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OPINION: Labour Day, Her Majesty, and the Polymer strike of 1959

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Bob Boulton

Bob Boulton

For a few days in 1959 it seemed as though Queen Elizabeth herself had reigned over labour relations in Sarnia —and helped feed my friend’s family in the process.

These days, we all use the services of Sarnia-Lambton’s more than 15,000 unionized employees. But among those who worked at the Polymer Rubber Corporation back then was my friend’s father, Mr. SP, a modest gentleman and a princely commoner.

Mr. SP was a great reader and probably knew Labour Day had been a statutory holiday since 1894. The day recognizes a demonstration held more than 20 years earlier, when workers marched for the release of 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union.

Unions were illegal, and the leadership was imprisoned for striking for a nine-hour workday.

Sarnia’s Polymer was a Crown Corporation and on March 18, 1959 its employees went on strike. For more than three months both sides loudly invested in their respective positions.

Mr. SP had relocated to the city to work at the plant. He was a quiet man, by temperament and persuasion. He’d been raised as a member of the Religious Society of Friends, known as the Quakers. When, after two months, he said, “This is past being funny,” it was a notable event.

Unknown to him, the young queen was sailing to the rescue.

As part of her first official tour of Canada, Elizabeth was scheduled to make a stop right here in Sarnia, for a whole 90 minutes.

It seems to me preposterous to think the federal government would allow the Royal Couple — with Prince Philip personally steering the Royal Yacht Britannia up the St Clair River — to arrive at the nation’s industrial jewel and be greeted by noisy strikers.

The Polymer strike lasted 96 days and was reportedly settled on June 22, just 11 days before they stepped ashore.

Mr. SP was able to return to work and feed his family. And laugh, or at least smile, again.

In some households, Labour Day is the last day before children return to school. Mercifully, for both the kids and their parents.

As for the Queen, a few years later she waltzed with the Prime Minister of Ghana, started drinking a single before-dinner cocktail of gin and Dubonnet, and oversaw the practical transformation of an Empire into a Commonwealth.

All very well, mind you. Hugs all around.

But we can’t forget the time Her Majesty’s imminent arrival in Sarnia also coincided with the resolution of a long and bitter industrial strike —and the re-employment of the noble Mr. SP.

 

Bob Boulton is a Sarnia writer and the creator of a blog for new and renewing writers, bobswritefromthestart.blogspot.com

 

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