Unions. You would expect the epicenters of union activity to be in large centers and industrial areas. Places like St. John’s with longshoremen and all kinds of different workers or Grand Falls and Corner Brook where various skilled tradesmen banded together to form unions in the paper mills. But a little logging town with a population of 395?
Logging camps prior to the 1960’s were rough places. Men slept on boughs, ate beans for breakfast every day, rats overran them and lice spread from one end of the camp to the other in the matter of days. The Great Depression made matters even worse with the worldwide economic depressing forcing the paper companies in Grand Falls and Corner Brook to cut corners to make money. Naturally the burden fell on the contractors and loggers-forced to deliver wood at a price lower than it had even been. The workers from lumbering communities were hardest hit, lumbering communities like Gambo, Norris Arm and Point Leamington.
In 1935 Point Leamington had a population of 395 people, most of the men worked in the lumber woods, with the notable exception of Joseph J. Thompson who was a game warden. A game warden who would, by the end of the decade, head one of the largest unions in Newfoundland.
Joseph John Thompson was born in Bay Roberts in 1889. At a young age his family moved to Notre Dame Bay; first to Pilley’s Island and finally to Point Leamington. Point Leamington was one of the few lumbering communities that were springing up during that time in the inner reaches of the bays and in the interior.
Thompson revived, by all accounts, very little schooling. By the time he was ten years old Thompson was working at the sawmill owned by the firm of George Leamington Phillips at Point Leamington. Within a year he began his career in the woods as a logger making the princely sum of $7.00 a month cutting pine for the mill in Point Leamington. Over the next thirty odd years Thompson worked as a lumberman, first for Phillips, then for Harry J. Crowe and eventually for contractors supplying the mills of A.E Reed and the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company.[i]
Thompson reportedly worked on the early river drives with Ronald Kelly in the Badger area.[ii] Besides working as a lumberman, between 1908 and 1912 Thompson trained as a Naval Reservist aboard the HMS Calypso in St. John’s.
After thirty years of grueling woods work Thompson managed to secure a position as a game warden. This may have been due to some political connection with Sir. Richard Squires whom he may have been acquainted with.
Though Thompson had left the woods, his sons continued to work as loggers for the A.N.D CO. At this point it was the depths of the Great Depression and nobody and the rural working men of Newfoundland had little opportunity to make any money. Cod fish drew a ridiculously low price a quintal and the A.N.D CO was paying as little as .90 cents a cord to men cutting pulpwood.
In the spring or summer of 35’ so the story goes, two of Joe’s sons came home from working on the “drive” on Great Rattling Brook. After a month of work they had cleared about $9.00 each. Joe was in his potato garden digging and apparently “chucked down his shovel” and set to work doing something about the plight of the Newfoundland Logger.[iii]
So on August 5th of 1935 he called together a meeting with the purposes of forming a Union. This was good timing since most of the men in Point Leamington would have been home off the drive and would not return to cutting for a few weeks. There was a large turnout and they supported his idea.
Thompson wrote Sir. Richard Squires, the former Prime Minister of Newfoundland for advice in any legal matters related to forming the union. Squires agreed. Then Thompson wrote the A.N.D Co Woods Division Manager at Bishop’s Falls to get an idea of what the British Paper firm thought of the idea of their lowest paid workers organizing. They were not open to the idea.
In April of 1936 a Charter of registration was received and the Newfoundland Lumbermen’s Association was formed; the first union exclusively for loggers on the Island of Newfoundland.
In order to organize the loggers Thompson needed to visit the logging camps. In order to do so he needed company permission. When they did not grant it, Thompson bought a bicycle in Bishop’s Falls and threatened to peddle down the Rattling Brook Line to visit the camps. In response to this threat A.N.D sent a car and driver, a foreshadowing of the perceived complacency of the NLA in later years and the image of a company union.
The first few years of the NLA were very active, they engaged in work stoppages and strikes that today are little known and overshadowed by the 1959 IWA strike. In the spring of 1937 the NLA threatened to hold up the drive on Great Rattling Brook. The government had mandated that the minimum wage for log drivers was to e 27 ½ Cents an hour. The A.N.D CO was only paying loggers .25 cents per hour. The NLA wanted .30 cents an hour. He sent loggers to obtain work and advised the “Company” that the NLA intended to “hang up the drive.” Faced with an uncooperative workforce and dependence on environmental conditions A.N.D relented, although they did not grant the loggers the whole raise.
Within a short time of its inception the membership of the NLA would balloon to 7000 members. Unfortunately there would be divisions as members on the west coast broke away and formed two other unions to represent loggers. The Workers Central Protective Union and the Newfoundland Laborers Union. To further complicate issues the Fishermen’s Protective Union decided that it too also wanted to represent loggers. Thus the NLA became bogged down in jurisdictional disputes with the other Unions.
The jurisdictional disputes combined with the beginning of the Second World War led to the formation of the Woods Labour Board to conciliate contract talks between loggers and the two paper companies. There would be no major job action taken during the existence of this board.
Conditions gradually improved in the logging camps, largely due to a variety of factors related to the war and the end of the war.[iv]Initially the Union was based in Point Leamington. Eventually they set up an office in Grand Falls. In the early 50’s they built a large hall on Lincoln road between the present day workers memorial and Riverview Chev-Olds.
By 1956 the NLA was forced to affiliate with a major Canadian union. Two unions stepped forward; The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and the International Woodworkers of America. The choice was put to the loggers who chose the IWA.
But that is another story altogether.
Joe Thompson died in 1970. A bridge in Point Leamington bears his name. The logger’s union hall in Grand Falls was demolished sometime in the 1980’s and no trace of it is left today.
[i] History of the Newfoundland Lumbermen’s Association Guardian, St. John’s 1956.
[iii] Rolf Hatenhauer interview 1968.
[iv] There was a labour shortage in the woods during the war because of so many men being overseas or being employed on the Allied bases on the island. This forced the paper companies to raise wages to compete with the base contractors and the Canadian and American militaries.
The end of the war improved conditions because of the influx of war surplus materials such as beds and blankets that were sold off from the bases and made their way into the logging camps. Until shortly after the war loggers were still sleeping on boughs.