First major railway strike in Western Canada — CPR and engineers at odds over wages

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

The Canadian Pacific Railway’s financial constraints backfired when it came to labour relations as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers resolved to oppose their pay cut. 

In a meeting with John Egan, the general superintendent of the CPR’s western division, the engineers presented an ultimatum asking for $4 a day for a 12-hour work day and 35-cents an hour for overtime. They further demanded that switch engineers be paid $110 per month for a 12 hour work day and 30 cents an hour for any overtime. The firemen, who allied themselves with the engineers, demanded a 40-cent increase to the $1.85 a day they were then receiving.

Egan promised to send their request to William Cornelius Van Horne, the general manager of the CPR, but said a reply would take up to 10 days. The delegation said they would give Egan just 24 hours for the reply. Egan answered that it would take only 24 seconds to make up his mind, indicating he had quickly formulated a plan of action.

The next day, Egan ordered master mechanic Reid to prepare a form — Circular No. 2  — for the engineers to sign (Circular No. 1 was the form all CPR employees were previously required to sign to keep their jobs). Under the terms of the circular, the men agreed to accept employment at the proposed rate reduction or not be allowed to return to work.

“The climax (of this action) soon brought on the trouble,” wrote the Free Press.

“This morning the engineers went to the round-house, as usual, to take their engines and were asked to sign the agreement,” reported the New York Times on December 12, 1883. “They refused and returned to their homes.” 

Engineers and firemen across the line, working in Portage la Prairie, Brandon, Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, Regina, Calgary and Swift Current, also refused to sign the agreement, initiating a strike action which brought trains to a standstill throughout the West. Strikers at the Lakehead told brotherhood headquarters in Winnipeg they would “hold the fort ’til the grass grows green.”

In reaction to the work stoppage,  Egan issued an order to close all workshops along the line from Northwestern Ontario to the foothills of the Rockies.

“Probably no event since the Riel rebellion (1869-70) has caused a greater sensation in the Province,” said the Winnipeg Daily Sun, “and throughout the Northwest, than the present trouble between the Canadian Pacific Railway and their employees, whereby nearly 3,500 of the latter are thrown out of employment. No more unfortunate event could have occurred at this particular period of the history of the country.”

Among the Winnipeg daily newspapers, the Manitoba Free Press was the most vehemently opposed to the strike, siding with the CPR throughout the work stoppage. “In this unfortunate affair the CPR are entitled the fullest support of public opinion,” claimed a December 12 editorial. 

The editorial writer said the wage reductions imposed on workers by the CPR were not unreasonable, as “every man has a right to bear a share of the deprivations incident to dull times.” Furthermore, the editor remarked that the strike was the result of “arbitrary demands by an unreasoning tyranny;” a scathing reference to the local executive of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. “Strikes we believe are never justifiable on principle,” according to the editorial writer.

The Free Press was regarded as so biased towards the CPR by the engineers that its reporters were barred from brotherhood meetings during the strike. 

The Winnipeg Daily Sun said there was great excitement in Winnipeg over the strike, or “lock-out, as it should be appropriately designated ... Little else is talked about, and speculation is rife as to the ultimate result.”

The newspaper predicted trade in the city would be paralyzed, and it was feared there would be a scarcity of coal for heating. At Medicine Hat, 68 carloads of coal, totalling 1,100 tons, was left on a siding due to the strike. Normally, 200 tons of coal was shipped daily out of Medicine Hat.

Many Winnipeg merchants feared the strike would prevent the arrival of shipments in time for the Christmas season.

“Crowds continue to loiter about the CPR station out of morbid curiosity,” reported the Sun. “If an engine is heard to whistle, or seen to steam in sight, up go the windows in the general offices, and scores of bare-headed clerks are poked out to see ‘what’s up.’

“In the yard everything is unusually quiet ... Occasionally an engine is observed to steam down the yard in a cautious manner, for the man at the lever is not practiced.”

When a rumour spread that the last train heading south would pull out of the depot, the Sun reported on December 12, “a surging multitude had gathered ... to witness the start and watch the result, as it was expected by a great many that there would be trouble.”

As the train pulled up to the station platform at 8:30 p.m. with Reid, the master mechanic, at the controls, the Sun said his “face was a trifle pale, and as he beheld the surging crowd, it assumed a firm cast.”

“All aboard!” shouted the conductor, while elbowing his way through the crowd. Up strode Egan, who entered one of the cars. The train passed through the crowd without incident, but just outside the station yard there was a scare when “two torpedoes” exploded on the track. It was determined that the firecrackers had been placed on the track by “some mischievous person” out to have some fun. The train arrived safely at Emerson.

The Sun interviewed Egan in his office, who said it was the CPR’s intention to prosecute the men for abandoning the trains on the mainline, calling them “wicked at heart as to disregard the interests of the company ... and recklessly expose its property to destruction.” He singled out engineer William Still, who had stopped the train on the mainline at Whitemouth and deserted the engine. “It was a scoundrelly action and we will punish him as the law allows,” said Egan.

The general superintendent went as far as to blame Still’s action for the closing of the CPR shops in Winnipeg “to protect the company’s property,” according to an article in the Free Press.

Egan also mentioned an incident involving “that fellow (James) McKenzie,” who was bringing in a freight train from the West. When the engine mounted the switch at the west end of the yard in Winnipeg, he said nothing and deserted the train.

Egan promised to make no compromises with the striking engineers, telling the reporter he had the support of Van Horne, who he was in constant  communication with via telegram. 

To emphasize his resolve to fight the strikers, Egan assured meatpackers and farmers any livestock held up in freight cars would be fed “for three months, if necessary” at the CPR’s expense.

When told that the brotherhood would not allow any train to leave the city, Egan replied, “We can get along without running trains.”

A Winnipeg-based machinist interviewed following Egan’s decision to close the CPR shops told a Sun reporter, the machinists had accepted the wage reduction “without any grumbling ... This lock-out in the shops comes pretty hard on men with families, but I suppose it was necessary to close the shops, for, as Mr. Egan said, when the shops were open they were at the mercy of the strikers.”

The machinist told the reporter that when Still left the train at Whitemouth, he was only obeying brotherhood orders. “All this talk about him having done a dangerous act by leaving the train on the way is nonsense ... it is just as safe there as in front of the station here.”

The machinist said it was better for the man to obey the brotherhood as “they will stand up for him, whereas, if he stayed with the company, and was afterwards discharged — as has often been the case — the brotherhood would use their strength against him in the future.”

Following a meeting of the executive committee of the strikers, another reporter was told by James Slavin, acting president of the brotherhood, that their demands were not excessive. He said that the engineers, “estimating their runs at the rate of 2,600 miles per month — that is a month of 26 working days at the regular run of 100 miles per day — we asked on an average 15 cents less per 100 miles than we ever received on this road. If we sometimes make more than the regular wages per day, we have to pay for it in losing our rest.”

Slavin gave the example of himself working for 10 days and having just three hours sleep. “If I have to work day and night because engineers are scarce, is it not fair that I should be paid double? ... All we’re asking is a fair remuneration for our labour, in order to be on an equity with the men on the other lines (such as the St. Paul, Minnesota and Manitoba Railway).” Slavin said Egan was solely responsible for stopping the trains, since he had tried “to force the men to sign an agreement which no man could agree to.”

Another engineer mentioned health concerns as another issue that had to be resolved. He claimed many of the engineers suffered kidney damage as a result of being tossed about as an engine pulled a train along the tracks. The working career of an engineer was said to be limited to just 10 years due to health issues.

The brotherhood referred to their occupation as “dangerous.”

Newspapers reported the 150 engineers in Winnipeg earnestly wanted a settlement and would return to work provided Egan consented to an interview with the grievance committee. On the other hand, Egan was adamant in his refusal to concede to their demands.

Two days after the strike started, Van Horne wired Egan that he had hired workers from as far away as Massachusets to replace the strikers. Even before the replacements arrived, the CPR had recruited a number of “old hands,” such as a retired engineer who was then a Member of the Manitoba Legislature from Portage la Prairie, to operate some of the trains. CPR assistant traffic manager William Harder took over the controls of a train from Emerson to Winnipeg.

Even Egan served as a strikebreaker, taking on the role of engineer. During a trip to Emerson, the freight train he was operating ran into a mail train at Niverville. Egan denied responsibility for the accident, which caused extensive  damage to the mail train. At the time of the accident, he said the engine was being operated by  a “young man,” while he momentarily left to send off a telegram.

Egan said he expected to continue running an engine “for a week ... a month if necessary.” He proudly told reporters he had acquired an engineer’s jacket and had ordered a pair of overalls to complete his uniform.

A replacement engineer and fireman bringing the first freight train from the west since the strike had started were attacked when they pulled into Brandon. By the time the police arrived, the two replacement workers — the engineers called all replacement workers “scabbers” — had been “punished badly” and the mob had dispersed.

As a result of the attack, Egan telegramed the Brandon mayor demanding that replacement workers be protected “to the fullest extent of the law regardless of any expense,” or the CPR would not run trains into the community.

The mayor sent a telegram to Egan promising the trouble would get his full attention. Egan then sent a second telegram to the mayor saying Brandon had been the only place in Manitoba where men had been prevented from working by “a howling mob,” adding that any expenses incurred by protecting men and property would be paid by the CPR.

At the request of Egan, members of the Manitoba Provincial Police (disbanded in the 1930s) were dispatched to Brandon “to watch the men who have been acting in an ugly manner.”

The Free Press called the attack on the replacement workers “contemptable,” and acts of sabotage “dastardly deeds.”

While being interviewed, T.A. Gorham, the assistant to Egan, showed a Free Press reporter a bullet hole in Egan’s office window, implying the strikers had been responsible.

Gorham said the bullet hole, “that would seem to indicate malice,” together with other incidents, including threatening letters, “has rendered it absolutely necessary to increase the police force” protecting CPR lines. Across Western Canada, the North West Mounted Police (now RCMP), provincial police and special constables hired by the CPR guarded trains and stations.

There were more incidents attributed to the strikers, such as a pin placed in the “slide” of a passenger engine in Brandon. The act of sabotage had the potential to wreck the engine, but was noticed by a replacement engineer before any damage was done. 

The Stonewall switch linking the branch line with the main line was chained into a position. A watchman noticed the chain and removed it before a train could be derailed. 

In another instance, a freight driver did not show up for work in Port Arthur due to injuries suffered during an earlier attack. Police and special constables guarded the Port Arthur train as pieces of coal were hurled at the engine.

In Winnipeg, replacement worker Frank Sawyer, an engineer on the eastern division of the CPR, said he had been in the Oriental Saloon when he was attacked by a man, who shouted, “You are one of the scabbers, d---- you.” A barroom brawl erupted with fists and chairs flying. Sawyer, who said he came west at the request of Van Horne, escaped the mêlée, fleeing to his hotel room. Swayer told a Sun reporter, he recognized one engineer among his assailants.

Further investigation revealed that Sawyer was intoxicated and had instigated the fight by proclaiming for all to hear that he didn’t “give a d---- for any striker or anyone else.”

It was reported that strikebreaker Frank Grabo had to be rushed to hospital after smoking a poisoned cigar while operating an engine on the Stonewall branch line. It was alleged the cigar was given to Grabo by a striker who had unsuccessfully pleaded with him not to take the engine out of the rail yard.

John H. Bell, a Manitoba MLA and manager of the Northwest Lumber Company in Winnipeg, experienced the effect of the strike first-hand during a train trip from Medicine Hat to Winnipeg. Bell said after finishing his company business in Medicine Hat, he was stuck in Swift Current en route to Winnipeg. “When we got to Swift Current the engineers found the circular waiting for their signature. They would not sign, and of course could not work. Well, we stayed there from Tuesday to Thursday at noon.”

In desperation, Bell telegrammed a CPR official for a hand cart to get him to Moose Jaw. The reply he received offered a ride on a railway three-wheeled velocipede operated by a telegram worker. The vehicle was light enough to be swung off the tracks to make way for trains, and made an excellent track inspection car. 

“Well, we started on the velocipede,” said Bell. “It was very cold weather, and we had to stop at every way-station to warm ourselves.”

As they made their way down the tracks in the evening, frost on the rails caused the wheels of the vehicle to slip. When they came to a curve, the velocipede tumbled off the rails, throwing Bell nearly 10 metres away and his companion so far that Bell lost sight of him. Uninjured, the two men righted the machine and proceeded on their way. Twenty-four hours after starting out, they arrived in Moose Jaw, a distance of about 180 kilometres.

On Sunday, he caught a ride on a train that had returned from Regina with a detachment of North West Mounted Police set out to protect CPR property. After going just 10 kilometres, they noticed something was wrong with the engine. After coming to a stop, they walked down the track and found pieces of machinery strewn about. They collected the pieces and made repairs, “but fate was against us, and we lost more machinery. Another tedious delay was caused, but we reached Broadview.”

Bell finally reached Winnipeg two days later, where he told the Sun reporter: “You might add to the story that I never want to be caught (again) away from home during a railway strike.”

Punch Wheeler, the advance representative of the Only a Farmer’s Daughter theatrical company, which had an engagement in Winnipeg to present the play A Woman’s Triumph, when told of the strike was undeterred and chartered a hand-cart at St. Vincent, Minnesota. With “two stalwart Norwegians” helping him propel the vehicle along the rails, Wheeler completed the trip to Winnipeg, a distance of over 100 kilometres.

He told reporters he regretted the strike, “but it will not interfere with their engagement, as Joseph Frank, the manager, is an old-time engineer, having been connected with the New York Central (for) several years.”  

By the time Bell left Swift Current, the solidarity of the strikers was evaporating. 

Most alarming for the local brotherhood was the fact that P.M. Arthur, the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers based in Cleveland, Ohio, had refused a request to come to Winnipeg in support of the strikers. In fact, statements from Arthur implied he supported the CPR at the expense of the Winnipeg workers.

“Men at such times as these ought to proceed with great deliberation and caution,” Arthur said, according to a report in the New York Times on December 17, 1883, “as there are many men even now out of work and railway business is extremely light.”

It wasn’t surprising that Arthur failed to support the Winnipeg membership of the brotherhood, since a month earlier he had similarly denied a request from striking American railway telegraph workers to join their cause. At the time, he felt no compunction to show solidarity with other labour movements, saying the brotherhood “refused to have anything to do with them and therein lies the secret of our success.”

As more trains pulled into depots across Western Canada, the engineers recognized the strike was nearing an unsuccessful conclusion.

Egan expressed confidence that regular train traffic would be restored as early as December 17. On that day, six passenger trains were dispatched from Winnipeg. 

With Egan remaining steadfast in opposing the strikers’ position, a telegram was sent by P. Taylor of the brotherhood to Van Horne, asking him to withdraw “Circular No. 2” and to give his consent to a new schedule of wages equal to the pay of St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway engineers. P. Taylor’s telegram  ended with, “All offers by J.M. Egan to the engineers and firemen have failed to bring about a settlement.”

Of course, Van Horne fully backed Egan’s actions — or lack thereof — since the western division head was implementing Van Horne’s strike-breaking strategy designed to make the strikers buckle under to the company’s demands. Van Horne used the threat to fire every striker in order to force the increasingly-desperate men back to work.

At pulpits across the city, priests denounced the strike. Rev. A. E. Cameron told his Baptist parishioners that history showed “strikes had never been known to pay.” To make his point, Rev. Cameron went as far as to quote the Biblical story of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt. “The people hated the monarch (pharoah) for whom they did the work, so that they refused ever to mention his name,” said the reverend from his pulpit, “yet it was never heard of that they went on a strike ...”

Towards the end of the strike, the engineers were offering to return to work if Egan would reinstate them in their old jobs. The superintendent declined unless an investigation was made into the “conduct of certain delinquents.” Following this statement, the engineers and most outside observers felt there was no hope of a settlement.

The presence of 22 strikebreakers from Chicago, allowing the CPR to run trains throughout the West, was further evidence that the effectiveness of the strike was waning. The Sun reported “all the regular passenger and freight trains on the Canadian Pacific Railway are now in operation ... Freight is moving rapidly now, and all fear of a blockade is over.”

On December 19 “at half-past seven in the morning, the familiar sound of the whistle of the Canadian Pacific Railway works (shops and yards) warned the men that they might return to work.”

The Winnipeg-based shop and yard employees had lost eight days of work due to the lock-out. The opening of the facilities afforded “nearly 2,000 men an opportunity to earn their much-needed livelihood,” according to the Sun.”

The Free Press said all the shop employees were to be reinstated, “but on the understanding that there will be the utmost fidelity to the authorities in the matter of protection to property.”

After re-opening, the shops and yards were guarded by special police sworn in the day before by the CPR. Their duty was to watch “for misdemeanors,” attempting to disturb workers and destroy railway property.

The futility of their position forced the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers to acknowledge the strike was lost and admitted defeat. The engineers returned to work after Slavin signed the CPR’s Circular No. 2, which had been prepared prior to the outbreak of the strike.

On December 20, the Free Press reported most of the engineers had returned to work, “feeling in the absence of a regular strike they are not justified in following further the lead of a few indiscreet leaders.”

While the workers failed to gain concessions from the CPR, the company had merely delayed the inevitable demands by labour for fair wages and treatment. The CPR may have felt it emerged the victor in its first major confrontation with railway workers in Western Canada, but the labour movement was far from intimidated and continued to organize and gain strength.

After surviving its financial crisis — the government bailed out the company with a $22.5-million loan in 1884 — and weathering the 1883 engineers’ and firemen’s strike, the CPR should have learned a lesson, but it failed to recognize that disgruntled workers also impact the company’s ability to effectively run its operations. 

In 1892, the engineers joined other railway workers in a strike after refusing to sign a form proposed by Van Horne to maintain their loyalty to the company “in case a strike is ordered.” All the men who refused to sign were fired by the CPR and strikebreakers were hired. But unlike the situation in 1883, the strike threatened to disrupt all CPR operations by spreading into Eastern Canada and the company had difficulty finding enough qualified replacement workers. As a result, Van Horne was forced to accept an offer from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers to engage in mediation. The result of the mediation was that fired strikers were reinstated and wages increased.