After finish reading Rod Mickleburgh’s new history of the BC Labour movement ‘On the Line’, the first emotion I feel is anger. Anger at how the apparatus of the State, through the decades and at the behest of robber barons, company bosses and the corporate elite, have conspired to thwart working people from not only our rightful share of the economic bounty but simply having some measure of control of our lives. Whether they are baton wielding police or compliant black robed judges handing down injunctions or politicians crafting back to work legislation, it is all intended to keep us in our place.

Rod Mickleburgh is a former reporter for the Vancouver Sun and Province who covered what used to  called the ‘labour beat’, writing stories not just about strikes but about the issues that led to those strikes, and about the men and women who made up the union movement.

On the Line’ chronicles 150 years of labour history in BC starting with the role Indigenous workers played in shaping this province. The 150 years of history told here is packed with amazing events from the tragic to the inspirational. Some are well known like the Big Strike of 1912-14 in the coal mines of Vancouver Island and Operation Solidarity in 1983. Some stories have been forgotten, like the strike in 1976 in Kitimat where the RCMP, geared out in riot gear, routed the Smelter Workers’ picket line.  I pride myself in being relatively well versed in this history but a lot of the information was new to me.

Getting back to the anger I feel, there are hundreds of examples in this book I could refer to that demonstrate the injustices perpetuated on working folk but I will cite one, close to where we live. In 1938 the newly formed International Woodworkers of America (IWA) organized the workers at Blubber Bay on Texada Island. The limestone quarry workers, many of whom were Chinese-Canadians, struck after 23 pro-union workers were fired.

“It turned into a strike like no other, where authorities acted as a law unto themselves, reminiscent of the Deep South. Along with the usual trappings of a company store and company housing, PacLime owned virtually all property and every facility in the community. During the strike, school children had to obtain a pass to cross company roads merely to attend school. Strikers were denied access to telephone and telegraph services. When union leaders were able to find a phone, police monitored their calls. Strikers were followed and often thrashed by company thugs if they wandered too far astray. High barbed wire fences surrounded PacLime production sites. The officer in charge of the squads of provincial police sent in to protect strikebreakers helped recruit the scabs from provincial relief rolls.”

As working class power increased from about the Second World War on to the 1960’s, police force was still used to help companies break strikes but they started to use more civilized techniques such as court injunctions and anti-union legislation. The Socreds were particularly spiteful. One bill in 1959 “banned …. not only information and secondary picketing, …. but pamphlets or newspaper ads simply suggesting the public might not want to patronize certain anti-union employers.”  

Since the 1980’s BC labour has been on the defensive and Mickleburgh devotes a chapter to Operation Solidarity, which was both labour’s greatest moment and also its most shameful.  One quibble I have with the book is that it goes easy on Jack Munro. The book is sponsored by the Labour Heritage Centre (LHC) which does a wonderful job promoting and preserving our history. The LHC was the baby of Jack Munro who fought hard to get the LHC established and funded properly. As most people know, Munro, as leader of the IWA at the time, had a major role in what was ultimately a betrayal of all the community groups and organizations who allied themselves with Labour in the struggle against the  Fraser Institute inspired Bill Bennet blitzkrieg assault on progressive forces and institutions in this province. Correctly, Mickleburgh points out that it was not Munro’s decision alone, but Munro’s was the loudest and most influential voice for abandoning the community groups. It took a very long time for us in the BC labour movement to regain the trust of community groups again.

One of the strengths of ‘On the Line’ is that this is a ‘warts and all’ portrayal of the BC labour movement. Mickleburgh details the role unions played in the Oriental Exclusion League, and its silence when thousands of Japanese Canadians were forced from their homes and moved to internment camps. The sectarian battles that consumed so much energy and  finances, whether from the days of skilled craft unions refusing to help organize industrial workers, or the political battles between redbaiting conservative union leaders and militant communist organizers. Our slogan is solidarity but too frequently we do not live up to our ambitions.

While I do feel anger, this book also inspires me. In that 150 years there were so many forces arrayed against workers and their unions that it is amazing we have come as far as we have and that we have achieved as much as we have.  There are many strikes and battles outlined in this book that we lost but even in those we win because we hold our heads high and we remember and we are ready the next time. That is the important part of books like this. They retell our stories, so as we go forward we remember that we were not the first. That is important to remember, not just for union folk but for those of us who are fighting for a better life, not just for ourselves or our families, but for everyone.

This book should be part of the school curriculum but until it is I urge you to buy it for a friend or a family member. It is beautifully illustrated with dozens of fascinating stories and characters who make up our history.

Brian Charlton

Columnist, Tide Change