Scrappy labour movement leader Jack Munro earned wide respect

Jack Munro, a titan of the British Columbia labour movement for half a century, died Friday.

He was 82.

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A charismatic character known for his blunt but colourful language, Munro climbed the union ranks to lead the powerful International Woodworkers union in B.C. and ultimately serve as vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Bob Plecas, a former B.C. deputy minister who worked under six premiers, said Munro’s no-nonsense approach earned the respect of figures on both sides of the negotiating table. His fluent profanity had the power to turn a formal meeting into a “locker room” environment, while a handshake, to Munro, was a sworn contract.

“All the employers respected this guy. And he earned that respect not because they liked his message, but because he was a likable guy and he was as good as his word,” Plecas said.

“When he spoke, people listened. I was proud to call him a friend.”

Born in Lethbridge, Alta., in 1931, Munro grew up in poverty after his father died of tuberculosis when Munro was 11. He quit high school and went to work on a farm before entering the trades.

Munro realized how dangerous a job could be when he moved to Nelson to work at a sawmill and learned of the “astronomical” number of workplace deaths.

He became active in what was then called the International Woodworkers of America, rising to the role of president for B.C. by 1973.

Ten years later, Munro was central to a Solidarity movement that brought the province to the verge of a general strike, in protest of legislation proposed by the Social Credit government of the day. He was both celebrated and vilified when he flew to then premier Bill Bennett’s home in Kelowna to settle the dispute.

“He played a key role in heading off what was the sort of alarming escalation of political conflict in the mid-1980s,” said Norman Ruff, associate professor emeritus at the University of Victoria.

Munro represented an era of strength for the forestry industry, he said. “In a way, he’s a figure from another time.”

After four decades in the labour movement, Munro stepped down as vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1991. “But he never really understood the word retirement,” B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair said in a statement.

Munro became chairman of industry lobby group Forest Alliance of B.C. and spearheaded the creation of the Labour Heritage Society. In 1999, he was named to the Order of Canada.

Former B.C. premier Dan Miller said Munro was never afraid of a battle. Their relationship began with a fight that Miller called insignificant, but inspired mutual admiration.

“We had a knock ’em out, drag ’em out fight, which I really enjoyed and I think he did, too,” Miller said. “Once we got over that, I’ve got to say I was a big fan of Jack’s. He was passionate about British Columbia, the rights of working people and their rights to jobs and decent salaries.”

John Fryer engaged in many heated arguments with Munro, too, as general secretary of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. But he had “huge respect” for Munro, calling him a voice of calm and reason within the B.C. Federation of Labour.

“He was a sensible, straight-ahead guy. There was no, as he would call it, ‘looney-left radicalism’ about Jack.”

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said Munro loved gardening and had a softer side than he showed on the six o’clock news.

He did, however, recall one particular court appearance that landed his friend in trouble.

“Jack’s sitting in the courtroom, and he has a whisper at about 85 decibels,” Georgetti said.

The judge paused, removed his glasses and asked if Munro had something to say.

“Jack stands up and says, ‘Yeah, your honour, goddamnit.’ The judge whacks the gavel and says, ‘That’ll be $25,000.’ And he says, ‘Do you have anything else to say Mr. Munro?’ and Jack says, ‘No sir.’ ”

Premier Christy Clark said in a statement: “Jack Munro was a huge presence on the British Columbia landscape, a passionate man with a knack for making friends in every part of the province.”

Munro lost a battle with cancer.

“I think I’ve been very fortunate, and I had a great life,” he told the Labour Heritage Centre.

“I’m not smarter than anybody else, but it just seemed to work for me. It was good, and we had some great scraps.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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