The Titanic and Justice Denied
The media did a commendable job of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, yet in the plethora of reporting, no mention was made of the responsibilities of the ship owners to its numerous employees and others on the doomed ship.
The Titanic sank after midnight April 14, 1912. The White Star Line immediately issued an order that the ship’s stewards and other employees were to be dismissed and their wages and benefits discontinued at the exact moment the ship sank. The owners invoked an antiquated “labour” law, the Master and Servant Act, to deny justice to its employees. The British “labour” legislation was designed to protect the master not the butler, according to the Harvard Education Review (Fall 1956).
A somewhat similar abandonment occurred in Canada in 1965 when the railways converted from steam to diesel power. The CNR abandoned stopovers at the two small communities of Wainwright, Alberta and Nakina, Ontario, both of which had depended for for their economic well-being on supplying ice, food and drinks for the passengers and coal and water for the steam engines. As a result of the trains no longer stopping, the economic existence of the communities was largely destroyed. On Friday night, workers were told not to report for work on Monday morning. There was such an uproar in the provincial legislatures and parliament that the federal government was forced to appoint a Royal Commission on Railway Runthroughs under the leadership of Mr. Justice Samuel Freedman of Manitoba .
I wrote my first brief for the Ontario Federation of Labour, as director of research (1964-1987). One of the points we made was that the CNR acted in the same callous manner as the White Star Line did when the Titanic sank. Dave Archer, then president of the OFL, and I, flew to Winnipeg to present our brief to the Commission. The subsequent report of the Commission stated that when contemplating a plant shutdown, the employer had a responsibility to the community as well as to the workers. This was the first time in history that such a concept was enunciated. Justice Freedman was patient and wise. To me he personified the humanist culture of Winnipeg’s North End where I spent much of my youth.
I co-authored a study on the economic and social consequences of plant shutdowns and produced a book entitled SHUTDOWN: The Impact of Plant Shutdown, Extensive Employment Terminations and Layoffs on the Workers and the Community (John W. Eleen & Ashley G. Bernadine, Toronto. 1971). A decade later, this study, our brief to Justice Freedman and his excellent report, combined with labour’s militancy, influenced Bill Davis, then Premier of Ontario, to bring about the Notice of Termination legislation incorporating many of our proposals; in particular, the length of notice of termination must be commensurate with the number of workers affected, with a financial penalty for failure to comply. No longer does management have the right to unilaterally impose measures to deny workers and their community their rights under law. However, the conservative government is ignoring this with impunity.
A version of this article appeared in Our Times April/May/June 2012.