“Standing the Gaff: The Police Murder of Striking Miner William Davis” (Nova Scotia, 1925)
Policing, throughout the history of state capitalist development, has always been directly connected with the protection of business and business interests. This connection has perhaps been especially clear in the context of resource and extractives industries. One sees it in defence of mining interests in which local, provincial, and federal police have been deployed, often lethally, to ensure the operations of mining companies and mining profits. The police killing of Ginger Goodwin and the Estevan Massacre are examples of this. At the same time companies have often created, as well, their own company police forces, private police to protect company property, ensure operations, and especially, control and regulate workers and bust their organizing efforts and unions. In various North American contexts, including for example in the steel towns of Pennsylvania, policing has developed as company policing with forces initiated by companies and/or business associations. In Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company ran its own police force. So too did companies like the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) in Nova Scotia. In 1925 this police force was responsible for attacking a group of striking mine worker and killing miner William Davis, a father of ten (whose tenth child was born after his killing ad never knew its father).
Standing the Gaff: The Strike of 1925
The coal mines of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia have been the sites of some of the most intense class struggles in the history of the Canadian state. The coal miners have shown some of the most militant and resolute examples of working class action ad solidarity in the face of aggression and brutality from massive mining companies. This has included facing lethal force from the mining companies and armed police forces.
William Davis was born June 3, 1887 in Gloucestershire, England. He began working as a miner for the Dominion Coal Company Limited (DOMCO) on Cape Breton Island in 1905. He would work at the Number 12 Colliery in New Waterford, Nova Scotia until his murder at the hands of company police under direction of managers with the virulently antiunion British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) which succeeded DOMCO in the coal fields. Upon taking over DOMCO mines in 1920 the larger BESCO immediately set up a systematic campaign to bust the union, District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Between 1920 and 1925, under the aggressive BESCO management, there were 58 strikes in the Sydney Coal Field.
When the most recent contract expired on January 15, 1925 BESCO saw a chance to end the union. On March 2, 1925, BESCO cut off credit for food at BESCO company stores. This put many mining families in a situation of near starvation. On March 6 the union declared a strike with 12000 workers taking to picket lines. Only a small rump workforce was left to maintain the mines and prevent flooding. UMWA District 26 moved to full picketing on June 4 in response to the BESCO refusal to participate in arbitration.
A few days into the strike, the company also decided to shut down the electricity and drinking water supply to the town of New Waterford. In response to the striking miners directly marched on the pumping station and power plant at Waterford Lake. There they actively expelled company workers in order to restart the utilities for the company homes in which miners lived while shutting them down for the company production facilities.
On June 10 BESCO turned to its company police force to protect 30 scabbing company workers on their return to Waterford Lake. The plan was to go ahead with an effort to restart the water and electricity to company facilities that ran the mine pumps. The aim was to again cut off water to the families living in the town as a means of forcing the workers back to work by, essentially starving them out of the union. Indeed by June the situation of miners’ families had become desperate.
Shortly after the strike began in March, a reporter with the Canadian Press interviewed Vice President of BESCO J.E. McLurg. In the interview McLurg offered his entirely arrogant, and now infamous assessment of how the company would defeat the striking workers. McLurg blustered: “Poker game, nothing, we hold all the cards. Things are getting better every day they stay out. Let them stay out two months or six months, it matters not, eventually they will have to come to us. They can’t stand the gaff.”
This promise, and threat, that the company would squeeze the union until it broke would serve as a rallying cry of the striking miners to “stand the gaff.” It remains a rallying cry of workers in Nova Scotia and source of strength and solidarity on picket lines.
The Murder of William Davis: June 11, 1925
The morning of June 11, the company police carried out a campaign of harassment and intimidation carrying out thug patrols within the town. In response striking miners organized a protest in which around 3000 miners marched to the Waterford Lake pumping station and power plant. Their intention was to convince the scabbing company workers to support the strike.
When the striking workers arrived at the plant at around 11 AM the company police were waiting for them. Without warning the armed police charged the crowd on horseback opening fire as they came. Many workers were injured in the fusillade of over 300 rounds fired into the crowd. William Davis was killed by police in the attack with many understanding that he had been shot deliberately by the officer whose bullet struck him directly in the heart. The striking workers rallied and were able to enter the facility as police retreated.
Turning the Tide: Solidarity and Militance in the Face of Murder
In the days and weeks following the murder of Davis, miners stepped up their tactics and turned to direct action against company stores and other company properties in various communities throughout the Sydney Coal Field. Where the company was willing to take workers’ lives, the workers would target what was most important to the company, its property and profits.
While neither the provincial nor the federal government showed much concern over the company shooting of workers and murder of a striking miner, the simple threat to company property spurred them to immediately deploy the provincial police force and almost 2000 soldiers from the Canadian Army. This would be the second largest military deployment against an internal target in the history of the Canadian state, the largest being the deployment against indigenous and Métis communities in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Of course, this would not be the last military mobilization against an internal target in Canadian state history with the military assault on the Mohawk communities during the “Oka crisis” being a recent egregious case. For those who cling to an illusion that the liberal democratic government of Canada is a peaceful one that this serves as a stunning reminder that the Canadian government has at various points in its history used military force against civilian, non-combatants. For some this might stand as an example of state terrorism.
Faced with the determination of the strikers and their families and the growing strength of the union, BESCO was compelled to settle the strike the strike in November and finally abandoned its attempts to break the union. The company also gave up its company stores, company housing, and other services. Indeed, BESCO never recovered from the strike action and faced with an energized and militant workforce eventually succumbed to company debt. In 1930 BESCO was taken over by the larger Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (DOSCO). The miners of Cape Breton would continue as a militant force and the island have stood as a model of labor activism for generations.
The strength and solidarity of the striking workers, their families, and their supporters and the commitment to direct action District 26 of the UMWA would emerge from the strike as one of the most militant, active unions on the continent. Their efforts and successes would stand as a testament to rank-and-file assertiveness and direct action.
Same Old Story: The Killers Go Free
Charges against police for any killing of a civilian are rare in the Canadian state context. There is reluctance to hold defenders of property and accumulation accountable for doing what, at least in the final instance, they were organized to do. Rarer still are officers charged when they kill union members; in such case the role of policing in capitalist economies is even more immediately front and center and it would certainly be hypocritical of states to proceed. Yet in the case of the assault on UMWA member and the murder of William Davis, an officer did face a charge. This, perhaps because the officer belonged to a company rather than public force.
BESCO police officer Joseph MacLeod was brought before a preliminary hearing in Sydney where he faced the charge of murder. In the end, though, not surprisingly, the Crown prosecutor dropped the charges against officer accepting the defense argument that the identity of the shooter could not be discerned and MacLeod should not be given unique treatment relative to the numerous other police officers involved the assault and shooting of Davis. A curious argument to say the least (raising a question about why the overall actions of police on that day were not addressed).
For many in the area it apparently was common knowledge that William Davis was shot by BESCO police officer Harry Muldoon. The very day following the police shooting that took Davis’ life, Harry Muldoon and his family were relocated to Boston, Massachusetts where they were able to live out their lives untroubled by the murder of William Davis.
Davis Day: A Legacy of Solidarity
More than 5,000 mourners attended William Davis’ funeral on June 14, making it the largest public presence for a funeral in the history of the province. District 26 of UMWA, showing the community care and solidarity at the heart of labor organizing established a fund to support the Davis family, his ten children and their mother, with monthly support. The date of the police murder of William Davis is still marked as a day of solidarity and working class memory in Nova Scotia. The first Davis Day was held on June 11, 1926 and saw miners across Cape Breton refuse to work. Instead they marched to the union hall in New Waterford before going to a nearby church for a memorial service in Davis’ honor. Davis Day as an “idle day” spread quickly being observed by miners across the province, who refused to work on the day. In 1969 Davis Day became a paid provincial holiday.
New Waterford established Davis Square in 1985. The Davis Wilderness Trail was established in 1996 and follows the original route taken by the striking miners on June 11, 1925 to the pumping station and power plant at Waterford Lake. The ringing words on the Davis Memorial at Davis Square proclaims simply: “Standing the Gaff.”