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Capitalism: from Davis Day to the present day

By: 
Archie Kennedy

June 12, 2015

June 11 is a little known holiday in the mining towns of Cape Breton. In these towns it is known as Davis Day. Here, there is a history of conflict between miners and the coal company. The coal company enjoyed complete and unquestioned support from the Canadian state and the Prime Minister, MacKenzie King. The local history is rife with revolutionary passion and bloody struggles between miners, steelworkers and capitalist tyranny.

It is a history that is sufficiently shameful that few, if any, students have learned about it in school. This history is spelled out in the town square of the town of New Waterford under the title, “Standing the Gaff,” and under a statue of a man named William Davis. This title is a defiant reference to a comment made by mine vice president, J.E. McLurg, who said striking miners “won’t stand the gaff” (referring to starvation). The holiday commemorates William Davis, one of three coal miners who the company police shot on June 11, 1925 at New Waterford Lake. Davis died of his wounds.

The company and the state

In the 1920’s Mine owners cut meager wages, and miners went on strike. The Canadian state dispatched the military to Cape Breton equipped with guns, bayonets and machine guns. In addition the company had paid goons who routinely rode on horseback through the streets of New Waterford terrorizing the people.

Bosses wanted to cut off the power and water to the people of the New Waterford area. They had to take on the miners who soon had the quisling company goons terrified. They began to panic and in the violence, they began shooting, jumping in New Waterford Lake and trying to escape on horseback. The miners pulled many of these cowards off the horses and beat them. A local priest had to intervene to save the life of one of these men who was in the hands of the miners. The miners were understandably angry. The company controlled their water and had cut the supply. They were there to take back the water and to take back the electricity to make life somewhat less unbearable than it had been for them and their families.

The leader of the union, J.B McLaughlin from Scotland, was a fiery leader who understood the nature of capitalism. He had gained a good deal of his education from the brutality he had witnessed before he had come to Canada. The police eventually threw McLaughlin into the penitentiary for reporting on an incident he witnessed in nearby Whitney Pier, where he watched the soldiers beat women and men in the streets. He was convicted on trumped up charges of seditious libel and sentenced to two years in the penitentiary, where he died of pneumonia. The real reason for his imprisonment was that he represented a threat to not only the mine owners, but to the capitalist system in Canada.

The company store, then and now
A significant part of this history was the power of the Company Store and the control that it had over the miners. Many contemporary Cape Bretoners grew up in company houses and back in the day, the miners owed their wages—and as the song says, their souls—to the Company Store. They would work all week in the dangerous coal mines deep beneath the ocean, and at the end of the week the company would "check off" all that was owed. The miners often had little or nothing to show for their work because they were so hopelessly indebted to the company. The company controlled everything: the check off deducted medical bills, water, rent, food, the tools the miners needed to do their jobs. The company however did not gain control over the air the people had to breathe; the steel plant was and still is responsible for Cape Bretoners having some of the highest cancer rates in Canada.

The struggles in Cape Breton against capitalist tyranny were struggles for basic subsistence and human dignity. The essential problem was that the capitalists had control of everything. It was generally assumed, following those hungry days in Cape Breton, that capitalism was reformed. It was a milder Keynesian variety. The days of brutal profiteers making a killing on squeezing every last dime from workers, leaving them destitute, were behind us. That assumption failed to look into the true nature of capitalism. 

The British Empire and Steel Corporation terrorized Cape Bretoners in the 1920's and now the IMF and the World bank are doing the same thing on a much larger scale. The World Bank and IMF have adopted the company store model to the point recipients of their assistance find themselves as Cape Breton families were in during the 1920s. The World Bank and the IMF operate in essentially the same way as the company store did. If you want to understand what's going on in the world today, ask a Cape Bretoner—preferably an old one—about the Company Store. Neoliberalism is squeezing the working classes and the poor all over the planet the same way they had abused the people of Cape Breton a few generations ago. Essentially the idea is to take control of the vital necessities of life and force the people into wage slavery to pay for them. Populations struggling to cope with a faltering and sick capitalist system, are forced to adopt austerity measures that cuts jobs and services while privatizing the water, the medicine, the electricity—everything. 

Collective struggle

As McLaughlin said, "Under capitalism the working class has but two courses to follow: crawl – or fight." The coal and steel industrialists in Cape Breton pushed the workers over that edge and brought forth, as a result, a spirit that lies beneath the surface in all societies and all individuals. That is the spirit of collective struggle and mutual cooperation. It is that spirit, more than anything else that threatens the status quo. Those that harvest from the labour of others understand this reality better than anyone else.

On the island of Cape Breton this revolutionary spirit was awakened and burned with tremendous heat in the 1920s. Evidence that it continues to smoulder and flare and may be found in the spirit and struggles of workers in all nations—from South African miners fighting the company and the state, to people in Ireland fighting water charges, to the campaign to save door-to-door mail delivery across Canada.

As J.B. McLachlan said, “I believe in education for action. I believe in telling children the truth about the history of the world, that it does not consist of the history of kings, or lords or cabinets. It consists of the history of the mass of the workers, a thing that is not taught in the schools. I believe in telling children how to measure value, a thing that is not taught in any school.”

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