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What Happens to Truth

"Nobody was Seriously Injured"

March 1, 1997 -

Demonstrations and protests are becoming more and more violent these days. Even in our "peaceable kingdom," people are ready to take the law into their own hands.

Last February, an angry crowd of unionized construction workers burned down a partially completed apartment building in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The 1,000-strong crowd—which obstructed police and firefighters while the building burned to the ground—were protesting the presence of nonunion labour.

This ugly incident took place against the background of high unemployment in Nova Scotia. It was also provoked by a 1994 labour law change that eliminated the building trades unions' power to ban nonunion workers from unionized construction sites.

Some tried to excuse, if not justify, this act of violent sabotage. Jim Henley, president of the Mainland Building and Construction Trades Council said: "Did they burn her down? Oh . .. good. Not that I sanction those types of things, but I can understand the frustration that would cause them. There are people who've had no work for two, three, four, five years, have no UIC and are on welfare, totally depressed, family breakups, the whole nine yards. Yet corporate Canada is doing marvellous, isn't it time to get upset?"

Victor Tomiczek, of the Canadian Auto Workers union, said that he wasn't surprised by the destruction of the apartment building. "I was sorry to see it happen but I'm telling you, this is the tip of the iceberg. These are angry, hungry, desperate men." He said that this violence was no different from what happened during the 1920s. "The only real difference is it's not as violent. . . yet."

Politicians and police gingerly tiptoed around this public relations time bomb. Premier John Savage called for moderation and understanding. "I am very much aware of the frustration caused by continuing high unemployment in Cape Breton. But the community as a whole must play a big part in finding solutions. It won't happen overnight. We must all be patient."

Don MacGillivray, a labour historian at the University College of Cape Breton said that the history of unions in Cape Breton provides a better understanding of this violence. He recalled that angry miners in 1952 burned down a mining company's store in protest against low wages and inflated store prices. "What happened is about survival. It's about [fighting] anti-unionism and right-wing agendas. If you push people to the extent these people have been pushed ... they'll fight back."

Heather Cruickshanks, president of the Merit Contractors Association of Nova Scotia, demanded that "goon attitudes" have to change. "It's not fair. What's happened is you have a very small group of unionists—goons—that have decided to do this, and they've tarnished the reputation of a lot of good Cape Bretoners."

The police justified their initial hands-off decision. Police chief Edgar MacLeod said that "we stand by our decision. Definitely there would have been bloodshed had police pursued the matter at that time. ... It's terrible to see that kind of property damage and destruction, [but] nobody was seriously injured."

New leadership needed

While there was a public outcry against those responsible, business and civic leaders tried to undo the damage by arguing this was not a typical action and should not deter companies from expanding or moving into Nova Scotia. All agreed that the underlying problem of unemployment needs to be tackled.

John Coady, mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, pleaded for people to work together to overcome the island's "image problems." "If we don't look at long-term solutions rather than stop-gap measures we'll never solve our problems. And let's face it, we all know that the basic problem that we have here is massive unemployment. And if we can chip away at that, in the long run, that's what's going to resolve our issues here."

High unemployment levels—some say as high as 75 per cent among construction workers in Cape Breton—have serious personal and social consequences. But violence against people, all of whom desperately want to work, is only making the problem worse. To overcome unemployment will require that society be law-based and peaceful—a far cry from what happened at this ugly mob scene.

What no one seems willing to consider is the issue of freedom of association. Forcing people into a union—not to mention banning nonunion workers from worksites—is a form of violence that can never be the basis of healthy labour relations. If unions stopped relying on coercion—and concentrated on representing their members instead—they might be surprised by the results.

What this sad incident of lawless behaviour drives home is that it's a dangerous thing to exploit real economic hardship by setting one group of workers against another. Let's hope that those who predict more of the same are wrong. But that will require a different kind of leadership than that which was behind the mob scene in Sydney, Nova Scotia.