Dollar-a-Year Men and Labour Strikes of the Second World War
By: Harrison Kennedy
Harrison Kennedy is an intern for the Museum of Royal Canadian Military Institute. Harrison has completed his master’s degree in military history from the University of Chester, UK (at the Shrewsbury Campus). Harrison has also graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Honours, with a Double Major in History & Political Science at Carleton University, Ottawa.
During the Second World War, industrialization and the militarization of global economies created profound transformations in labour and led to a series of immense changes in the Canadian workforce. These upheavals created conflicts between business, labour, and governments, including when the business community and Liberal cabinet minister Clarence Decatur (C. D.) Howe actively obstructed members of the wartime labour force from improving their working conditions. Three key strikes in 1941 – at National Steel Car Company in Hamilton; Aluminum Company of Canada in Arvida, Quebec; and Kirkland Lake’s gold mines – resulted from these struggles and revolved around government’s responsiveness to the prioritization of business and labour demands in the time of war. This article will explore labour strife during this period and how, as a result, working conditions evolved to better recognize the contributions of labour by the end of the war.
First World War
The First World War marked a new expansion for Canadian industry as well as the rise of labour unions. The United Kingdom organized Canada’s war production through the Imperial Munitions Board during the war,[i] while Canada’s wartime economy mostly provided food, natural resources, and munitions.[ii] As the First World War progressed, labour shortages became a problem because men of all ages began joining the Canadian military.[iii] This squeeze led to low unemployment and marked the beginning of women’s entry into industry.
At first glance, Canadian labour conditions seemed to be improving, with wages and living standards beginning to rise, although the prices of goods also increased. The Canadian government, however, did not implement many controls on Canadian manufacturing.[iv] As the Great War raged on and labour shortages persisted, unions in Canada saw an opportunity “to negotiate better conditions and wages.”[v] By the end of the war, 378,000 workers were members of craft and industrial unions. From 1917 to 1920, Canada saw 1,384 strikes involving 360,000 workers across the country.[vi] Although these figures, and the broader history of Canadian labour during the First World War, appear striking, Canada’s industrial production from 1914 to 1918 is overshadowed by the labour output of the Second World War and the labour movement’s much stronger drive.
Howe’s Department, “Dollar-a-Year Men,” and Canadian Labour
C.D. Howe was originally from the United States.[vii] He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Engineering and moved to Canada in 1908. He became a professor of engineering at Dalhousie University before moving into the business of building grain elevators. Howe was first elected as a member of Parliament in 1935, after retiring from his business career the year before. With his background in business, he was brought into the Liberal Party by Norman Lambert, who was then head of the National Liberal Federation. In April 1940, the government established the Department of Munitions and Supply, and Howe, formerly minister of transport, was appointed to be its first minister.[viii] The new department’s responsibilities included “purchasing all war materials and supplies which might be required in Canada by our own armed services or by the governments of other nations. It was given authority to mobilize the nation’s industrial resources to meet these needs.”[ix] In August 1940, the government modified the Munitions and Supply Act to allow Howe to “mobilize, control, restrict or regulate to such extent as the Minister may, in his absolute discretion, deem necessary, any branch or trade or industry in Canada or any munitions of war or supplies.”[x] The new law came into effect following the Nazi occupation of France in June 1940 and required the department to implement restrictions in order to expand war production in Canada.[xi] Canada “was the only Allied nation that had one agency handling all war procurement.”[xii]
Howe looked to recruit individuals from Canada’s business sector – “executives who could step in to organize and galvanize war production and allocate scarce commodities.” [xiii] He wanted their employers to continue to pay them; “[he] offered nothing beyond a dollar a year, only expenses; many of those he brought to Ottawa declined to take their expenses at all.”[xiv] This concept, referred to as “dollar-a-year men,” was not a new idea. American businessmen provided a similar service to the U.S. government during the First World War.[xv]
By late February 1941, there were 107 dollar-a-year men employed throughout the Canadian government, including executives, accountants, and lawyers.[xvi] However, most of the dollar-a-year men did not hold favourable views of labour unions, and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King confirmed they still held this view during the war.[xvii] Some of the dollar-a-year men served as controllers; they were “appointed under the authority of the Department and [held] unparalleled power to buy and sell, restrict or increase production, take the possession of goods or property, license, require the productions of documents, etc.”[xviii] There were many controllers overseeing a wide range of resources and services. These dollar-a-year men maintained tight control of spending, but they struggled to keep labour costs low and challenged the organizing of unions.
By early 1940, Canada was experiencing labour shortages, which became severe by 1941.[xix] The shortages provided workers with leverage to embolden their local unions to fight on their behalf. The main cause of labour strikes in 1940 and 1941 related to wages and proper union representation.[xx] According to a 1941 article in the Financial Post, the Canadian government intended to allow collective bargaining in an effort “to stabilize wartime industrial relations” but, to avoid conflict with Canadian businesses and industry, did not specifically reference unions.[xxi]
Workers and employers looked at collective bargaining differently, especially in regard to whether unions should or should not be involved.[xxii] In an effort to remain impartial, King remarked that “the government must see to view both, impartially, and in the light of world conditions.”[xxiii] Neutrality, however, proved to be difficult for all members of the government. For example, the minister of mines and resources, Thomas Crerar, believed labour organizations had both Communists and Nazis within their ranks.[xxiv] Similarly, newspapers reported on the growing external threat infiltrating labour movements: “a group of labor racketeers, responsible to foreign bosses, are determined to use the war emergency to unionize plants and build up their own personal power.”[xxv] Conversely, Minister of Labour Norman McLarty, during a war cabinet committee meeting in May 1941, recommended raising the minimum wage for workers in the war industry because of the increased cost of living and to avoid labour disputes.[xxvi] There was an argument against this since contracts existed that were based on the current wages, meaning that the cost of increasing wages would be placed on taxpayers, and therefore hinder financing of the war effort.[xxvii] As the war continued, workers grew dissatisfied, with many deciding to go on strike.
National Steel Car Company, Hamilton
In February 1941, workers at the National Steel Car Company plant in Hamilton, Ontario, applied to the government conciliation board to resolve the matter of securing union recognition.[xxviii] Instead, management decided to fire the self-appointed representative of the local unsanctioned union. The president of the National Steel Car Company was known to be fervently opposed to unions. The conciliation board presented its recommendations for the company to enact, but its management refused.[xxix] On April 27, the workers halted all work at the plant. King’s cabinet appointed Ernest Brunning, one of Howe’s dollar-a-year men, to step in as the plant’s controller.[xxx] Before the war, Brunning had been president of Consumer’s Glass in Montreal; he, too, had anti-union views.[xxxi] The government’s move brought the strike to an end. The workers who’d been fired were rehired and were then allowed to vote to have the Steel Workers Organizing Committee provide union representation. Brunning, however, refused to meet with the union representatives because he had been ordered by a ranking official from the Department of Munitions and Supply to avoid negotiating a collective agreement on behalf of the employer.[xxxii] The workers went back on strike when they learned that Brunning was meeting with a selected few workers who were not in the union “to discuss wages and working conditions.”[xxxiii] King said during a cabinet meeting that the government policy of collective bargaining should apply to government-controlled industrial plants.[xxxiv] Thus, the National Steel Car Company’s workers should be allowed access to collective bargaining because the plant had become a government-controlled plant. King met with the strike leaders, and they were able to come to an agreement: the workers would return to their jobs and Brunning would be replaced as controller.[xxxv] In the end, King blamed the whole deteriorating situation on the company and Brunning.
Aluminum Company of Canada, Arvida
Shortly after the strike at the National Steel Car Company, workers at the Aluminum Company of Canada’s plant in Arvida, Quebec, also went on strike, on July 24, 1941.[xxxvi] Quebec’s attorney general, Wilfrid Girouard, was contacted by the company for assistance in suppressing the strike. Girouard had the authority to make such a request to the Canadian government for assistance from federal police and military personnel. The main issues that caused the strike were unhealthy working conditions and inadequate pay.[xxxvii] For example, the temperature on July 23, 1941, reached 32.2°C; on July 24 it reached 34.7°C, and in the plant’s pot rooms, temperatures as high as 37.7°C were recorded.[xxxviii] No accommodations were made for the workers, who, despite the gruelling conditions, were making only 51 cents per hour.[xxxix] They demanded an additional 10 cents, and then increased their demand to a dollar per hour. The strike led to the issue of what to do with the aluminum, which had solidified in the pots during the work stoppage. (After the strike, it was realized that it was possible to reheat the pots of aluminum rather than clean them out.) Because of the pressure of the situation and Howe’s offering an ultimatum (i.e., his resignation) to King, King announced that soldiers would be sent to Arvida.[xl] This was done by amending the Defence of Canada Regulations to give Howe, as minister of munitions and supply, the “authority to instruct immediate intervention by the R.C.M.P. or military forces without the necessity of first approaching Provincial authorities.”[xli]
On July 27, Canadian soldiers arrived in Arvida but did not take back control of the plant until the following day, to allow management and workers to meet one last time.[xlii] This meeting was a failure; however, the workers eventually ended their strike two days later and agreed to “submit their grievances to conciliation.”[xliii] The soldiers departed a week later. Howe told reporters that the strike in Arvida “was the most serious interruption of war production in Canada since the war began.”[xliv] While aluminum was critical to the war effort and Canada’s production accounted for 40% of the Allies’ requirements, there were still enough reserves in Canada and the UK to prevent the interruption of aircraft building in either country.[xlv]
Kirkland Lake Gold Mines
One of the most significant strikes of the Second World War occurred in the gold mines of Kirkland Lake, Ontario. The miners regrouped in 1941 after a failed attempt the year before to seek representation by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in 12 mines.[xlvi] The Industrial Disputes Inquiry Commission conducted its investigation in August 1941 and recommended that the miners have their own employee committee.[xlvii] The miners rejected this suggestion because they wanted to have their choice of union representation.[xlviii] Nonetheless, employee committees were established in each mine. George Bateman, the metals controller, indicated that there were “agitators from abroad” in Ontario mines, which he feared represented a Communist threat.[xlix] By the fall of 1941, the miners were still staunchly opposed to the employee committees.[l] A new conciliation board was appointed to investigate, but the mine operators withdrew from participating with the board because of the miners’ affiliation with the Congress of International Organizations (CIO).[li] Many in the Canadian business community felt the CIO was linked to Communist instigators who were being directed from the US.[lii] The dynamic was similar to a case from the previous August, when the mine operators refused to meet with the union representatives, thus showing their determination not to recognize their workers’ choice of union representation.[liii]
The conciliation board for the Kirkland Lake dispute recommended that the miners’ choice of union be recognized.[liv] Again, the mine operators refused to adhere to this recommendation. In November, a majority of the miners voted in favour of striking.[lv] Mine operators were willing to recognize their workers but were not interested in working with CIO agents. The Canadian government, in turn, was adamant that it would not place the mine under a controller and indicated that it would be up to the workers and mine operators to resolve the situation.
When the US entered the war in December 1941, its lend-lease program that provided war materials to Allied nations did not require immediate payment, and therefore, the US would not require regular reimbursement from Canada.[lvi] This meant that mining for gold was no longer a top priority. As a result, the Kirkland Lake strike dissipated and the operators did not need to worry about reopening the mines quickly.[lvii] The miners called off the strike on February 12, 1942.[lviii] The union put out a statement, which said that “the primary issue of union recognition [remained] unsettled, in the interest of national unity of the Canadian nation in the time of war.”[lix] King admitted that the strike in Kirkland Lake was “a very embarrassing matter, one which is helping to cost the government the support of labour, and putting us in an entirely wrong position.”[lx]
As the war progressed, the mood of Canadian workers evolved. In September 1941, possibly in response to the demand for higher wages and union representation, King’s cabinet took action to limit the right to strike and in October tightened controls on wage increases.[lxi] A poll conducted at the time asked if people were in favour of labour unions: 63% were in favour and 23% were opposed.[lxii] The poll also asked if strikes should be forbidden in war industries: 78% of those polled said strikes should be forbidden in war industries and 17% said they should be allowed. In 1941, there were 231 strikes in Canada, and that figure rose to 402 in 1943.[lxiii]
Several major strikes took place after 1941: in 1943, steel mills in Ontario and Nova Scotia went on strike, involving about 13,000 workers, and in the same year, miners from 66 coal mines in British Columbia and Alberta stopped work in protest over wage disputes.[lxiv] In February 1944, King’s cabinet adopted Order-in-Council PC 1003, which stated that “regulations providing for compulsory collective bargaining and outlining conditions of fair labor practices apply only to war industries and those occupations, transportation, coal mining, etc.”[lxv] Employers now had to allow their workers to join their chosen union and then bargain with that organization.[lxvi] As a result, union membership rose from 358,967 in 1939 to 724,188 in 1944.[lxvii] By the end of the war, in fact, Howe had become more conciliatory toward labour, a shift that he said was “impelled by his commitment to industrial peace and war production.”[lxviii] He was “willing to do what the times demanded,” he said, to find a better compromise.[lxix] By the end of the war, workers in Canada were receiving greater recognition, but only after a long struggle against both the business community and Howe’s department.
This article was written in collaboration with the Canadian Business History Association.
[i] Jack Granatstein, Canada at War: Conscription, Diplomacy, and Politics (University of Toronto Press, 2020, p. 278).
[ii] Desmond Morton, “First World War (WWI)” in The Canadian Encyclopedia (2013; edited 2021). https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/first-world-war-wwi.
[iii] John D. Belshaw, Canadian History: Post-Confederation (BCcampus, 2016, pp. 157–158).
[iv] Dominion Bureau of Statistics, The Canada Year Book 1942: The Official Statistical Annual of the Resources, History, Institutions, and Social and Economic Conditions of the Dominion (Edmond Cloutier King’s Printer, 1942, p. 354).
[v] Belshaw, Canadian History: Post-Confederation (p. 158).
[vi] Douglas Cruikshank and Gregory S. Kealey, “Strikes in Canada, 1891–1950” in Labour (1987, p. 109).
[vii] Grant Dexter, “Minister of Supply” in Maclean’s (May 1942).
[viii] Kenneth R. Wilson, “Production H.Q.” in Maclean’s (May 1942).
[x] Granatstein, Canada at War: Conscription, Diplomacy, and Politics (p. 280).
[xi] Taylor Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles: Mackenzie King and Labour, 1935–1948 (University of Toronto Press, 2018, pp. 85, 93).
[xii] Granatstein, Canada at War: Conscription, Diplomacy, and Politics (p. 280).
[xv] Robert D. Cuff, “A ‘Dollar-a-Year Man’ in Government: George N. Peek and the War Industries Board” in The Business History Review (1967, p. 404).
[xvi] Granatstein, Canada at War: Conscription, Diplomacy, and Politics (p. 280).
[xvii] Wendy Cuthbertson, Labour Goes to War: The CIO and the Construction of a New Social Order, 1939–1945 (UBC Press, 2012, p. 45); Library and Archives Canada, Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King MG26-J13 (March 14, 1941).
[xviii] Wilson, “Production H.Q.”
[xix] Cuthbertson, Labour Goes to War (p. 2).
[xx] Dominion Bureau of Statistics, The Canada Year Book 1942 (p. 709).
[xxi] Financial Post (April 26, 1941).
[xxiii] Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Minutes of War Cabinet Committee (May 5, 1941, 7 C vol. 4, Reel c-4653).
[xxiv] Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Minutes of War Cabinet Committee (May 30, 1941, 7 C vol. 4, Reel c-4653).
[xxv] Financial Post (May 10, 1941).
[xxvi] Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Minutes of War Cabinet Committee (May 30, 1941, 7 C vol. 4, Reel c-4653).
[xxvii] Financial Post (May 10, 1941).
[xxviii] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 103–104).
[xxix] Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Memorandum to the Prime Minister on Dispute at the National Steel Car Corporation Plant at Hamilton (May 31, 1941, 7 C vol. 45, Reel c-4654).
[xxx] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 103–104); Toronto Daily Star (April 30, 1941).
[xxxi] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 103–104, 113).
[xxxii] Ibid (p. 114); Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Minutes of War Cabinet Committee (July 29, 1941, 7 C vol. 5, Reel c-4654).
[xxxiii] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 113–114).
[xxxiv] Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Minutes of War Cabinet Committee (July 31, 1941, 7 C vol. 5, Reel c-4653).
[xxxv] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 113–114); Library and Archives Canada, Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King MG26-J13 (July 31, 1941).
[xxxvi] Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Minutes of War Cabinet Committee (July 28, 1941, 7 C vol. 5, Reel c-4654).
[xxxvii] Severin Letourneau and W. L. Bond, Royal Commission to Inquire into the Events which Occurred at Arvida, P.Q. in July 1941: Report of the Commissioners (Edmond Cloutier, 1941, pp. 7–8, 13).
[xxxviii] Bothwell and Kilbourn, C.D. Howe, A Biography (p. 164); Letourneau and Bond, Royal Commission (pp. 4, 8–9).
[xxxix] Letourneau and Bond, Royal Commission (pp. 3–4).
[xl] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (p. 100).
[xli] Globe and Mail (July 30, 1941).
[xlii] John Macfarlane, “Agents of Control or Chaos? A Strike at Arvida Helps Clarify Canadian Policy on Using Troops against Workers during the Second World War” in The Canadian Historical Review 86 (2005, p. 7).
[xliv] Globe and Mail (July 30, 1941).
[xlv] Ibid; J. de N. Kennedy, History of The Department of Munitions and Supply Canada in the Second World War: Vol. II. Controls, Service and Finance Branches, and Units Associated with the Department (Edmond Cloutier, 1950, pp. 102–103).
[xlvi] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 82, 115).
[xlvii] Library and Archives Canada, Department of Labour, RG 27, vol. 637, file 188: “IDIC Case Reports” (August 7, 1941).
[xlviii] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (p. 115).
[xlix] Bothwell and Kilbourn, C.D. Howe, A Biography (p. 162).
[l] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 121–122).
[li] Toronto Daily Star (October 22, 1941).
[lii] Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Privy Council Office RG 2, Minutes of War Cabinet Committee (May 5, 1941, 7 C vol. 4, Reel c-4653).
[liii] Library and Archives Canada, Department of Labour, RG 27, vol. 637, file 118: “IDIC case Reports” (August 12, 1941).
[liv] Toronto Daily Star (December 12, 1941).
[lv] Globe and Mail (November 11, 1941).
[lvi] Laurel S. MacDowell, Remember Kirkland Lake: The Gold Miners’ Strike of 1941–42 (Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2001, p. 44).
[lvii] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (p. 122).
[lviii] Globe and Mail (February 12, 1942).
[lx] Library and Archives Canada, Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King MG26-J13 (December 2, 1941).
[lxi] Macfarlane, “Agents of Control or Chaos?” (p. 10).
[lxii] Ottawa Citizen (December 17, 1941).
[lxiii] Kennedy, History of the Department of Munitions and Supply Canada in the Second World War: Vol. II (p. 362).
[lxiv] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 175, 198–199).
[lxv] Macfarlane, “Agents of Control or Chaos?” (p. 11); Globe and Mail (February 18, 1944).
[lxvi] Hollander, Power, Politics, and Principles (pp. 207–208).
[lxvii] Cuthbertson, Labour Goes to War (p. 2).
[lxviii] Bothwell and Kilbourn, C.D. Howe, A Biography (p. 165).