Labour needs more Crilley’s and MacLeod’s

The following article appeared in the 1973 Saint John District Labour Council “Convention Journal.” The Journal was distributed at the New Brunswick Federation of Labour convention—held in Saint John June 4th-6th of that year. The Labour Council asked—the then Editor of the New Freeman—Bob Merzetti to write an article for the Journal on two long-time labour leaders in Saint John, who had recently retired. In March of 1973 Merzetti sat down with Angus MacLeod and Frank Crilley. As a result of that interview, Bob Merzetti produced the following article.

March 1973—Frank Crilley (left) and Angus MacLeod chat with Bob Merzetti

By: Bob Merzetti (1973)

An accidental meeting in a room in the Saint John General Hospital in 1936 created what was to become a life long friendship between two men you will read about in these pages. This meeting happened, in fact, because of two accidents…a broken back and a crushed shoulder.

The back, belonging to the warm, gentle Angus MacLeod and the shoulder, the property of bold and brazen Frank Crilley, both mended. The recovery was partly due to a couple of fifths of cognac, snugly secured at the bottom of a basket of fruit and delivered to Mr. Crilley’s room from his pals on the waterfront.

In the spirit of sharing, which was to solidify over the years, the friendship was christened and was only to grow because of a deep understanding of “what it was all about” gave them strength to pursue the “movement” which was underway. And the movement was trade unions.

Lets go back a few years, prior to this chance meeting in 1936. The scene is Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1916 and Angus MacLeod is about to graduate from Sydney Academy. “When I was just a young lad, going to grade school, I remember some nights when my father would scoot us kids upstairs to bedrooms when some men came to the house. When I was questioned on the street the day following these meetings as to who were the visitors that came to the house I honestly couldn’t tell them. Only later did I realize that Dad was holding meetings to organize unions and that the strangers seeking information from me were going to inform those who had interests in preventing men becoming organized.”

Although his parents had less-than-modest means, Angus MacLeod nevertheless was persuaded by them to complete his courses and graduate. His father, who shovelled coal for ships going up the St. Lawrence, knew the value that education would serve his son in years to come.

“After graduation in 1916, I worked as an apprentice in a machine shop in Sydney. I worked a ten hour day for seventy-five cents, which was low in those days even though we were organized in a local of the International Association of Machinists.”

“The following year, I went to the Sydney Steel Works and worked in the blast furnace department. The plant wasn’t organized and we put in a six-day week, alternated by a seven-day week. And the work days were eleven hours by day and thirteen hours by night.”

“The men were convinced that a union was the only answer to these long, backbreaking hours and so in 1919 we organized a local of the International Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, which was later to become the United Steel Workers of America. I was just a lad of twenty at the time.”

When the Steel Works closed down in 1921, Angus headed out for Saint John and worked in Fleming’s Foundry on Station Street, which at the time was one of the biggest machines works in Eastern Canada.

“Later, the same year, I became employed in the tool room at the Saint John Dry Dock. There was only one union in the Dock. In fact there were few unions anywhere at that time. Finally, in 1929, we organized a local and became affiliated with the International Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Welders ad Helpers of America. There was strong resistance to unions then. When a man was employed, he had to sign a paper that he wouldn’t join a union, but the men went ahead and organized anyway.”

In 1931, when an agreement was up for negotiations, the Dock management wanted the labourers to take a ten-cent-an-hour decrease. This would ensure the company of a contract to repair a tanker for Imperial Oil. Owned by Eastern Steamships at that time, the Dock closed down for two months. When it re-opened after the union disbanded, there was no job for Angus, who just happened to be the chairman of the negotiating committee for the union. Despite this temporary setback, he proceeded to find employment grinding spices and roasting peanuts for G.E. Barbour for fifteen dollars, working a forty-eight hour week.

It was during this period of employment that Angus broke his back in a fall and convalesced in the same hospital room with Frank Crilley. Because of his crushed shoulder, Crilley couldn’t shave. When first confronted by this bearded spectacle, Angus thought he was “rooming” with a rabbi. However, those fears were soon dispelled and the antics of the two made them the dread of the hospital. Their carrying-on was partly due to the fact that a flu epidemic was prevalent in Saint John and no visitors were allowed in the hospital. And fruit baskets with pleasant surprises hidden at the bottom broke any boredom, which might have crept in.

Another life-long friendship was simultaneously sparked from Angus’s current employment, this time with a fourteen-year-old newspaper boy named Jimmy Bell. Jimmy could always count on a “tip” from customer Angus—a bag full of freshly roasted peanuts. Young Jimmy went on to become Secretary-Treasurer of the Marine Workers Federation, but that’s another story.

In 1940, Angus MacLeod went to work at the Saint John Iron Works, where only one shop was organized. Shortly thereafter, all shops at the Iron Works became organized and affiliated in the Canadian Steelworkers Union. It was coincidental that, at the same time, Jimmy Bell was organizing the Dry Dock Steel department with the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Young Bell was coming along quickly, and he and Angus were instrumental in amalgamating both their groups into Local 3 of the I.U.M.S.A. In spite of strong attempts by company managements, workers of E.S. Stephenson, J. Fred Williamson and the Saint John Machine Company were also organized around the same time.

During this period, Locals in Halifax, Dartmouth, Sydney, North Sydney, Lunenburg, Liverpool, Mategan and Pictou formed a Federation of Marine Workers with Angus as 2nd vice-president, and attempted to affiliate with other groups from British Columbia and Collingwood, Ontario to form a National Federation, but this didn’t materialize.

His drive and willingness to accept responsibility and the hard work that went with it, was increasingly recognized by his fellow-men, and in 1945 Angus became full-time New Brunswick regional representative for the Canadian Congress of Labour. During this time, he set up the New Brunswick Council of Labour, which affiliated with the CCL and also assisted in organizing the Saint John Labour Council. He served as president of the New Brunswick Council of Labour until it merged with the New Brunswick Federation of Labour in 1956.

He returned to the Saint John Iron works from 1951 to 1960 when he became Business Agent for Local 3 of the Industrial Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of Canada. He was elected secretary of the Local in 1961. His retirement in September 1971 was marked by a testimonial dinner, during which he was presented with a special plaque citing his contribution to labour during his many years as a trade unionist.

Cape Breton native John “Lofty” MacMillan, director of organization for the Canadian union of Public Employees, praised Angus McLeod during that dinner by recalling “He always had the welfare of the working people in mind. He was always willing to give that extra hour or day to the workers”

During various times in Saint John, Angus has served as labour representative on the Regional Advisory Committee of the Unemployment Insurance, on the Saint John Family Welfare Committee and the Committee for the Survey and Investigation of Private Nursing Homes for the Aged.

He is married to Margaret Nunn and has eight children: two boys, Edward and Angus, and six girls: Margaret, Doris, Vivian, Donna, Lois and Sylvia. All are married. He has forty-four grandchildren and six great children.

“In looking back,” Angus states, “My main objective from 1941 was organizing workers on an industrial basis. All Marine Federation Locals have been industrial unions as opposed to craft unions.”

“I believe that greater emphasis should be placed in Canadian Unionism by all Canadian workers, that is, the entire working force as distinct from management. We should also have autonomous Canadian unions and make our own policies. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have good fraternal relations with all international unions as we presently have with the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers.”

Asked if there were some outstanding figures he remembers over the years? Angus thought for a few seconds, brushed back his full stock of white hair and replied, “Yes, I would say that I recall many but the outstanding men who come to mind immediately are Horace Pettigrove, who was a federal conciliation officer and is presently vice-chairman of the New Brunswick Public Service Labour Relations Board: Douglas Cochrane, who was a conciliation officer when the Labour Relations Act was first set up and who later became Deputy Minister of Labour for the Province and Chief Justice Charles A. Hughes who was the first chairman of the Labour Relations Board.

“And I must not forget to mention Jim Bell who has made, in my opinion, the greatest contribution to the labour movement in Canada over the years.”

What else can be said to Angus McLeod, who gave over fifty years of service to the Labour Movement but a sincere “thank you” from all the working class…past, present and to come. Perhaps the words of the following anonymous poem, which is a favourite of Frank’s, would help Angus return the compliment:


It is my joy in life to find,
At every turning of the road,
The strong arm of a comrade kind,
To help me onward with my load.
And since I have no gold to give,
And love alone must make amends,
My only prayer is, while I live,
God make me worthy of my friends.

Possibly the life of Frank Crilley could be divided into two parts…before the hospital stay with Angus MacLeod…and after. Maybe it didn’t cross Frank’s mind at the time, but the chances are good that he learned a lot of “what had to be done” as he lay in his bed next to Angus and discussed the plight of the workingman.

The son of an Irish immigrant, who came to Saint John and worked as a bricklayer, Frank Crilley learned about the labour movement early in life, as his father was a long-time member of the Bricklayers, Masons and Plasters International of America.

Frank attended local schools and graduated from St. Vincent’s Boys High School. After attending St. Joseph’s University, he went to New Jersey in 1927 to work with the Lehigh Valley Railway Co and returned to Saint John in 1930. His working career in Saint John started in 1931 when, working as a longshoreman, he toiled a nine-hour day, six days a week for seventy cents an hour, when work was available. In those days, there was a working force of about twenty-eight hundred longshoremen on the docks compared to seven hundred today. The CPR also employed approximately one hundred, six-man gangs in the daytime and forty gangs at night.

“Because we only worked from November to May, it was virtually impossible for any of us to get ahead financially. We had to grab any type of job we could get during the summer, ‘to keep the wolf away.’ If you were lucky enough to be on friendly terms with an M.L.A. on the government side, then a note from him might get you a job working on the roads at twenty-five cents an hour. Or you might catch on with a construction gang at the same rate. Good jobs, such as timekeepers, went to the Rothesay crowd because they contributed to both parties to insure everlasting patronage. Other fellows, not so lucky, might fish salmon in the harbour or paint houses, but even these means of part-time income have decreased in recent years.”

In 1938, Frank re-organized the steamship checkers and got them a charter from the International Longshoremen Association. He found work either as a checker or a cooper when he couldn’t find work on the docks. Two years later, he was part of the negotiating team who pressed for an eight-hour day for the men, one hour less than they were working. Claiming they couldn’t survive, the Shipping Federation balked at first, but finally gave in when the men refused to work the longer day.

While working the banana boats. Frank ran up against some unfriendly immigrants. Not the two-legged variety but snakes, tarantulas and spiders that slept peacefully around the incoming stalks of bananas. Because of the cold areas of the boats in which the bananas were shipped, these “visitors” were in a dormant state and thus not too lively or dangerous, although Frank once suffered blood poisoning in his hand from a bite by a black widow spider. Oddly enough…Crilley survived and the spider didn’t. “Maybe that tells you something about me,” Frank Chuckled.

Straightening his glasses and artistically doodling on a piece of scratch paper, Frank related experiences of company activity on the waterfront in 1940 which was intended to split the workers against themselves. “They would bring checkers down from Montreal and give them most of the work, including thirty-hour stretches, in an effort to create dissention between the two groups of workers. However, this backfired because great harmony existed among the men and Saint John men would also go to Montreal for the summer work schedule.”

The local longshoremen then appealed to the Canadian Shipping Federation for a fair deal, with everyone being treated equitably. The only remaining “fly in the ointment” seemed to be one Frank Crilley. Singing a contract negotiated by Frank would give the “upstart” much credence with the men on the docks, and this was a bitter pill for the companies to swallow. Frank was just too sharp and well liked by the men for the companies’ good. So Frank Crilley became blacklisted on the waterfront by the local chairman of the Shipping Federation, getting exactly four hours work on the docks during the winter season.

Down but not out, Frank took whatever work he could, including shovelling snow on the CPR tracks for twenty-five cents an hour. Shortly thereafter, the chairman of the ILA negotiating team got the signed contract for an eight-hour day, an increase in pay and better working conditions, particularly during inclement weather conditions, partly due to the spadework done by Crilley.

Frank joined the Canadian Army in 1940 and was accepted for a special officer-training course in Sussex, N.B. However, due to health reasons the Army soon gave him a medical discharge. After working as a steamship checker at the Sugar Refinery for two years, Frank accepted a position with the Ship Stores Administration. In 1945, he became representative, until the office closed in 1948. He still held offices in the ILA and the checkers union all this time.

After returning to check for the ILA for two year, Frank went to the CNR as a freight checker in 1950, but got only seven days work that year. He also organized Local 297 of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers, but didn’t get a contract until 1952 with support from Local 273 of the ILA.

In 1950, the workers of CNR agreed to become organized as long as Frank Crilley wouldn’t hold an office. They felt that Frank was too radical and their job would be in jeopardy with him in their organization. However, just one year later, they elected Frank to office. Quite a tribute to someone whose presence was feared by these same men just one year before. Incidentally, Frank held every elected office in Local 297 of the CBRT & GW. From 1967 to 1970 Frank was national chairman of the CBRT & GW’s Board of Trustees.

He remained with CNR as a freight checker until his premature retirement in November 1972. Lung condition, caused and aggravated by dockside pollution (chemicals being shipped, carbon monoxide from lift jacks, etc.) became too severe and Frank wound up in hospital and subsequently retired. To this day, Frank must visit the hospital at lease once a week, sometimes more often, for inhalation therapy. Pills are also necessary to combat his affliction.

Labour unions were not the only beneficiaries of Frank’s tireless efforts over the years. He was always pressing for better social conditions for all of the underprivileged and he spearheaded many representations to governments for family allowances, old age pensions, blind assistance, mothers’ (or widows’) allowances, workers compensation, safety regulations and many other innovations. Frank and others who had similar views were often called “Commies,” “Reds” and other such names from people who probably couldn’t even define the work communist. “Imagine, vacation with pay… why you people will break the company’s treasury” was heard with boring repetition when Frank and his contemporaries were battling against the corporate structures.

Asked what is the major challenge for the young labour leaders of today, Frank had no hesitation in seconding the statements of Angus MacLeod. “We must have complete Canadian autonomy of all international unions in Canada,” Frank emphasized. “We can certainly have co-operation with the internationals, but dictatorship from across the border must go.

Frank continued that,” Today’s labour leaders must also realize that technological advances have outdistanced wisdom, and those in control do not know how to deal with them. Therefore, increased corporate profits continue to have top priority with the corporations. It is a frightening picture to see so many trade unionists and labourers being made redundant because of scientific advancement, with no worry whatsoever as to what happens to the employment situation.”

An admirer in the trade union movement? “No question about it! Jimmy Bell is the best labour representative in the country.” Bell is secretary-treasurer of the Marine Workers Federation and of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. “Other outstanding labour leaders who come to mind are Paul LePage, Valerie Bourgeois and Fred Hodges.” LePage is the president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and Bourgeois, former secretary-treasurer and now with the International Association of Machinists, both being French-speaking show the unity which pervades at the Federation as, year after year, they are and were elected to office by acclamation. Other segments of our population could well take a lesson from the Federation on recognition of all ethnic groups in the province.”

“I was also very pleased to have nominated a black, Fred Hodges, of Saint John to the office of vice-president with the Federation when I decided not to reoffer.” Fred is also president of the Saint John District Labour Council. These men are truly great Canadians. Prejudice and discrimination have no place in the labour movement, or should they be present in any facet of our society.”

“We are also very proud of the progress of Saint John native John Simonds. John was president of the Sugar Refinery local of the International Union of Bakery and Confectionary Workers before accepting a position with the Canadian Labour Congress. John is now the national executive secretary of the Congress in Ottawa, and I’m sure that he is going right to the top. And let’s not forget Allen McEachern who, as the federal minister of Health and Welfare in 1966, implemented the Canada Pension Plan despite strong opposition from the Insurance companies. Trade unions gave that legislation unqualified support as they had been fighting for it for twenty-five years.”

“The late Jim Whitebone has to be mentioned here as well. I was associated with Jim for over thirty years, and I knew him to be a highly intelligent, dedicated, self-sacrificing trade unionist with a great deal of executive ability and certainly a master of diplomacy.”

“We must always remember that human values are much more important than material values or scientific advancement.” These lines of Edwin Markham, often quoted by Father Michael Cody, founder of the famous institute in Antigonish would be appropriate:

We are all blind unless we see,
That in the human plan,
Nothing’s worth the making,
If it does not make the man.

Why build these cities gloriously,
If man unbuilded goes,
In vain we build the world,
Unless the builder grows.

Truly a self-educated man, Frank Crilley appreciates good music, novels and poetry.

Guts, grit and determination are only a few of the necessary requirements for men to have accomplished what Frank Crilley and Angus MacLeod did for the labour man during the developing years. We join with their many friends and associates in wishing them comfort, peace, happiness and satisfaction in their retirement years. And how better could we end this visit than to quote the following favourite lines from a poem by John Dryden:

The leaves of perhaps our last Autumn are falling,
Half spent is the fire that must soon cease to burn.
How many are absent who heed not our calling?
Alas! and how many who cannot return.

Angus MacLeod and Frank Crilley, even though retired, still find time to give their sought after advice on union matters to the younger leaders now carrying on.

Note: Frank Crilley passed away on June 19, 1982 and is resting in St. Josephs Cemetery. Angus MacLeod passed away on December 13, 1980 and is resting in Fernhill Cemetery.