The 1949 Canadian Seamen’s Union Strike

The Saint John Story

By: George Vair
The story of the 1949 Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU) strike is an appalling story in the history of the Canadian labour movement and indeed Canadian history in general. It is a story about anti-union shipping companies, who demonstrated a blatant disregard for the law, about a corrupt rival International union that was known for its unlawful violent activities, about a federal government and the RCMP, who aided and abetted these forces and about a Canadian labour movement, who yielded to the pressures of the American labour movement, and betrayed their Canadian brothers.

Yet, it is also a story of determination, solidarity, and heroism of the Canadian merchant seamen and the members of other unions who supported them. The Canadian Seamen’s Union was a democratic union, a union that addressed the concerns of its members for safe working conditions, civilized accommodations and a livable wage. In the late 1940’s, economist H.A. Logan described the CSU in these terms:

It has brought the industry up from a condition of long hours, low pay, lack of ventilation and safety inspection… It has won collective bargaining rights for the crews of the majority of Great Lakes vessels and of some on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards: it has obtained improved feeding and sleeping conditions and brought the four-hour watch system to the merchant fleet…(1)

The CSU was born out of the struggle against the barbaric working and living conditions that existed onboard the Canadian Merchant Fleet and it was the union of choice for the Canadian seamen. Regrettably, the seamen’s legal right to have the union of their choice was never respected. First organized in September 1936, the CSU existed for a mere fifteen years (1936-1951).

When Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, the CSU promptly announced their support for the war effort and pledged not to strike during the conflict. The CSU President advised the government: “We are quite prepared to see that the transportation industry, insofar as water transportation is concerned, operates without interruption.” The Canadian Seamen spent the war years crossing the dangerous North Atlantic, delivering supplies to the troops in Europe. During the war years, sixty-seven Canadian merchant ships were attacked by the enemy, resulting in the deaths of 1,146 Canadian seamen.

Following the war, the union opened negotiations with the shipping companies and the seamen were optimistic about their future. They assumed the sacrifices they made during the war years would put them in a good position to make gains in the post war period. The shipping companies had other ideas. Instead of coming to the bargaining table in good faith, the companies demanded major concessions, accused the union of being infiltrated by communists and attempted to have the union decertified in favour of a company dominated union. These tactics never worked for the shipping companies as the seamen refused to sail with members of the company union, and when votes were held, the seamen choose the CSU ninety-nine percent of the time. All this led to the 1946 Seamen’s strike, which ended in victory for the union when they won the eight-hour day.

When the CSU again opened negotiations with the shipping companies, in 1949, the companies had a new scheme to get rid of the union. While demanding major concessions from the CSU the shipping companies were, unbeknown to the union, negotiating behind their back with the corrupt Seafarers International Union (SIU). The SIU was based in New York and were affiliated with the American Federation of Labour. Their presence in Canada was limited to one small Vancouver Local. They had been kicked out of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) in 1947 for attempting to raid CSU Locals in Vancouver by signing backdoor sweetheart deals with the employers.

The TLC recognized the CSU as the only bona fide trade union for seamen in Canada. However, the union was too grass roots and militant for the shipping companies and the federal government. Their goal was to destroy the CSU. They began by offering backdoor sweetheart contracts to the SIU, who were more than willing to oblige. The arrangement was that the CSU would be forced on strike; the SIU would then break the CSU picket lines and provide the crews to take over the ships. Further, the shipping companies had assurance from the president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, (ILA) Joseph (“King Joe”) Ryan—also based in New York—that the longshoremen would cross the CSU picket lines and work the ships. All this had the approval of the Canadian government.

This must have been more than the companies could have dreamed of. They could now force the CSU on strike and sign sweetheart contracts with the SIU. The SIU members would then break the CSU picket lines and take over the ships and the longshoreman would continue to handle the cargo. The shipping companies, along with the federal government, could stand back, claiming their hands were clean and portray the dispute as a fight between two rival waterfront unions.

In March of 1949, the shipping companies put forward a demand that they knew would force the CSU out on strike. The companies demanded the removal from the contract of the hiring hall. This concession was totally unacceptable to the union as it would mean the end of the CSU. When the union discovered the shipping companies were signing back-door agreements with the SIU they had little choice but to implement strike action. CSU President, Harry Davis, immediately polled the National Executive Board, and on the evening of March 31, 1949 Davis put out the call to strike all deep-sea vessels flying the Canadian colours.

Immediately, CSU members responded by refusing to sail vessels in twenty-six countries, including Britain, South Africa, Australia, British Guiana, Ceylon, New Zealand, Italy, Holland, and many more. In Canada, the seamen struck vessels in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Saint John and other ports. The CSU received strong support, with longshoremen around the world declaring the ships “blacked” and refused to load or unload the ships cargo. Sixty percent of world shipping was affected. Canadian longshoremen belonging to the ILA, however, immediately received orders from their International President in New York—“Work the struck ships or pay the consequences.”

The SIU sent in forty-year old, Iowa-born, Harold Chamberlain Banks (Hal Banks) to head-up the Canadian operation. Never mind that Banks was a convicted felon and had spent three years in San Quentin, the Canadian government welcomed him into Canada with open arms. How could a convicted felon enter Canada? The government would explain that there must have been a typographical error on the form Banks filled out. The question, “Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence?” was missing on his application.(1)

Driving a white Cadillac convertible, Banks arrived in Montreal in the Spring of 1949—where he set up his Canadian Headquarters. He wasted no time in getting down to business, setting loose squads of goons, armed with sawed-off shotguns, axe handles and bicycle chains, to break the CSU picket lines. Seven strikers were shot in Halifax and many others were beaten with axe handles and bicycles chains. Two CSU members were found floating in Vancouver harbour. CSU pickets in other Canadian ports would soon feel the wrath of the SIU tactics.

The plan was simple; the armed goons would arrive first to break the CSU picket lines, then SIU scabs would move in and take over the ships. CSU members were then blacklisted and professional public relations firms were used to discredit and marginalize the union. The SIU continuously referred to the CSU as “the Stalin dominated CSU” and claimed the SIU simply wanted to return the Canadian Merchant Marine to Canadian seamen and take it out of the “clutching hands of the Kremlin.” This was a very successful tactic in 1949. “McCarthyism” was at its peak; it was a time of fear, confusion and paranoia. There was no doubt that some of the CSU leaders had been members of the communist “Labour Progressive Party,” but there was never any evidence to suggest there was any outside influence or that the leadership worked for anything except the betterment of their members.

The Canadian seamen were a hardy bunch. Most had been on their own from a very young age, had lived a dangerous existence during the war years and had walked the streets of some of the most dangerous ports in the world. They were very capable of looking after themselves and not easily intimidated. But they would prove to be no match for Hal Banks and his army of goons, who were aided and abetted by the shipping companies, the Canadian government and the RCMP.

As previously stated, the story of the 1949 CSU strike is an appalling story in the history of the Canadian labour movement. This paper is not intended to tell the history of that strike, which has been adequately covered elsewhere. In 1978, John Stanton—a British Columbia labour lawyer—authored a book entitled Life and Death of the Canadian Seamen’s Union and in 1986, Jim Green produced Against the Tide. Green’s book details the story of the CSU from its birth on the Great Lakes in 1936, to its activities during the war years, to the 1946 and 1949 strikes and to the final death blow to the union in 1951. In 2005, Vancouver-based photographer and filmmaker, Elaine Briere, produced a documentary film entitled Betrayed. It tells the story of the merchant seamen in their struggle to save the merchant fleet and the disgraceful actions of the Canadian government during the 1949 strike. Donald Brittain produced the documentary Canada’s Sweetheart—The Saga of Hal. C. Banks for the National Film Board. That documentary portrays Banks as the gangster that he was and how the Canadian government aided and abetted his illegal activities. Numerous other articles have been written about this important period in Canadian labour history. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is limited to telling the story of what took place on the Saint John waterfront and the principled and heroic stand taken by the leaders of the International Longshoremen Association, Local 273, during the 1949 CSU strike.

When the CSU issued their strike call it affected three ships that were tied up in the Saint John harbour. The “Federal Trader” of the Federal Commerce and Navigation Line had just arrived from Jamaica. The “S.S. Cottrell” of the Elder Dempster Line was tied up at Pier 9 with a load of cargo from South Africa. The third vessel was the “Ottawa Valley” with a load of raw sugar for the local sugar refinery. The CSU representative in Saint John, Edward Reid, said the strike affected about one hundred seamen aboard the three vessels—about thirty-five per ship. Reid said the men were instructed to stay aboard the ships in a “sit-down” strike. There were, also, about 175 other union members in the city. They were “on the beach” awaiting jobs. Reid said these men would be setting up picket lines where the three vessels were tied up.(2)

Meanwhile, Hal Banks announced that the SIU had signed agreements with the Canadian Flag Committee of the Shipping Federation of Canada. He said the agreement with the deep-sea owners was a firm legal contract and would take in all deep-sea vessels operating out of all East Coast Canadian ports.(3) The CSU President, Harry Davis, denounced these agreements as illegal sweetheart contracts. He said the Shipping Federation had a legal duty to bargain with