Sam Scarlett, a skilled machinist, a talented athlete and football player, and a superb public speaker, was one of the most interesting and colourful labour activists in Saskatchewan trade union history. Born in Scotland, he immigrated to Canada around the turn of the century, settling in Galt, Ontario. He went to the United States in 1908 or 1909, where he was soon involved in huge labour struggles such as the massive strikes by iron miners on the Mesabie Range in northern Minnesota. He was a trusted colleague of legendary figures such as “Big Bill” Haywood and Joe Hill of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies). As part of the authorities’ campaign to suppress syndicalists and labour agitators Scarlett was framed on a murder charge and accused of over a hundred separate crimes. He was imprisoned a number of times for several years. Sympathetic biographers estimate that he was arrested 160 times while fighting for workers’ rights and defending picketers. After being released from one jail sentence in a general amnesty, he was deported back to Scotland.
Scarlett returned to Canada in the early 1920s as a harvest hand, and began organizing again for the IWW; he also joined the Communist Party. Sam Scarlett was one of the best platform speakers of his day. He could move listeners to laughter and tears in quick succession. He used to rent a theatre in Saskatoon on Sundays when movies were not permitted, and speak to large audiences about some radical or militant subject. He was a devoted syndicalist and an admirer of the Soviet Union. For a time in the late 1920s he lived in the Porcupine Plain district of northeast Saskatchewan. He was always available to go to the support of working people locked in battle with their bosses. Scarlett became a legendary figure in the labour movement for his self-sacrifice and devotion to the working class. After the IWW faded, he did a lot of work for the Communist-sponsored labour federation, the Workers Unity League (WUL).
In the late summer of 1931 Sam Scarlett and other organizers for the Mine Workers Union of Canada were sent to the Bienfait-Taylorton area to organize a union among the underground coal miners. Scarlett was in poor health at the time, but his obvious commitment to the workers and his ever-present good humour brought many of the coal miners into Local 27 of the Mine Workers Union of Canada, a WUL affiliate. After the Estevan Coal Strike ended with the murder of three strikers by police, Scarlett was arrested and charged with rioting and disturbing the peace. He was convicted, at least in part on perjured testimony by the coal operators, and sentenced to one year in jail and a $100 fine.
Sam Scarlett moved to New York City during World War II to avoid incarceration, which was a fate encountered by other Communist Party members in Canada in the 1940s. He died there in 1941.