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B.C. is Canada’s capital of labour activism

The history of British Columbia’s labour movement, the most militant in Canada, had one of its beginnings in Victoria, with city bakers organizing a union, says the author of a new book on B.C.’s union history.

The history of British Columbia’s labour movement, the most militant in Canada, had one of its beginnings in Victoria, with city bakers organizing a union, says the author of a new book on B.C.’s union history.

Rod Mickleburgh, author of On the Line, A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement, said the first known record of any union in B.C. is those bakers organizing in Victoria in 1859-60.

“We don’t know much about them except for one mention in a local newspaper,” said Mickleburgh. “But the first union we know of in B.C. was in Victoria, those bakers.”

His book, he says, is the first comprehensive look at B.C. labour history. It starts in 1789 when Capt. James Cook sailed into Nootka Sound. It ends in 2017 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the provincial Liberal government was out of line when it overturned the teachers’ 2002 negotiated contracts.

Mickleburgh, now retired, was labour reporter for the Vancouver Sun and Province and former senior writer for the Globe and Mail. When he first began as a labour reporter, one of two at the Vancouver Sun, he worked an evening shift and spent many hours on the phone with labour leaders and became fascinated.

“These are not ordinary, run-of-the-mill type of people,” he said. “Ordinary people just don’t become labour leaders, because it takes an extraordinary type of person, and B.C. is full of them.”

For Mickleburgh, what sets the B.C. labour scene apart from those in other provinces is its consistent militancy.

“The labour movement in B.C. has been militant for about 150 years,” he said. “There is a real tradition of union militancy in British Columbia that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Canada.”

He agreed Quebec has had some moments of union militancy, particularly during the governments of Maurice Duplessis (in office 1936-1939 and 1944-1959). But Quebec labour was tied to the province’s unique historical battles, principally against the power of the Roman Catholic Church. Labour militancy tended to be more sporadic than in B.C.

Mickleburgh said the B.C. labour mindset has always been based more on a foundation of “class struggle” than solely on determination to get workers better money and working conditions.

He said the mindset can be traced to British Columbia’s development as a resource-based economy, where other provinces started with farmers.

Agriculture provides a stable economic and social base to build a professional, middle class. But B.C.’s landscape offers comparatively few farming opportunities. So those who moved here went to work mining, fishing and logging.

“Right off the bat you had a scene for a class struggle,” said Mickleburgh. “It was the working class taking on the owners.”

“Companies and corporations and moguls and barons, all those people wanted to exploit the resources for as much profit as possible,” he said. “Part of that was paying workers as little as possible and putting them in conditions that were as bad as possible.”

The first evidence of labour action is in 1850. The Hudson’s Bay Company had recruited experienced deep-tunnel miners from Scotland to exploit a newly discovered coal site on Vancouver Island near Nanaimo.

But when those Scottish miners arrived they found no working site, no homes, no proper food and a suspicious Indigenous population who had previously been doing the surface mining themselves. So the Scots went on strike.

First Nations people were the first workers in B.C., before the striking Scots. Even with the various disease horrors introduced by Europeans, Indigenous peoples were in the majority until 1890.

“Who were the first miners? Who were the first loggers? Who were the first fishermen and who was working on the docks first of all?” he said. “All that stuff was mostly First Nations.”

“[The First Nations] regarded it as trade,” said Mickleburgh. “They gave their labour and in return they got wages.”

This led to a historic event in 1906, when First Nations dockworkers in Vancouver organized their own union, known as the Bows and Arrows. The group affiliated with the radical Industrial Workers of the World.

The class-struggle aspect of B.C. labour history led to the Great Vancouver Island Coal Strike, 1912-1914, the most protracted, toughest fight in the province’s history.

One of the leaders of that strike, Ginger Goodwin, would later go into hiding when he was declared fit for the First World War. A special constable tracked down and shot Goodwin in 1918.

Horrified by Goodwin’s killing, union workers in Vancouver shut down Vancouver in protest, Canada’s first general strike.

In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, the On to Ottawa Trek began in B.C. Workers living in relief camps protested their conditions and pay and staged a two-month protest in Vancouver before boarding freight cars on eastbound trains.

That protest ended in a riot in Regina with many protesters hospitalized and two people killed.

Mickleburgh said that in researching the book, what most surprised him was the continual pattern of struggle and loss for the early B.C. labour movement, because no company was required to recognize its union. Companies sometimes increased wages and improved conditions, but never signed a contract.

“A union would go on strike. The company would hire strike breakers. The strike breakers would get protection from police, government, the courts and vigilantes,” he said. “The deck was pretty well stacked against the unions.”

Mickleburgh said it wasn’t until the Second World War, when war production made workers essential, that government acted. Legislation obliging employers to recognize and deal with their unions meant labour started to score successes.

In B.C., with resource extraction and processing still paramount, this led to wins and improved lives for many union workers. By 1958, more than half of all workers in B.C. were unionized, 53.9 per cent.

Mickleburgh said the influence and the extent of industrial union activism in B.C. has declined in recent years. Unions did not become unpopular, but the union workforce shrank as industrial companies scaled back. Free trade, automation and the modern movement of capital have cut back workers’ opportunities.

“It’s not so much workers are leaving unions in the private sector,” he said. “It’s just that there aren’t as many industrial workers anymore.”

One of the last provincially significant actions for industrial unions in B.C. was Operation Solidarity in 1983. It was notable for its near-revolutionary joining of unions, community associations and rights advocacy groups.

Brought together to battle the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett and its attempts to enact a wide variety of anti-union and anti-rights bills, Operation Solidarity took the province to the brink of a general strike.

Union leaders, however, balked at the notion of a widespread walkout. Jack Munro, president of the loggers’ union, the IWA-Canada, and then vice-president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, flew to Bennett’s home in Kelowna and signed an accord calling off Operation Solidarity.

The government conceded and withdrew a few union-specific moves. But its broad-based campaign of cutbacks and deregulation went ahead, leaving a lingering sense of betrayal.

Since then, the largest union victories in B.C. have been fought out in the Supreme Court of Canada. In 2007, the Hospital Employees’ Union won a landmark victory when the court ruled collective bargaining is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2016, B.C. teachers won a similar ruling.

But Mickleburgh said it’s significant both court victories involved public-sector unions instead of any from private industry.

Also significant is the 2014 election of Irene Lanzinger as president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. Lanzinger is the first woman to be elected to the post. The former head of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, she is the first public-sector employee to head the provincial organization.

“Public-sector unions are still strong, and they are the majority of the union movement now,” said Mickleburgh.

But he said nobody in British Columbia should diminish the impact of industrial unions on the province today. Better working conditions, better overtime and holiday laws are all a result of union effort.

Mickleburgh said Victorians can still find little reminders of labour history. Swans Hotel, for example, is brewing and serving a commemorative beer named Thomas Uphill Amber Ale.

Uphill (1874-1962) was the longest serving MLA in B.C.’s history, representing a Kootenay riding from 1920 to 1960. He was also a stout labour supporter and notably battled hard against Prohibition until it was repealed in 1921.

Look closely at the labels and posters for Thomas Uphill Amber Ale and you’ll see tiny depictions of leaflets bearing words he first uttered in the B.C. legislature.

“Hands off the workers’ beer.”

Rod Mickleburgh will talk about his new book and the B.C. labour movement on Thursday, May 17, at the Bard and Banker, 1022 Government St., 7 - 9 p.m.