In the summer of 1931, 600 men and boys worked in the almost two dozen underground mines of the Souris Coal Fields of southeastern Saskatchewan. They laboured ten hours a day in subterranean coal seams sometimes not big enough to allow a miner to stand up. In the Crescent Mine and Eastern Collieries, one to two feet of water routinely collected in the work areas. Western Dominion Collieries was notorious for not replacing damaged or rotted timbers, and roof cave-ins were frequent. Many of the underground mines had totally inadequate ventilation; smoke from blasting hung in the air like a fog. “Black damp” - high concentrations of carbon dioxide - plagued many of the mines and regularly made the workers seriously ill. “Refuge holes,” which offered miners some protection during a fire or cave-in, were few and far from the coal face.
For working in these harsh and dangerous conditions miners were paid 25¢ for each ton of coal that they dug, hand-loaded on coal cars and pushed to the main shaft. An experienced miner working hard for the whole of his ten-hour shift could earn $1.60. Dockage for rocks, clay and small-sized coal further reduced his take-home pay. Miners were also obliged to do extra work such as laying track, timbering, pumping water, and clearing up roof falls, for which they were not paid. Coal miners' wages in Alberta and British Columbia exceeded those paid in Saskatchewan by 50% in the decade between 1921 and 1929. Despite this, the Estevan-Bienfait area mine owners implemented sizable wage cuts in 1931.
Living conditions were as bad as the work environment. Only two mines had shower facilities. The company houses and “bachelor bunkhouses” were tar paper shacks with no insulation or indoor plumbing; as often as not, these dwellings were infested with lice, bedbugs and cockroaches. The larger mines had “company stores” where employees were expected to buy everything from food and clothes to miners' supplies.
In July and August 1931 miners from several collieries met in secret to talk about organizing. They decided to contact the Workers' Unity League (WUL), a militant, left-wing labour federation centred in Toronto. The WUL affiliate with jurisdiction over mining was the Mine Workers' Union of Canada (MWUC). The WUL sent organizers Martin Forkin and Sam Scarlett into the Souris Coal Fields, and a sign-up got underway.
Scarlett addressed a crowd of 1,200 miners and family members at a union picnic at Taylorton on August 23. Two days later, MWUC president James Sloan spoke to a meeting of over 1,000 in Estevan and announced that the union had obtained a 100% sign-up. The mine owners, however, absolutely refused to deal with their employees' choice of union, citing as their reason the fact that the leaders of the MWUC were Communists. The MWUC had negotiated with coal operators in Alberta; but the Saskatchewan mine owners repeatedly refused to recognize the union, even when the Deputy Minister of Labour tried to get negotiations started. Finally, with no other real option, the miners voted to strike and walked off the job at midnight, September 7, 1931. The mine owners still refused to bargain, and instead brought in scabs (replacement workers) to reopen three of the biggest mines on September 16. Mass picketing by hundreds of striking miners sent the scabs away, and the mines once again closed.
On September 28, the strikers decided to hold a parade through coal country from Bienfait to Estevan to dramatize the miners' plight and encourage public support. In the early afternoon of September 29, the motorcade set off with miners, their wives and children, all packed into old cars and on the backs of trucks. As the cavalcade entered Estevan, they unfurled Union Jack flags and banners reading “We will not work for starvation wages,” “We want houses, not piano boxes,” and “Down with the company store.” Before the motorcade reached the centre of town it was stopped by a cordon of two dozen Estevan police. An argument erupted when the police insisted that the peaceful demonstration must disperse. When the strikers refused, police chief McCutcheon grabbed striking miner Martin Day and tried to pull him down from the truck. This set off a pushing and shoving match, during which the police summoned the fire brigade, apparently to hose down the demonstrators. When the fire truck arrived, McCutcheon began ordering arrests and the struggle escalated. Strikers and their family members began throwing stones and wielding picket signs. The police, bolstered now by RCMP officers, began firing their guns in the air or into the ground in front of the demonstrators.
A group of strikers climbed on the fire truck, and one was shot dead by the police. Two other miners were killed by police bullets. Eight more unarmed strikers, four bystanders, and one RCMP officer were wounded by police gunfire. Those fatally wounded were Peter Markunas, Nick Nargan and Julian Gryshko. The following morning, police raids on homes led to the arrest of thirteen strikers on charges of rioting; others were apprehended later. A number, including several of the leaders of the union, were convicted and sentenced to as much as a year of hard labour.
Even with the death of three co-workers, the miners refused to give in. On October 6, the mine owners finally agreed to implement an eight-hour day, a minimum wage of $4 a day, payment for timbering, a reduction in the rent for miners' houses and the price of blasting powder, the appointment of check weighmen, and an end to the company store monopoly. Because of the employers' stiff opposition towards the Mine Workers Union of Canada, the miners dropped their demand for union recognition. It was not until the end of World War II that the United Mine Workers were able to establish a lasting trade union presence in the Souris Coal Fields.