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Sudbury’s union war – A Book Review

November 10, 2014
By

A novel about a radical moment in Northern Ontario labour history

The RaidsMick Lowe, The Raids: The Nickel Range Trilogy, Volume 1 (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2014), 294 pages, $19.95.

News reporter turned novelist Mick Lowe has produced the first of a promised trilogy of labour history novels set in Northern Ontario that might be closer to truth than to fiction.

As a long-time reporter in the union town of Sudbury, Ont., the Nebraska-born Lowe got close to the local labour movement and the union that represented thousands of mine workers at the giant nickel mines in the region.

That relationship and careful readings of a book co-written by once local union president Mike Solski that Lowe calls his bible, provided a mother lode of information from which to create his main character Jake McCool, a young miner.

The story revolves around McCool, born into a union family, and his building awareness of what it means to know which side you’re on especially when it comes to a fight to extinction between two unions.

The story begins to fill out with glimpses of McCool’s mother Alice, the spouse of Big Bill McCool, a hard-nosed union man, a pro-union journalist named Foley Gilpin, and several others who were members of the allegedly Communist-led union.

Lowe sets the action in the early 1960s and clearly outlines the main plot involving an internecine union war. But it quickly becomes clear that he is on the side of the raided not the raiders.

Local Steel heavy Henry Hoople and Steel president Sonny McAdoo, are perhaps a bit one-sided. We learn little about them apart from their roles in the confrontation. Other Steel antagonists are almost cartoon-like in character and are depicted by one Mine-Mill protagonist as those “buncha blacklegged Steelworker scabby bastards” (202).

In real life the raided union was Local 598 of the allegedly Communist International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers and the raiders were the much larger United Steel Workers of America. It was a labour movement David and Goliath conflict and Lowe seizes on that fact.

Also in real life, the Steel Workers ultimately won the war and Mine-Mill eventually disappeared as one of the last vestiges of a movement that once saw part of its role as challenging the capitalist system.

Lowe offers a short-lived moment in labour history when a scrappy contingent of Mine-Millers, some of them Communists, captured the imaginations and the membership loyalty of the biggest local in Mine-Mill. In doing so, he pays careful attention to detail in the workplace underground, life in hard-drinking mining community, and union drama in the union hall.

With the introduction of a love story between Jake and Jo Ann Winters, the daughter of a mine manager, he adds another tension builder. So it is with the creation of Foley Gilpin, a journalist who joins the union being raided and ensures that the story of the raid gets wide coverage.

The Gilpin character may be based on Lowe’s own newspaper reporting experience. After all, Lowe was a crusading labour journalist who knew all the players. At times, he was probably caught in the middle of some of the tough labour disputes that have occurred in Sudbury.

As the lines are drawn in the union battle for the hearts, minds and dues dollars of the Sudbury mine workers, we meet the good guys (Mine-Mill) shown as underdogs, and the bad guys (Steel) who are intent on destroying the Mine-Mill reds.

The story climaxes with a violent standoff at the Mine-Mill union hall with Jake, Big Bill, Gilpin and Mine-Mill local leader Spike Sworski (who is surely Mike Solski) holed up inside as the raiders trash the hall, breaking its windows and taking a fire hose to it.

With this first volume, Lowe has given readers not only a tense story of young love and union comradeship amidst ideologically driven labour strife, but also a vivid portrait (replete with line drawings by Oryst Sawchuk) of a northern mining town in the early 1960s. In his next two volumes, it will be interesting to see if he expands the Mine-Mill-Steel story to include other parts of Canada where similar raids took place.

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