Community or Class in Ladysmith?
- John R. Hinde (Author)
When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sean T. Cadigan
This book rejects western exceptionalism and cultural autonomy as useful in understanding the history of coal miners in Ladysmith between 1900 and 1914. Hinde emphasizes that complex relationships based on ethnicity and gender were as important as class in defining community in Ladysmith. He argues that miners’ skills and the shared dangers of the mines underwrote their solidarity and determination to unionize in confrontation with the mine operators of Ladysmith, the Dunsmuirs. A strike in 1903, arising from their efforts to join the Western Federation of Miners, revealed that the miners desired improvement in their status in the community more than the overthrow of capitalism. Rather than being members of a town polarized along class lines, coal miners lived alongside a middle class that also struggled against the Dunsmuirs in a company town. Although living in separate neighbourhoods, miners, particularly if English Protestants, found that their status as labour aristocrats allowed them some respectability in common with the middle class. Their quest for local respectability through better wages and working conditions led miners to support unions, but also made them exclusionary racists, who refused to organize Chinese workers at the mines. Miners pursued respectability by treating the Chinese as despicable lumpen proletarians.
This racism flared in the Great Strike of 1912-14, as miners struggled for recognition of the United Mine Workers of America. The basic issue of the strike remained miners’ desire for better incomes and working conditions. But a new moral consensus, defined by coal mining women’s greater activism, identified strike breakers as one of the greatest threats to miners’ efforts to improve their respectability in the community. Riots began in August 1913, and targeted Chinese workers. The riots misdirected miners’ energy, offended middle-class notions of respectability, and provided the state with an excuse to overreact by using the military to crack down on the strikers, and to break the strike.
Hinde’s community study is well researched and well grounded in Canadian working-class historiography. However, this book isolates the community of Ladysmith from the broader structures of capitalism. Hinde simplifies the relationship between European and Chinese workers as instances of the former’s “cultural and, to a lesser extent, biological racism.” He argues that the Chinese were no threat to miners, but provides abundant evidence that the Dunsmuirs wanted to use Chinese labour to lower their labour costs and serve as strike breakers. Racism was an intrinsic part of late nineteenth-century capitalism and imperialism. It is unclear what in the community of Ladysmith should have allowed its workers to rise above such racism, or what warrants their blame for the crackdown that ended the Great Strike. This book’s argument that Ladysmith coal miners did not have a socialist program for the end of capitalism overshadows its documentation of an impressive, community-based fight by miners and their women against capitalist exploitation. This fight foundered on community divisions, which reflected the structural problems of capitalism as much as problems within the working-class solidarity of Ladysmith.
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MLA: Cadigan, Sean T. Community or Class in Ladysmith?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 139 - 140)
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