‘Hard times’: On strike 13 months, a daughter follows in her dad’s footsteps

It was 1957 when 400 union members, my dad among them, walked off the job at the gypsum quarry just outside Windsor. Six decades later, I’ve learned what it was like to be in his shoes as I walk the picket line at The Chronicle Herald.

Kelly Shiers Striking Chronicle Herald reporter Kelly Shiers talks with colleagues Roger Taylor and Elissa Barnard on the picket line in front of the Herald offices on Joseph Howe Drive in Halifax on March 7. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)

Thirteen-month-long strikes seem to run in my family.

It is (thankfully) an exclusive club in Nova Scotia, where strikes tend not to take years to resolve.

But I find myself a member — along with 55 colleagues, writing for Local Xpress, urging consumers to boycott advertisers, and walking a picket line along Joseph Howe Drive.

And, in that walking, I follow in the footsteps of my father.

It was 1957 when 400 members  of the Nova Scotia Quarry Workers’ Union Local 294 walked off the job at the gypsum mine just outside Windsor.

The calendar year would change, and the one-year anniversary come and go, before the men had another contract. It’s believed to be the longest strike in the province’s history until 1979 when 25 unionized school bus drivers in Digby hung up their keys during a work stoppage that lasted three-and-a-half years.

Tom Shiers

Kelly Shiers’ father, Tom, at the gypsum quarry just outside Windsor.

My mom, who raised two sons on her own while her husband ducked bullets in Europe during the Second World War, described those months that the quarry workers were on strike as the “hard times.”

My dad — her husband — was president of the union local at that time.

A welder by trade and union troublemaker by any corporate measure, Tom Shiers wasn’t one to back away from a fight.

As their youngest child (born in the decade after it ended), the strike was ancient history to me.

I was a teenager before I realized that some effects lingered.

Simple things, like knowing the home community of so many replacement workers six decades ago, even though no one will ever find “Scabville” marked on a map.

Bitter things, like the families who remained divided and neighbours who never spoke again, after some chose to cross the picket lines that the others walked.

It was a violent time, a troubled time. Perhaps, a time better left buried in the past.

I mention it here anyway.

As I walked through the 13th month of Halifax Typographical Union’s strike, the quarry workers’ stories became real to me in a way people who have never walked a picket line can’t imagine.

And those who have won’t forget.

Those of us who put one foot in front of the other in all kinds of weather talk about how we never really understood what it means to be — to live — on strike, until now.

In some ways, we are lucky. Unions give generously.

Someone stopped me at the grocery store a while ago, commenting half-jokingly that I was still buying food after all these months. “Yes,” I said, in that same only half-joking tone. “This week, my son and I eat, compliments of the Longshoremen.”

Each donation reminds me of the stories Dad told of Cape Breton miners and other groups who came to the aid of their Hants County brothers, boosting the coffers, time and time again. Many unions pledged a dollar per striker per month of the strike, in addition to other contributions.

Passersby today put $5 and $20 bills in our hands, share stories of their times on strike and wish us well as ours continues.
There are regular contributors, such as the man who stops in the afternoons to see if we’d like something at Tim Hortons, the church ladies who think of us when they have luncheon leftovers and former colleagues who dig deep to support us.

The kindnesses we receive remind me of stories told decades ago, of the times when strike pay just didn’t stretch far enough, and a few Windsor businessmen would open their back-office store safes, quietly donating cash to answer the need.

There are differences, of course.

News clipping

A Chronicle Herald cartoon and editorial published Nov. 21, 1958, marking the end of the gypsum workers’ strike. The editorial makes the case for binding arbitration “when it is deemed that public interest has become seriously involved.”

Only four months into the gypsum company strike, Nova Scotia’s elected officials were talking publicly about what could be done to bring the sides together after conciliation attempts failed. The idea of the labour minister appointing an industrial  inquiry commission — the same help asked for on two occasions by the HTU during our  strike — was gaining support from politicians who understood the importance of labour peace to the province’s economy and reputation.

Three months later, the industrial inquiry commission went ahead.  The government of the day didn’t stop there, though. Newspaper accounts say the labour minister set up almost a dozen meetings to bring company and union representatives to the table to iron out a contract. When it seemed only one item was at issue, the premier appealed to both sides to submit the final sticking point to arbitration — what to do with 30 men the company didn’t want to hire back because of alleged union activities during the strike.

Labour officials were warning that a week-long general strike by workers across the province could happen if the company didn’t agree with the premier’s idea, according to a newspaper report from that time. The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour announced it would hold a special meeting to decide what it would do next.

In the end, the company agreed to the arbitration and the quarry workers voted to accept the deal. It would be another month — 14 months since they had walked out of the company gates — before most of the the strikers returned to work.

I lost my father in 2015, a few months before this strike started. He was 99, his memory still sharp.

During our daily visits, he always asked for the latest negotiation news. He gave me invaluable advice to help me through this past year, based on his experiences representing other workers and negotiating contracts for other unions, long after the quarry workers’ strike. Thanks to him, not much has taken me by surprise.

During the last nights of his life, Dad talked out loud in his dreams. Nurses at the Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building told me it sounded to them like he was on strike again, perhaps back  on the picket line at Millers Creek, with family and old friends.

It’s just as likely, though, that it wasn’t a labour struggle in his past, but the strike he saw in my future that was playing out in his mind at that time.

After a lifetime spent on the labour front in one form or another, he knew — better than anyone else in my life — what all of us were facing.

And now I know what my Mom meant.

Reprinted with permission of the Local Xpress, a a free online news site operated by striking members of the Halifax Typographical Union (CWA Canada Local 30130).

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