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Then & Now: Mike Solski, last of Mine Mill Local 598 faithful

Two weeks ago, Vicki Gilhula shared the tale of the time Mike Solski was shot during a town council meeting. In Part Two this week, she tells the other part of the Solski saga, that of his time as head and one of the last holdouts, of Local 598, once the country’s most powerful labour union

Mike Solski, the former mayor of Nickel Centre, made headlines in 1978 when he was almost killed by an angry property owner who was later found not guilty of attempted murder by reason of insanity. brought you the first part of that story on July 21. You can read that part here.

It's a wonder someone had not tried to shoot him before. Solski had been a powerful and controversial union leader during the Cold War and Red Scare following the Second World War.

Solski was a founder and a president of Local 598 of the International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, which represented almost 20,000 workers at Inco and Falconbridge. It was the largest single union local in the country. 

A vocal opponent to the United Steelworkers of America’s campaign to represent the mines’ mighty unionized work forces from 1949 to 1962, Solski was seen as an ally of the Mine Mill's national and international leaders, many of whom were accused of being communists. He denied accusations he was under the influence of the Communist Party, but the stain remained even when he ran unsuccessfully as the Liberal candidate in Sudbury East against NDP Elie Martel in 1967.

The late journalist Mick Lowe, who wrote three novels about the "Steel Raids" and who passed away in 2021, interviewed Solski before his death at 81 in 1999. You can watch that interview here.

Lowe wrote Solski's obituary, which was published in "The Globe and Mail," Nov. 19. 1999.

 “Mike well remembered the days when the smelter manager was automatically elected mayor of Coniston, and when shift bosses would arrive at workers’ homes unannounced demanding their annual Christmas tribute – cash or a bottle of booze."

Solski played an organizing role at the Coniston smelter for Mine Mill. Some of the meetings were held outside because landlords were too fearful of backlash from Inco to rent space to the organizers. Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Local 598 was certified in 1944.

He was local president in 1958 when members struck Inco for the first time. 

"The strike lasted a painful three months, and set the stage for the later raids on Local 598 by the Steelworkers," wrote Lowe.

Solski announced an agreement had been reached with Inco just days before Christmas. A three-year contract and a six-per-cent wage increase over three years was offered. This amounted to pennies on the hourly wage of $3, but the settlement was considered a victory for the union. Still, Solski lost his bid for local president the next year.

Inco unionized workers voted to join the Steelworkers in 1962 by a thin margin, but Mine Mill Local 598 continued to represent approximately 2,000 hourly-rated employees at Falconbridge until 1993.

So many families depended on the mining companies directly or indirectly during the "Steel Raids," the community was split between supporting Mine Mill, considered radical by many, and the more moderate Steelworkers.

Sixty years later, the divisions have healed but the stories of the bloody and violent struggle are legend. It is considered the most bitter and violent inter-union conflict in Canadian history. 

Solski, who was still employed by Inco in 1962, reluctantly joined the Steelworkers. 

He ran successfully for mayor of Coniston in 1962, a position he retained until 1972, and was mayor of Nickel Centre from 1973 to 1978. During this time, Solski was vice-chair of the regional government and a member of the Sudbury Regional Police Commission, the Police Governing Authority of Ontario, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the Sudbury General Hospital Board and the Coniston Hydro Commission. 

In 1984, Solski co-authored, with Jack Smaller, "Mine Mill: The History of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in Canada since 1895."

The Mine Mill Union merged  with the Steelworkers in 1967, though Local 598 voted against it and remained the last remnant of Mine Mill until 1993, when it joined with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). In 2013, Mine Mill joined Unifor. It has never given up the name "Mine Mill".

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Then & Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


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Vicki Gilhula

About the Author: Vicki Gilhula

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer.
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