Estevan, Saskatchewan 1931;
RCMP murders 3 in union recognition strike
By Doug Nesbitt, Rankandfile.ca editor
On September 29 1931, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police murdered three miners in Estevan, Saskatchewan. The miners and their families were striking for union recognition.
In 1931, 600 miners in the Souris coal fields of southeast Saskatchewan faced wage cuts from Western Dominion Collieries. Western Dominion was widely considered to be one of the most brutal employers in the mining industry.
Cave-ins were common because the company refused to buy new lumber for rotting frames. Western Dominion refused to provide adequate ventilation to alleviate high levels of sickness among the workers. The miners worked ten-hour shifts.
Off the job, the miners’ lives were still controlled by the company. The miners and their families lived in company housing: uninsulated tar paper shacks infested with lice and bedbugs. The miners had to shop at company stores to buy all their necessities.
After the wage cuts in 1931, the miners began organizing a union and joined the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada, affiliated to the Workers’ Unity League. The WUL was formed by the Communist Party of Canada in 1929.
After a mass meetings of more than a thousand miners and their families in Taylorton and Estevan, 100 percent of the miners signed union cards in late August 1931.
When the union requested the company sit down and bargain a contract, the mine operators refused to recognize the union, saying they would not bargain with the MWUC because it was led by Communists. In neighbouring Alberta, mine operators had already negotiated with MWUC.
After a vote, miners went on strike September 7. The operators brought in scabs on September 16 to reopen some of the larger pits. Mass picketing stopped the scabs. The mining communities supported the strike in their hundreds.
On September 29, the miners and their wives and children started a caravan tour through Saskatchewan’s coal country to drum up more public support. When they arrived in Estevan with their banners reading “We will not work for starvation wages” and “Down with the company store”, Estevan police blockaded the peaceful procession and refused them passage through town.
Ordered to disperse, the miners refused. The police chief then assaulted one of the miners, leading to a shoving match. The police responded by ordering arrests but the miners and their families resisted, using picket signs and throwing stones to fend off the police attack.
The RCMP, which had been called upon by the municipal government, then opened fire on the crowd.
Three miners, Peter Markunas, Nick Nargan, and Julian Gryshko were killed. Eight other unarmed strikers were wounded by RCMP gunfire.
Firing wildly into the crowd, the RCMP wounded one of their own officers, and hit four bystanders.
After this so-called “riot”, police raided the miners’ family homes and made numerous arrests. Several of the miners were sentenced to hard labour.
Keep on keepin on
Despite the RCMP murders, the miners did not stop their strike.
A week after the police riot, the mine owners conceded the 8-hour day, better wages, rent reductions, and an end to the company store monopoly. In exchange, the miners made the difficult decision to drop their demand for union recognition. They did not win union recognition until the mid-1940s.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the RCMP murders, a local memorial was erected to the three fallen miners.
The municipal authorities, local police and RCMP were vocally opposed to the memorial and demanded the inscription on the tomb be changed. The miners refused.
Shortly after, the memorial was vandalized: “RCMP” was chiseled off the stone memorial.
The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communists, ran a cartoon mocking the coal operators’ hurt feelings and displayed and RCMP officer shedding tears while pointing at the tombstone.
The miners did not win union recognition but improved their lives dramatically, and broke the company’s control over the daily life of the miners’ families. Three miners sacrificed their lives for the cause.
The Daily Worker, October 8 1932
First photo above: The Daily Worker, September 17 1932