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Mine-Mill vs. Steel

December 5, 2011

CD-DVD offers detailed history of legendary union struggle

Stow, Rick. The Battle Within, New Liskeard, Ont., 1996 (revised 2010), DVD-CD ROM, $100 or $250 for institutional use. For copies: rstow@ntl.sympatico.ca.

The promotional blurb for The Battle Within boasts that “Our tale is one of intrigue and subterfuge, with political forces striving to manipulate the outcome of events in which the rank-and-file workers of Northern Ontario, over a seven-decade period, played a critical part.”

With that, thanks to the miracles of digital technology, historians and other researchers have access to a huge bank of information and opinion on the internecine union war that took place in the 1950s and 1960s for supremacy in the North American mining and smelting world.

From the late 1940s, when the Congress of Industrial Unions began purging its Communist unions through the mid-1960s, the battle raged between the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers and the United Steelworkers of America.

While focused on events in Ontario, The Battle Within probes the history of both unions and their organizing activities across the continent. In the process it divulges the structural nature of the unions, their diametrically opposed political stances and their political affiliations. It records the voices of the many combatants in the war that ensued, providing both sound and text.

This digital adaptation of the 1996 audio production, originally a 10-hour broadcast commissioned as part of the Ontario ministry of culture’s Workplace Heritage program, is overflowing with “255 sound files, 315 OCR scans, 658 footnotes, 417 frontispieces and support screens covering the related 173 subject files, 322 text references, and 950 visuals appearing over the course of the 227 display screens of the narrative text.”

Northern Ontario Mine Mill leader and politician Bob Carlin plays a prominent role alongside the various Steel activists and local challengers to the throne of labour in the region. It has all the drama of an episode of the second season of The Wire and the same gritty atmosphere to boot.

It’s a labour historian’s cornucopia of facts, interviews, photos and arguments, but there is a problem that the producers still need to be overcome. Despite coming with an additional set of fonts, I couldn’t make it function properly even after several tries.

Still, this is a valuable research tool for historians and political junkies interested in fleshing out the motivations and strategies behind the actions of both unions back in the heyday of internal labour confrontations.

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