CPC centenary: Communists, the Workers’ Unity League and Annie Buller

Working people suffered terribly during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Factories closed, mass unemployment swept the country, farmers were evicted, and poverty became widespread. When right-wing labour leaders gave up on fighting for their members’ rights, the Communist Party took the lead. Its most important early initiatives included the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) and later, the Worker’s Unity League (WUL), which led the struggles for industrial unionism and to organize the unorganized across the country.

The WUL led 90 percent of strikes during the “Hungry Thirties,” and Communist Party members took the initiative in organizing most of the industrial unions during these years – in steel mills, auto plants, rubber and chemical factories, forestry and fisheries.

In response to this rising militancy, the Canadian state resorted to repression. The experience of one of the key leaders of the Communist Party and the WUL, Annie Buller, helps tell the story of the Party’s role in the class struggle under incredibly challenging conditions.

In 1929 Buller was invited to the first convention of the Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers (IUNTW), which was aligned in 1931 to the Workers’ Unity League (WUL), and soon after became the union’s organizer. She moved to Winnipeg in 1931 to work with needle trades workers facing wage cuts and layoffs, and it was from there she was called to a rally of miners and their families in Bienfait, Saskatchewan.

The Souris Valley in Saskatchewan was steeped in coal and home to six different mining companies – M&S (Manitoba and Saskatchewan), Western Dominion Colliers, Eastern Colliers, Crescent Colliers, Great West Coal and National Mines.

The summer of 1931 was the third in a row of hot, dry weather and the area around Regina, including Bienfait, was in the epicentre of widespread crop failures. In the midst of this, miners who would normally work on farms to help make ends meet were facing general wage reductions of 10 – 15 percent.

The miners had tried to unionize early in the century when times were tough but were unsuccessful. In 1931, with the assistance of the Sam Carr and Sam Scarlett, both leaders in the Communist Party of Canada and the WUL, they formed Mine Workers Union Local 27.

That same summer, there were 16,000 members organized into the National Unemployed Workers Association, which was also associated with the WUL. Then Prime Minister R.B. “Iron Heel” Bennett pledged to never allow the establishment of Unemployment Insurance. On August 11, eight Communist Party leaders were arrested – including Tim Buck, Sam Carr, Tom McEwan, and Matthew Popovich – and the Party office in Toronto was raided. The arrested leaders were charged under Section 98 of the criminal code, which had been passed in 1919 to wreck the Winnipeg General Strike by giving the government and police the power to arrest anyone under a wide range of political offences. The Communist Party leaders were arrested for being members of an unlawful organization and with being parties to seditious conspiracy.

This was the backdrop for the events in Estevan.

The miners’ union set up a bargaining committee for its first contract, but the larger owners refused to come to the bargaining table. On September 7, 600 newly organized miners from the Souris coal fields went on strike.

The miners had heard of the amazing woman union organizer in Winnipeg and asked her to come to a rally on September 27 to support the workers and their families. Annie Buller addressed the workers in Estevan that day and again on September 29 after a parade in support the strike.

Buller spent her first day in Estevan touring the picket lines and meeting with women to help them sort the distribution of strike relief, and she was horrified at the living conditions of the miners and their families. They were forced to rent sub-standard housing provided by the owners and shop at the company store that charged higher prices than anyone in town; fined for purchasing items from the Eaton’s catalogue and charged the difference in prices; cheated on the amount of coal they loaded on the carts; charged for the hot water in the company showers and paid far less than they were worth.

The mine owners and town officials did not want the rally or any meeting afterwards to happen. On the morning of the parade, town council passed a last-minute resolution making it illegal to hold any demonstrations in the town of Estevan and they asked the local police and RCMP to enforce it. The resolution was delivered to the union leaders after the miners and their supporters had begun to rally at the parade start.

What happened next is common knowledge. Fifty miners were injured, and three were shot and killed. Miner Nick Nargan was shot through the heart by the chief of police, when he picked up an axe to chop the fire hose that was spraying water on the protestors. Miner Julian Drysko was shot dead when the RCMP opened fire on the protestors. Peter Markunus died when he was shot in the stomach and then forced to be driven 50 miles to the next nearest hospital after being refused treatment at the local hospital, by the same doctor that each miner paid $1.25 a month for health coverage.

Annie Buller, preparing her speech for the evening meeting that didn’t happen, heard about the shootings and was assisted out of town and back to Winnipeg. There, she spoke at a meeting that had been quickly organized to drum up financial support for the miners. Following more police harassment, Buller left Winnipeg for Toronto, where she spoke at more meetings to raise awareness and finances for the miners in Estevan. Eventually she was arrested on charges of incitement to riot, unlawful assembly and rioting and returned to Estevan.

The charges against Buller were directly related to the other attacks on the Communist Party that were happening at the same time. In November 1931, the “Communist 8” were found guilty and sentenced to 5 years in jail – effectively making it illegal to belong to the Party. The police and mine owners wanted to make an example of Buller, but they had no real evidence, so they spent the next several months concocting stories and finding willing sell-outs to testify at her trial.

Buller’s commitment to the working class shone through at her trial and appeal proceedings. She even led her own appeal – during a decade when there were only 49 women even admitted to the legal profession. Excerpts from her eloquent defence show her depth of character:

“The blame must be laid at someone’s door, – and why not at mine? Mr. Perkins [agent of the Saskatchewan Attorney-General] did not tell you why there was a strike; nor did he tell you that it was the conditions under which the miners worked and lived that forced them to organize a union and strike for human conditions. This, of course, would be portraying the struggle of the miners, and, of course, it is not Mr. Perkins job to do that. He is representing the Crown. I am representing the workers. I am not standing before you, Gentlemen of the Jury, as one who is trying to get out of a tight corner. I consider my efforts to assist the miners and their wives were worthwhile.

“Gentlemen of the Jury, I am not apologizing for any of my actions. I cannot be justly convicted on this charge because I was not in Estevan at the time of the ‘riot’ and my speech on the Sunday previous was not a speech inciting riot.

“When I face you here, I face you with my head held erect. I face you as a worker with ideals and convictions. Those ideals and convictions are linked with the tide of human progress. You cannot stop that tide of progress any more than you can stop the sea with a pitchfork. Regardless of what arguments or what legal points Mr. Sampson [the Crown Prosecutor] may raise, I am not guilty of this charge. But Mr. Sampson is the Crown Prosecutor, and it is his job to get a conviction. I have said before, and I say again, that it is not Annie Buller who is on trial here. It is the great class of producers that stand in the prisoners’ dock, and not one realizes more than I, that the forces against us are very great. But, Gentlemen of the Jury, regardless of the outcome of this trial, I am going to remain loyal to my class, the workers class, the builders of the future.”

Despite the sheer dishonesty of the charges against her, Buller was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison, which she served in solitary confinement. She remains an enduring example of Communist Party work in the trade union movement.

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