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BENNETT, PHILIP, machinist and labour organizer; b. c. 1876 in Cupids, Nfld; twice married, with three children; d. 10 Aug. 1922 in St John’s.

Philip Bennett’s life traced several important patterns. He was one of many young Newfoundlanders compelled to emigrate to Canada in search of work and, like others, he did so with the intention of returning home. His job experiences off the Island brought him into contact with labour leaders and helped shape his working-class consciousness. Upon completion of his training as a machinist in Nova Scotia, Bennett found employment in St John’s in the railway shops of the Reid Newfoundland Company [see Sir Robert Gillespie Reid*; Sir William Duff Reid], the largest employer on the Island. The company’s high profile and tough-minded management style made it a target of labour activism, especially in St John’s where it engaged nearly 25 per cent of the male labour force.

Bennett’s activism fitted a discernible trend among skilled craftsmen. Across North America machinists assumed leadership roles in the fight for union recognition and workers’ control on the shop floor as part of a larger project for social justice. The Reid railway sheds were perhaps the one location in Newfoundland where working men of different trades and skills could share their opinions, vent their frustrations, and express their hopes for the future. The coming of World War I, and the harsh realities of profiteering merchants, rampant inflation, and poor housing conditions, rallied workers to the cause of forming one big industrial union to unite the island. In April 1917 Bennett and several other Reid employees founded what shortly became known as the Newfoundland Industrial Workers’ Association. As its first president, Bennett brought a determined social activism and a measure of pragmatism to his duties. Lacking the charisma of William Ford Coaker*, the leader of the Fishermen’s Protective Union, he appealed to his followers as a humble yet resolute man who shared their vision for social reform.

Having started with 35 members, the NIWA claimed over 3,500 by the following year. Unlike earlier attempts at unionization, which had been split by religious sectarianism and the ever-present conflict between urban dwellers and baymen, the association parlayed initial enthusiasm into concrete membership gains. Inquiries came from communities throughout the island. The union soon began to push for progressive legislation that included limits on child labour, workers’ compensation, factory acts, worker-owned housing, and cooperative retail ventures. Bennett was active in the NIWA Co-operative Stores, established early in 1918. Sensitive to issues of gender, the association organized a “ladies’ branch” under Julia Salter* Earle that August in the hope attracting working women into its ranks. Bennett was particularly moved to act in the interests of children and “girl workers,” who he felt were exploited by local merchants. The previous May the NIWA had started its own biweekly newspaper, the Industrial Worker, and in 1919, in an effort to rise above traditional party politics, it formed an independent Workingmen’s party.

Wartime circumstances had pushed the NIWA into its most dramatic event, a strike against the Reid Newfoundland Company, early in 1918. On 27 March the machinists, electricians, blacksmiths, and general labourers of the railway shops in St John’s downed tools and left the premises. These workers were joined by many others in what soon assumed the shape of a general strike. The walkout was timed to coincide with the end of the annual seal hunt. This move pressured Reid since delays in servicing returning sealers would have considerable consequences on the local economy. Although the central issue was low wages, more complex matters of job classifications and workplace rights also played a part. Bennett himself opposed strikes on principle, but his efforts to obtain a negotiated settlement met with the steely resistance of Reid managers, who doubted the association’s ability to sustain the walkout. Yet the strike held: telegrams of support proclaiming “all solid along the line” were transmitted by NIWA branches along the length of Reid’s Newfoundland Railway.

Even with the impressive solidarity of the strikers the NIWA needed the help of the government of William Frederick Lloyd* to broker an agreement. It was in these discussions that Bennett’s diplomacy and tact proved invaluable. A formula to settle the dispute was reached with the company on 12 April; modest wage increases and guarantees of fair job classifications were negotiated later. More important, perhaps, was that the men and women of the union had taken on Newfoundland’s largest employer and forced it to allow its workers to organize and to bargain collectively.

Following the strike, Bennett’s deteriorating health due to tuberculosis led to reduced activity on behalf of the NIWA. In 1919 he stepped down as president to serve instead as vice-president. Declining his organization’s offer of an expenses-paid trip to a Canadian sanatorium, he continued to travel and organize for the NIWA until obliged, eventually, to retire. The association itself would endure, despite severe post-war depression, until 1943. By that time Islanders could turn to other national and international union organizations. When he died in St John’s at the age of 46, Bennett left a legacy of working-class militancy which has remained vibrant in Newfoundland and Labrador to this day.

Peter S. McInnis

Memorial Univ. of Nfld, Folklore and Language Arch. (St John’s), Tape C-7232 (R. Hattenhauer, interview with T. C. Noel, 26 May 1967). PANL, GN 2/5, file 344; MG 17, files 365–410; MG 73, 1916–25. Daily News (St John’s), 1916–22. Evening Advocate (St John’s), 1922. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 1916–22. Industrial Worker (St John’s), 18 May 1918. St. John’s Daily Star, 1916–21. The book of Newfoundland, ed. J. R. Smallwood et al. (6v., St John’s, 1937–75; vols.1–2 repr. [1968] and 1979). Ron Crawley, “Off to Sydney: Newfoundlanders emigrate to industrial Cape Breton, 1890–1914,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 17 (1987–88), no.2: 27–51. DNLB (Cuff et al.). P. [S.] McInnis, “All solid along the line: the Reid Newfoundland strike of 1918,” Labour (St John’s), 26 (1990): 61–84. A. B. Morine, The railway contract, 1898, and afterwards: 1883–1933 (St John’s, 1933). P. [F.] Neary, “Canadian immigration policy and the Newfoundlanders, 1912–1939,” Acadiensis, 11 (1981–82), no.2: 69–83.

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Cite This Article

Peter S. McInnis, “BENNETT, PHILIP,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bennett_philip_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bennett_philip_15E.html
Author of Article:   Peter S. McInnis
Title of Article:   BENNETT, PHILIP
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   September 29, 2023