Love's Gay Fool. Autobiography of John Alan Lee.


Chapter 10. Class War in Newfoundland


January 3, 1959. Bishop's Falls, Newfoundland. I drove here from Toronto in two days (including the ferry); no mean feat for a solo driver in winter. Jean has moved back to her parents' home while I'm gone. Since my brother needs a place to live he'll occupy our apartment on Langley.

The union has its office here, in a converted bungalow, because the town of Grand Falls, where the paper mill is located, is a company-owned town, and obviously we're not welcome. I've been given the back bedroom as my office. There's a folding bed and I sleep here, doubling as night watchman.

My job is to oversee the financial operation of the strike. Experience as treasurer of Howland House will come in handy. When the strike was called, the local IWA had a tiny reserve. We can draw on district IWA funds under Harvey's control, but only for tens of thousands. This strike will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There’s no "strike pay;" union members must survive on their savings. But the union will provide emergency relief, and every day individual members come to the office from all over the island to request relief -- not merely food and fuel, but winter clothing for kids, assistance with mortgage payments. We've opened a Pandora's box. Here's how I started today:

"New tires for your car? There's no way the union can pay for that."

"But I'm the picket captain. If I can't get around, the picket lines will collapse. Come and take a look at my tires. They're bald and dangerous."

Of course the tires were bald when the strike began, perhaps from a summer vacation "on the mainland." But what could I do -- seek out another picket captain with better tires?

January 21. In an island community of small villages and intermarried families, word gets around. Today a logger came in: "You gave Andy a new set of tires. My car needs tires too..."

January 22. Our money is running out, and I'm attempting a novel solution: printing money. Well, almost. I've designed voucher forms: "The IWA promises to pay the sum of .... Dollars in Canadian currency, to the merchant who exchanges this note for ... (food or fuel oil or whatever I write in) for the family of ... (union member's name). I’ve tried to design the vouchers to discourage counterfeiting, but my safest bet is that there aren't many mimeographing machines accessible to loggers. [Modern photocopying did not exist on the island in 1959].

I have to verify that a pleading logger standing in front of me is actually married and living with his family. And somehow assess that he is destitute. We can't afford to help single men. No one has any idea how many weeks this strike could last --possibly until spring break-up. I'm printing lots of vouchers.

When a logger returns home he presents the IWA voucher to his merchant (many communities have only one general store). A piece of mimeographed paper is intrinsically worthless (actually a Canadian dollar-bill is too!) But the local merchant depends on the loggers almost as much as the loggers depend on him. Year after year --sometimes for generations -- the general store has supplied the same families.

February 2. We're managing to keep our strikers fed and warm; most merchants are accepting vouchers. A few are suspicious, and actually drive all the way from distant villages, to hand me the vouchers they've accepted and demand payment in cash, on the spot.

I understand their anxiety, but we don't have the money to write a cheque. Most merchants can't replenish their own supplies by passing on the vouchers because wholesalers --who do not have the same dependency on local families -- want no part of them.

My job now is to stall, stall, stall. I explain that our funds come from the mainland, and must be properly administered. I give the merchant a receipt for his vouchers, and promise a cheque in the mail. When he phones (if he has access to a phone), I blame the slow mails, the weather, a visit from the mainland auditor which is delaying cheque writing, or whatever white lie I can invent. Fortunately most merchants are mailing in the vouchers; they know the local family will have to pay if the IWA does not.

February 7. I've never told so many lies in all my life. Perhaps the fact that I am "from away" (the mainland) makes it difficult for the merchants to accuse me to my face. "Our treasurer is out of town and cannot sign the cheque." Or, "He's with our banker today." Or, "The cheques must be counter-signed by the union president and he's on the mainland." "No, of course we don't keep cash on hand. Do I want a robber breaking in some night while I'm here all alone?"

February 17. It's working; we have stretched the time between a logger getting his food, and the merchant his money, to almost a month. By using incoming donations to judiciously pay a little bit on each merchant's account we spread the assurance that eventually all vouchers will be redeemed.

February 20. Donations of strike support are slowly trickling in from the mainland, and a few Newfoundland unions have helped us. Harvey phones from somewhere in North America almost every day to see how things are going here. He's crisscrossing the continent to plead our case with union leaders.

February 25. Every morning I open the mail, and my spirits jump when it's a big cheque from one of the larger unions on the mainland. Even small cheques can be a moving experience -- workers in tiny locals in places I've never heard of, reaching into their pockets to support distant loggers on strike.

March 3. I'm terribly lonely. Few of the local IWA staff are comfortable with me. They seem to feel a mix of awe and alienation for this 25-year old university graduate/ union official "from away." I lack Harvey's common touch.

Jean and I exchange letters often enough, and phone calls occasionally, but they’re no substitute for personal company. Hank Skinner and his wife invite me for Sunday dinner; Hank is not a logger but a college-educated journalist. Harvey hired him to handle our public relations. I've let the Skinners see how lonely I am, newly married, far from home, living in an office. They've been very kind.

March 11. I keep sane by reading. My loneliness is somewhat relieved by Colin Wilson's new book, The Outsider, an astonishing masterpiece for a young man. [I will turn to Wilson many times over the next forty years, in a bid to claim my identity, or as Wilson puts it, "attempt to gain control].”

Wilson's insights echo my own condition of standing outside reality, observing it, and myself in it, and wondering why those around me don't feel the same distance or alienation. Their lives are simply responses to the events that happen to them; I struggle to make my life happen. I long for the grandeur of self-understanding, but I dread the anguish that must come with it.

April 2. I'm back home at Langley. The strike is broken, the companies have won, but the IWA maintains the pretence of a strike to keep donations coming in. We need a million dollars to pay off vouchers redeemed by merchants.

May 15. Life is back to normal. After so much of our first year apart, Jean and I are exuberant with ardent love-making. I'm having a lot of trouble tolerating Jean's new cat. I do not like cats. I'm back to CCF work and I've been elected to the national board of the Canadian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

June 21. Jean is pregnant. She's convinced that she conceived during an ecstatic night just after my return. We're having sex everywhere -- in the shower, on the flat roof deck -- trying all sorts of positions.

My IWA work has changed. I'm preparing and presenting union briefs to conciliation boards. Its the last stage before strike action. I’m responsible for researching data to support our arguments, thus my sociology training is useful.


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