Fact:
In 1899, an American businessman and promoter named Henry M. Whitney formed a consortium with the intention of constructing an integrated steel plant at Sydney, N.S.

 

Fact:
The construction of Disco began in 1900 and finished in late 1901. It was the most modern steel plant in the world.

 

Fact:
Construction of the plant finished late in 1901 and the first steel was produced on Dec. 31, 1901.

 
 
 
 

 

Black Friday
By Sydney S. Slaven


October the 13th was a day that will go down in infamy in the history of Sydney Steel. Shock waves thundered throughout the industrial community when the owners of the Sydney steel plant, Hawker-Siddeley, announced the complete closure of the mill by April 30th, 1968. The totally unexpected development caught not only the steel community by surprise, but government leaders at all levels as well. In retrospect it was known that the plant was experiencing difficulties, but such drastic action dumbfounded the whole Cape Breton industrial community. It is important to go back ten years in history to put the event in its proper perspective.

In August of 1957 the huge conglomerate of England bases Hawker-Siddeley, purchased the assets of the Dosco Corporation, of which the flagship was the Sydney steel plant. At the time the Sydney plant was a profitable business employing 5200 workers and was heading towards a record-breaking production year. Rails were the main product, but a diversity of other steel products were also being manufactured, such as billets, wire, nails, bars, and rods. The announced purchase was met with a wave of optimism by the workers of even greater things to come.

However, just the opposite happened. By 1960 it was very apparent to steel plant employees that Hawker-Siddeley was only interested in making money, not steel. No capital investment was being made and when a department needed major repairs or refurbishing, it was closed or sold. Examples are the wire mill, which was closed, and the nail mill, which was sold to Dartmouth interests, where it operated profitably for the next 25 years.

By 1967 the sacking of the Sydney steel plant was complete. By now the workforce was reduced to 3200 employees. Hawker-Siddeley claimed it was suffering huge monthly losses and could no longer afford to operate the plant without modernizations. They wanted the Provincial Government to loan them millions and in return they would guarantee 25 years more years of operation. On October 2, Hawker-Siddeley approved a steel report, which recommended expansion and improvement of the steel plant.

Hawker-Siddeley had a change of attitude and announced that along with the coming closure, they were no longer interested in considering any proposals that would keep the Sydney plant operating. They planned to provide their basic steel needs from a plant at Contrecour Quebec. It is of note that this plant also closed a few years later with losses of over a billion dollars from money invested by the Quebec Government.

On October 14th, 1967, Cape Breton Post Publisher Roy Duchemin put the crisis in proper perspective. In an editorial he said the Sydney steelworkers stand as the victims of the biggest double-cross in Cape Breton industrial history. In only 10 years Hawker-Siddeley has wrought the destruction of the only basic steel plant in Eastern Canada. Hawker-Siddeley’s shocking decision transcends all bounds of decency and ethics, far unworthy of a responsible corporation.

The most shocked are the steelworkers themselves. They desperately plea with the Provincial Government to keep the plant operating beyond April 30th to lessen the blow of sudden closure. Premier G.I. Smith says his government is morally libel to operate the plan until a solution to the crisis can be found. Federal Labour Minister McKeough says that the Federal Government would like to see the mill operate on a reduced basis for a year or so.

The ideal solution, in the eyes of the Provincial Government, would be to find a new owner. Government officials met with the Steel. Company of Canada (Stelco) to discuss the possibility of them operating the Sydney plant. Also, Canadian Javelin Ltd., an iron ore mine operator, expressed an interest in the Sydney steel plant. Neither came to a successful conclusion as Stelco stated, they were not interested and it was felt that Canadian Javelin Ltd. did not have the expertise to operate a steel mill. Also, they did not want to put any of their own money into the plant takeover.

At a packed meeting on November 14th, steelworkers passed a resolution to back any government takeover with their own money. The share buying idea was compared to the wartime Victory Loan drives.

By November 15th, the battle to save the Sydney steel plant reached a crucial point amid agreements that will be readied to keep the mill operating until December 31st, 1968. Part of this agreement is that government would have to compensate Hawker-Siddeley for the plants assets and inventory. An unexpected blow was the disclosure that the Federal Government would not participate with the province in underwriting the cost of the mill operation beyond the closure date of April 30th, 1968.

Also, on this date, a “Parade of Concern” was being organized for Sunday, November 19th. Not only steelworkers and their families, but Canadian Legion Branches, United Mine Workers Local, women’s organizations, service clubs, students, clergy and professional groups all pledged their full cooperation. The parade was designed to focus attention on the steel crisis.

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Last updated February 1, 2006