A martyr to a noble cause
June 11, 2008 · Updated 5:59 PM
A few short weeks ago our neighbour Archie Greenwell passed away and there was considerable note given to his contributions towards advancing the conditions we have come to expect in our workplaces. He is the embodiment of trade unionism at its most generous and forward thinking and he will be remembered for that among other things.
Later this month we have the opportunity to honour a young man who did not survive the efforts to bring union protection and safe conditions to coal mining near Ladysmith. Joseph Mairs was a trade unionist and a coal miner. In the wake of an explosion that killed 32 miners in Nanaimo in 1909, the United Mine Workers of America had been waging a concerted effort for union recognition, the establishment of health and safety committees, the eight hour day and decent wages.
The bitter strike began in September 1912 that lasted until the start of the First World War. The Vancouver and Nanaimo Coal Co. settled in 1913 but the other three owners would not. They brought in strikebreakers and evicted strikers from company housing. Clashes broke out between strikers and the police and strikebreakers at all the mines. The attorney general William Bowser sent in the militia and they remained until the end of the strike.
Striking miners held Ladysmith from August 12th to 15th. Joseph was arrested on August 15, 1913 after the militia retook the town. He was sentenced to one year in Oakalla and a $100 fine. He became ill and receiving no medical attention died on January 20th, 1914 a month short of his 22nd birthday.
His death was recognized by his fellow miners in the United Mine Workers by the raising of a cairn over his grave in the Ladysmith Cemetery. On the Sunday in January closest to the anniversary of his death, trade unionists from the valley gather to pay their respects and celebrate the spirit of resistance and courage that he symbolizes. His life and death serves to remind us that though much time has passed and much progress has been made it is certain that there is still a long way to go before working people achieve complete protections from harm in their work environments and full democracy in the direction of their lives.
A report, entitled Five Deaths a Day: Workplace Fatalities in Canada, 1993-2005, was prepared by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS), a government-funded group and drew on statistics gathered by the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC). This report which was released in December 2006, details the day to day circumstances working people face. An average of five workers died each workday in Canada last year from accidents and job-related disease. This represents an increase of 18 per cent over 2004 and a disquieting 45 per cent increase over 1993.
In fact 1,097 workers were killed in job-related activity in 2005, a condemnation of Canadas workplace-safety record. Fatality rates among Canadian workers are among the highest in the industrialized world.
In our valley we know that our fathers, husbands and brothers continue to die in the woods due to the rapid and careless pace of market driven forestry practices and the evaporation of union presence.
We come together to honour Joseph because now more then ever we must affirm the principle of collective devotion to our common needs. Allowing ourselves to merely find individual solutions to our woes only increases our isolation and seldom brings any reliable answers.
The inscription on Joseph Mairs cairn expresses a spirit that might inspire us to think about our duty to take up the struggle for a better world A Martyr to a Noble Cause the Emancipation of his Fellow Men. Whatever advancements we now have it is because men and women like Joseph fought for them. Whatever progress we have yet to create and bestow on our children will be because we continue to fight for justice, democracy and freedom.