1959 Newfoundland and the IWA


There was no human rights movement in Newfoundland before 1968, and its most influential social movement was organized labour. Founded in 1908 by William Coaker, the Fisherman’s Protective Union (FPU) was an early example of radical social movement activism in Newfoundland. In a rare instance of grassroots campaigning that challenged the region’s political and economic elite, it mobilized over twenty thousand members and managed to elect thirteen people to the House of Assembly.

During the two world wars, the government introduced emergency powers and conscription, but with the exception of a 27 April 1918 police raid on the offices of the Plaindealer, a weekly newspaper, to confiscate an anti-conscription issue, there is no evidence of widespread censorship or detentions during either conflict. A Commission of Government took control of the colony in 1934 in response to massive post-war debts, and this reversion from a democratic system of government probably contributed to the lack of radical political dissent in Newfoundland. The leaders of two of the most influential social movements of this period, the FPU and the Newfoundland Federation of Labour (NFL), did not organize opposition to the war or conscription. Indeed, William Gillespie argues that the NFL reacted patriotically to the First World War and that labour issues were secondary to the war effort. Although the government used its emergency powers to impose industrial peace and to restrict striking, the NFL was small and voluntary, and its resources were limited. Its leader supported both the war and conscription, though not all NFL members, particularly northern fishermen, shared his sentiments.

Newfoundland’s most extreme form of labour radicalism emerged in 1959, with a strike led by the International Woodworkers of America (IWA). In Smallwood, Richard Gwynn characterizes the strike as the “most bitter labour dispute in Newfoundland’s history.” Joey Smallwood, who had been active in the labour movement and helped introduced Newfoundland’s first labour legislation as premier, found himself dealing with a radical movement whose tactics were more confrontational than the NFL. Fearing that the strike would shut down the province’s largest employer, and facing public as well as clerical opposition to it, Smallwood introduced emergency labour laws in 1959. The laws immediately decertified the IWA, empowered cabinet to dissolve trade unions, prohibited secondary picketing, and made unions liable for illegal acts committed on their behalf. The International Labour Organization, Canadian Labour Congress, and the NFL quickly condemned the legislation, and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker refused to provide the province with additional police to enforce the legislation. Even Lester B. Pearson, the federal Liberal Party leader and Smallwood ally, publicly expressed concern about the excessive measures. Running out of food and money, the loggers eventually abandoned the strike, joined Smallwood’s newly created Newfoundland Brotherhood of Wood Workers, and negotiated a settlement with the logging companies, ending the strike and effectively undermining the IWA.

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