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.
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