Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

"By Wisdom, Wile or War:" The Provincial Workmen's Association and the Struggle for Working-Class Independence in Nova Scotia, 1879-97

Document type Article
Author McKay, Ian
Journal Labour / Le Travail
Volume 18
Date 1986 Fall
ISSN 0700-3862
Pages 12-62


Although the provincial Workmen's Association, founded in Springhill, Nova Scotia, in 1879, represented the greatest achievement of maritime workers in the nineteenth century, historians, guided by the records and recollections left by Robert Drummond and the union's demise in the massive strikes of 1909-11, have generally considered it as a highly conservative union, wedded to a conciliatory approach to management and reluctant to use the strike weapon. This article suggests, in contrast, that the PWA was never personified by Drummond and that the union was a remarkably decentralized body. Until 1885 it was a loose federation of craft lodges; from 1886 to 1890 it was a slightly more unified quasi-independent political and industrial movement; and from 1891 to 1897 it was a movement split between highly militant mainland lodges and more accommodating lodges in Cape Breton. This diversity within the union not only meant that highly militant and relatively quiescent lodges coexisted within it, but that there were equally striking ideological tensions, within both the "official philosophy" of the union as enunciated by Drummond, and within the "vernacular philosophy" of the rank and file. An overemphasis on Drummond's vision of "class harmony" has led historians to slight his zeal for radical democratic change and working-class independence; a corresponding preoccupation with the sources composed by Drummond — virtually all the sources usually cited in studies of the union — has obscured the less articulate, less developed, and far more important "vernacular" outlook of the rank-and-file miners, who fought tenaciously and even violently for working-class independence. Moreover, static appraisals of these tendencies at both the upper and lower levels of the union miss crucial shifts within them over time: a shift from a heavily-qualified paternalism to an explicitly political critique of industrial and political autocracy in the mid-1880s, and a shift to a drastic polarization between progressive militants and Liberal Party traditionalists in the mid-1890s. Except for the period 1895-7, in which the leadership was coopted by the Liberal Party, the PWA on both its upper and lower levels was serious about its pursuit of working-class political independence, and its lobbying achieved a record of political and social reforms unparalleled in nineteenth-century Canada. As a participant in some of Canada's largest nineteenth-century labour wars, and as an important force for the winning of working-class political rights, the PWA deserves to be remembered as one of the most successful and militant social movements in the maritime provinces.