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
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.