(Jim Tester, b. 1913, d. 1995, friend, mentor and Sudbury trade union activist and historian, was also a long-time columnist at Northern Life, Sudbury’s community newspaper. The following column was first published there February 22, 1984).
February 24. A day working people should never forget. It is the anniversary date of a dirty deed unsurpassed in Sudbury’s history. There was not a word about it, not even a whisper, during our 100th birthday celebrations. It has been left buried in a conspiracy of silence. Yet it was an event that so shook Sudbury; our city was never the same. It marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
Shortly after five o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 24, 1942, 12 men entered the Mine-Mill Union office, which was located upstairs on Durham Street, over Levine’s Ladies’ Wear. They were bent on destruction, mayhem and intimidation.
The Sudbury Star described the violent encounter this way: “Pandemonium broke loose in the heart of Sudbury’s busiest business section late Tuesday afternoon when a chair came hurtling through the second-storey window of the C.I.O. offices. It was followed by files of papers and showers of broken glass. But, when police arrived a few minutes later, there was no sign of any assailants, only John Whelehan and Forest Emerson, union organizers, standing apparently dazed in the centre of the most complete shambles ever seen as a fight aftermath in Sudbury. Each was bleeding about the face but otherwise did not appear seriously injured despite the holocaust that had been made of the furniture. They were removed by police to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Whelehan had several minor cuts on his forehead treated and Emerson a cut on the head and his arm treated.”
Who were these 12 goons? Where did they come from? The Sudbury Star claimed they never existed. In the newspaper stories following the violent affair, it was suggested the men had beat one another and reduced the office to a shambles in order to gain public sympathy for the union!
The Star put it this way: “A theory of premeditated claims of trouble, staged for the express purpose of securing sympathy for their cause through persecution, is gaining credence in Sudbury today . . . and the fact that despite vehement claims they could identify the assailants, no charges have been laid before Crown Attorney E. D. Wilkins, K.C.”
How did the union reply? A few days later 10,000 leaflets were secretly passed from door to door, at night, to workers’ homes in the Sudbury district. The leaflets were headlined, “Murder will out!” The union not only gave “the true facts concerning the murderous, storm-trooper raid on the Durham Street office,” but also named names.
Why, then, was nobody arrested and charged? The union’s leaflet put it this way: “The unspeakable Sudbury Star has been editorially demanding why the men don’t go into court and prove it. The answer is that the men who did the dirty work between 5:15 and 5:30 pm were punched in at the mine for the four o’clock shift. Inco had nice alibis all prepared.”
How badly were the two union organizers beaten? “Whelehan – a citizen of Sudbury for over fifteen years – was beaten unmercifully with fists and furniture. Emerson – an American citizen of Canadian parentage – had his head laid open with a cudgel and was beaten with anything else they could pick up. Both got the boots when they were half-unconscious and bleeding profusely on the floor. Either could have been killed.” That is the account in the union leaflet.
I have since interviewed two union leaders of that day who visited Whelehan and Emerson in the hospital on the evening of February 24, 1942. Both visitors said the victims were scarcely recognizable. “Whelehan’s face looked like an old piece of liver.”
Who were the people of Sudbury to believe, the local press or the union? The Sudbury Star had a long record of anti-union bias. The union had statements from two of the 12 goons who had done the dirty deed. Less than two years later the workers rendered their verdict. In a government sponsored vote in December of 1943, the workers of Inco and Falconbridge crushed the company unions and voted for Mine-Mill. After 60 years of company domination, Sudbury became a union city.
If the event of February 24, 1942 was calculated to frighten people, it succeeded. But, even more so, in typical Canadian fashion, it generated anger and a sense of outrage, which became stronger than fear.
February 24 marks a day that should never be forgotten.