Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Standing The Gaff...

4. Slang A trick or gimmick, especially one used in a swindle or to rig a game.
3. Slang a. To take in or defraud; swindle.
b. To rig or fix in order to cheat: knew that the carnival games had been gaffed.
1. Slang foolish talk; nonsense
blow the gaff Brit slang to divulge a secret...
stand the gaff Slang chiefly US and Canadian to endure ridicule, difficulties, etc.

It's said we should learn from our history. In the case of the coal miners of Cape Breton, not only have they learned, they haven't forgotten. The history of their union is one filled with unrest, battles and death. The stories are passed from generation to generation so that the union's history is as vivid for today's miners as for their forefathers who lived it.

Coal mining in Nova Scotia has never been easy. Miners fought every step for fair wages, working conditions and benefits. Along the way some of the most bitter fights were with each other as two unions battled for supremacy.

People were afraid to disobey the companies, for good reason. Basically, they belonged to the companies, lived in company houses, and bought supplies in company stores....

In 1920, the Dominion Coal Company was sold to a new company, the British Empire Steel Corporation or Besco. Within the year it cut wages by two thirds. The union won an injunction against the cut, but Besco successfully appealed. The miners had no choice but to work for just a fraction of their former pay.

The Gillen Commission was set up in 1922 to resolve the wage problem. That year the Dominion Bureau of Statistics estimated it cost a miner 90 per cent of his earnings to pay rent and feed his family. Contract workers actually paid more for rent and food than they received in weekly wages.

The commission didn't resolve anything and Besco cut wages by 30 per cent. The local union called a slowdown strike. The Company Stores cut credit to the employees during the strike. The international union refused to support the slowdown, but the men paid no attention and cut production
by one third.

Unlike the strike of 1909, this one was relatively peaceful. Miners were allowed to stay in their houses, but again the militia was called in. About 1,200 of His Majesty's Cavalry arrived in Cape Breton and set up machine gun nests around the collieries. The strike lasted eight months and in the end the men returned to work with an 18 per cent cut in pay from the 1921 rates and contract men received an increase of 52 cents a day.

Local UMW president Dan Livingstone wrote: "The wage schedule was accepted under muzzles of rifles, machine guns and the gleaming bayonets with further threatened invasion of troops and warships standing to. The miners, facing hunger, their Dominion and Provincial governments lined up with Besco, the men were forced to accept the proposals."

At the very start, Besco vice-president J.E. McLurg said, "We hold all the cards ... they (the miners) will have to come to us ... they can't stand the gaff." The statement infuriated the strikers who became even more determined to prove McLurg wrong.

The company again refused to give the men credit at its stores. This time sympathy was with the miners and their families. Independent merchants continued to give credit, fishermen contributed their catch, the British Canadian Cooperative donated $500 and in Boston, expatriate Maritimers formed a Cape Breton Relief Committee.

Even with the extra support, the strikers were suffering. The town of New Waterford was particularly hard hit. The town's water supply and electricity came from New Waterford Lake, a few miles from the town. It was controlled by Besco police who terrorized people by charging through the town on horseback, ignorant of anything or anyone in their path.

On June 11th, about 3,000 men and boys gathered in the town and marched toward the power plant. They were met by 100 armed police and the so-called Battle of Waterford Lake began. The crowd attacked the police, hauling them off their horses and beating them. The men said they were driven to battle because the water and power to their homes and school had been cut off. Some officers actually jumped into the lake and swam to the other side for safety. Others stood their ground and fired into the crowd.

Three miners were shot. Gilbert Watson was hit in the stomach. Michael O'Handley was wounded and trampled by horses. William Davis was fatally shot in the heart. The tragedy is remembered each year on June 11th when workers around the province mark Bill Davis Day.

The battle prompted the new Conservative premier, E. N. Rhodes, to get involved. He met with Besco officials on July 16th. The police force was withdrawn and the wage set at the 1922 level, a reduction of six to eight per cent. In August the miners voted to accept the Rhodes' proposal.

The strike lasted for 155 days. J.B. McLachlan was quoted as saying, "Under capitalism, the working class has but two courses to follow: crawl - or fight." The coal miners of Cape Breton remember and continue to fight.

Aldous Huxley:
The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.

E. L. Doctorow:
History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.

Edward Gibbon:
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.

Etienne Gilson:
History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.

George Bernard Shaw:
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.

Gustave Flaubert:
Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times.

H. G. Wells:
History is a race between education and catastrophe.

Henry Ford:
History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today.

Henry Steele Commager:
History, we can confidently assert, is useful in the sense that art and music, poetry and flowers, religion and philosophy are useful. Without it -- as with these -- life would be poorer and meaner; without it we should be denied some of those intellectual and moral experiences which give meaning and richness to life. Surely it is no accident that the study of history has been the solace of many of the noblest minds of every generation.

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