480 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine-Mill).

This was not a new story in the rough-and-tumble labour history of the Pacific Northwest, but it had an unusual twist. With all the violent tales of union-employer confrontations in the western United States, the story told in Smelter Wars stands out because it was relatively devoid of physical violence.

There was plenty of warfare, just not the bombs-and-bullets variety that had become commonplace in Idaho, Colorado, Washington State, and elsewhere. Those states faced deadly events such as the Everett Massacre and Centralia Tragedy, the Coeur d’Alenes mining strikes, and Ludlow’s notorious massacre at the hands of the National Guard.  

The struggle to form Local 480 could have gone differently. The union, previously the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), had once been known for its violence on picket lines and behind-the-scenes battles at the bargaining table.

Canadian Mine-Mill locals founded Mine-Mill Canada at a convention held in the historic Rossland Miner’s Union Hall in 1955. Credit: USW Local 480.

This was the union of William “Big Bill” Haywood, for example, who was instrumental in founding the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Haywood even visited the Trail area, particularly the mines at nearby Rossland, where workers co-founded one of the first Canadian IWW affiliates. IWW troubador Joe Hill is also said to have passed through the mountainous area now better known for its skiing facilities.

By the time the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), founded in 1935, hired a young organizer named Arthur “Slim” Evans to organize a union in Trail, radicalism had been somewhat tamed. Still, the smelter wars were afoot and Evans was the man to lead the charge.

Interestingly, he came with bona fides. First, he was wounded by machine gun fire at the Ludlow Massacre. Later he would lead the famed On to Ottawa Trek, a 1935 protest against the federal government’s unjust treatment of relief camp workers. He also campaigned for a group of Canadians who fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Slim wasn’t afraid of the police or the company goons that would quickly hijack and destroy his union vehicle. Nor did he show fear as he called out the powerful company boss, S.G. Blaylock, exposing his dictatorial control of workers. He also had the law on his side. New legislation allowed unions to organize, banned company unions, and made organizing somewhat easier, much like the Wagner Act had done in the U.S. in 1935.

Slim, who later became a legendary hero for many, got the ball rolling, but he ran afoul of the courts and was soon forced to leave town. Others picked up where he left off. Harvey Murphy, self-described as “the reddest rose in the garden of labour,” ran the final victory lap in mid-1944.

Six years after Slim’s arrival, Mine-Mill Local 480 was recognized as the legal representative of more than 5,000 workers, many of them immigrants, at the Canadian Pacific Railway-owned Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada.

Job accomplished? Not so fast. The union’s fight for survival had only just begun.

In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act undid many of labour’s gains. The new U.S. law also affected unions in Canada where a Red Scare was spooking the big unions affiliated to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO. A Cold War purge of alleged communist union leaders began.

Emboldened by these developments, some workers in Trail mounted a fight against left-led Local 480. Others sided with the company. Workers were pitted against each other. Families took sides. The churches and local media did too.

In Smelter Wars that historic struggle is documented, revealing how Local 480 faced fierce corporate, media, and religious opposition while many of its members enlisted to fight for democracy overseas.

Meanwhile, women joined Local 131 of the Mine-Mill women’s auxiliary and fought to support Local 480 against the uncertified challenger, an offshoot of the former company union now calling itself the Maple Leaf union. Auxiliary members actively joined the mounting propaganda war, issuing leaflets, writing articles for the union newspaper, and producing radio broadcasts.

Local 131 of Mine-Mill ladies auxiliary supported Local 480 as it battled anti-communists. Credit: Courtesy Trail Historical Society.

By the 1950s, the CIO sanctioned the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to raid (enroll members) in Mine-Mill locals, including the one in Trail. And they took their raiding seriously. Against all odds, the Local 480 stalwarts held the line and the USWA had to back away. Raiding continued elsewhere and did not end until the USWA and Mine-Mill merged in 1967.

Smelter Wars provides a context for understanding the social, political, and cultural history of Trail. The book views that history through a lens filled with both Canadian and U.S. labour history, one of them featuring the famous opera singer/activist Paul Robeson, another featuring Salt of the Earth, the only Hollywood movie ever banned.

Popular African American singer and political activist Paul Robeson was closely associated with Mine-Mill. Credit: Courtesy Pacific Tribune Archives.

While the smelter wars ensued, citizens sought ways to entertain themselves. Hockey was a big attraction. Trail was, after all, home to the world amateur hockey champion Trail Smoke Eaters. The movies and inevitably the local pubs and dance halls were also important outlets. Duke Ellington was among the many famed musicians to play at Trail.

I am indebted to archival and periodical sources, including the mainstream and labour press, secret police records, and oral histories, that helped me bring this unique story to life and explain its complicated legacy in Trail. These sources helped make Smelter Wars not only a labour history but also a cultural study of a community.


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