The makings of a union: BCGEU at 50

Fifty years ago on Sunday, Oct. 5, 1969, the BCGEU (British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union) was born. It was an event that was to change fundamentally and forever public- sector labour relations in both our province and our country.

The decision was taken at the final meeting of the BCGEA (British Columbia Government Employees’ Association) held at the Inn of the North in Prince George. There, the delegates voted by a small margin to turn their organization into a union. At the same time, they also decided to increase dues by 50 per cent and to mount a concerted campaign to win full collective bargaining for all provincial government workers.

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My own involvement began in January 1969 at the Island Hall Hotel in Parksville. It was where the Ottawa-based Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and B.C. Federation of Labour held a winter training school. As director of research for the CLC, my task was to lead a week-long course on economics. In the class of some 20 students there were two B.C. ferry workers, Norman Thornber, their business agent, and his assistant, Ray Whitehead.

As the week progressed, after many conversations over both coffee and beer, they pressed upon me an intriguing proposition. They wanted me to seek the position of general secretary of the BCGEA. The incumbent, Edward Patrick O’Connor, had recently announced his early retirement due partly to growing criticism from within about the ineffectiveness of the employee association he and others had created back in 1943.

Veteran Times Colonist reporter Roger Stonebanks has described the BCGEA as “a cross between a social club and a debating society, held together by charter flights to the old country as much as anything.” The two ferry workers insisted that they and many others throughout the provincial government ranks wanted big changes.

They urged me to go with them to Vancouver to meet groups of highways workers, liquor board workers, mental-health workers, vocational instructors and others, all of whom they claimed would join a fight to win for the province’s own employees the same rights already granted other workers in the province.

Having worked with the civil-rights movement in the United States for several years, I knew that change was possible but only through the efforts of ordinary people willing to make personal sacrifices for their cause.

The many meetings in Vancouver left me tired but inspired that those wanting change for government employees were truly sincere. They had both the will to make changes and were prepared to work hard to make it happen. Further, they realized that the essential first step was to replace their ineffective employee association with a real union. What they lacked was the leadership and strategic skills to make it happen.

Back in Ottawa, I sat down with my boss, CLC president Donald MacDonald, and told him of the proposal made during my visit west. He was initially pretty negative, having recently appointed me director of research after an extensive search to find a replacement for Eugene Forsey, who Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had recently named as a senator.

We met again and gradually a plan formed predicated on the notion that if we could succeed in forming an effective union and gain bargaining rights for provincial workers on the West Coast, then maybe that model might be used by other provincial employees to do the same. At that time, only government workers in Quebec and Saskatchewan had bargaining rights of any kind and only in British Columbia was their employee association affiliated to the trade union movement.

Thus it was decided that I would seek the position of general secretary in B.C. An interview was scheduled at the Doric-Howe Hotel in downtown Vancouver. Upon arrival, I bumped into Don Crabbe, regional director for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). He simply commiserated that my journey from Ottawa had been a waste of time as he “already had it in the bag.” The interviews took place, followed by a secret ballot of the entire provincial executive, all of whom but one voted to offer me the position.

My first day on the job was July 2, 1969. Well aware of the daunting tasks ahead, the small staff plus groups of activists began busily preparing for the upcoming October convention.

The agreed-to priorities were the name change, a hike in resources, the winding up of the BCGEA, plus adoption of a detailed strategic plan for attaining bargaining rights that included the right to strike. The final convention of the BCGEA was called to order by its president, Norman T. Richards. When he gavelled the convention to a close three days later on the afternoon of Oct. 5, it was in his new role as the first president of the BCGEU.

Right away we began a series of innovative tactics to highlight our campaign for bargaining rights. First, we subjected to a membership ratification vote the unilateral salary hike announced by Premier W.A.C. Bennett during his annual retiree luncheon at the Empress hotel. We began a series of training schools to teach our activists both the mechanics and tactics of negotiations. We adopted a totally new union structure based upon occupational rather than geographical groupings. And we grabbed national attention on the front page of the Globe and Mail by flying a banner towed by a small plane over the B.C. legislature, urging the provincial secretary, Wesley Black, to sit down with us to discuss bargaining rights.

The voters of the province also helped us, when in August 1972, they turfed out the two-decade-long Social Credit administration of W.A.C. Bennett, replacing it with the NDP government of premier Dave Barrett.

Barrett had himself been a victim of both the Bennett government and the ineffective BCGEA. As a probation officer in 1959, he had sought and won a CCF nomination to run against Bennett’s minister of labour, Bert Price. He was fired and the association claimed it was unable to defend him.

In 1974, the Public Service Labour Relations Act was passed granting full bargaining rights. Interestingly that law remains essentially unchanged to this day. The BCGEU negotiated collective agreements that were the envy of colleagues across the country, containing provisions such as the 35-hour work week, the right to use sick leave to tend for a sick child, the right to refuse overtime plus some healthy pay hikes.

By1976, the BCGEU was the biggest union in the province and in May was a founding member of the new National Union of Provincial Government Employees (NUPGE). Known today as the National Union of Public and General Employees with close to 400,000 members, it is Canada’s second largest union and an affiliate of the CLC.

All of which is both an affirmation of the aphorism attributed to Margaret Mead about the power of small groups as well as a tribute to the proud legacy of that small band of long ago and now mostly forgotten activists who were determined to win for themselves and their fellow employees the same rights at work already granted other workers in the province. It was a privilege to have worked with them and this golden anniversary is surely the appropriate time to honour their memory.

John Fryer was general secretary of the BCGEU from 1969 to 1983 and president of the NUPGE from 1980 to 1990.

Postscript: The late John Shields, who was the BCGEU’s second president, wrote as follows in 1990 about John Fryer’s contribution: “As general secretary, he transformed the B.C. Government Employees’ Association from a staff society to the largest labour union in British Columbia. As national president of NUPGE, his leadership has helped shape the character of many of Canada’s public service unions. The footprints of John Fryer are the footprints of a pioneer.”

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