BC labour leader Jack Munro, who died today at 82, started in the trade union movement in Nelson. While a welder and millwright at Kootenay Forest Products in the 1960s he joined the International Woodworkers of America and led interior members in a 224-day strike.
Later, as IWA president for almost 20 years, he became the craggy face of labour in the province and was central to ending the 1983 Solidarity movement against the Social Credit government — earning him scorn from activists and lampooning by West Kootenay poet Tom Wayman.
Several chapters of Munro’s autobiography, Union Jack, are devoted to his time in Nelson. After he was laid off by the CPR in Lethbridge in late 1958, he moved here with his wife and two kids and took a job with the railway’s diesel shop.
Despite claustrophobia, the Alberta-raised Munro grew to like the city and rented a house at 722 Observatory (civic directories show he later lived at 524B Robson and 706 Observatory).
But there was trouble at work: longtime employees felt threatened by newcomers like Munro. “It was a pretty significant split. People were madder than hell,” he wrote.
He began attending union meetings and got a frosty reception. “We had some major goddamn fights. But by this time, I was getting pretty confident in meetings. I didn’t mind speaking out.”
Munro felt his brethren were too preoccupied with internal bickering to notice the raw deal they were getting from management. But it became a moot point when he was laid off again.
He worked briefly at Mac’s welding shop, then caught on at Kootenay Forest Products, at the time one of Nelson’s biggest employers. He considered it the turning point of his career.
He joined the IWA and — after mouthing off to a foreman — agreed to be shop steward, a job nobody else wanted. A year later, he was elected plant chairman.
“For the first time I had to give speeches,” he recalled. “It scared the heck out of me. I still remember the first big speech I ever made … It was terrible, terrible, one of the worst days of my life.”
Munro quickly overcame his aversion to public speaking.
‘Most important strike’
Despite — or perhaps because of — his reputation as a rabble-rouser, in 1962 Munro was hired as an IWA business agent and given an office on Front Street.
Though responsible for the entire Kootenays, he felt more at home in the more-militant West Kootenay.
Munro opposed a settlement for local workers that was less than their coastal counterparts. He narrowly lost that battle, but pledged it wouldn’t happen again.
Munro became president of the Nelson-Trail and District Labour Council, a member of Notre Dame University’s advisory board, and joined the New Democratic Party.
In 1966 he ran in Nelson-Creston against Social Credit incumbent Wes Black — whom he loathed — but campaigning wasn’t his strong suit. Handlers had to remind him not stare at the ceiling while giving a speech and attending tea parties was excruciating: “Trying to balance a cup of tea on my knee while eating a graham cracker and talking to a bunch of women was not something I was very good at.”
He actually enjoyed the experience more than expected, but was bitterly disappointed at his distant second-place finish to Black. Nevertheless, he remained active in politics, and squired Tommy Douglas around the riding when the federal NDP leader visited.
After the election, Munro returned to union activities with renewed determination to achieve wage parity and matching contract dates for the IWA’s interior members. Following intense negotiations, an industrial inquiry commissioner was appointed, but his recommendations were overwhelmingly rejected and thousands of workers walked out in October 1967.
“It was a tough strike, long and bitter, but it was probably the single most important event that shaped me into the style of union leader that I am today,” Munro wrote.
It lasted seven and a half months. Munro was in court several times for blocking logging roads and arrested for “causing a disturbance by shouting” on Hall Street.
When Kootenay Forest Products planned to bring in strikebreakers, Munro led 150 workers in a march down Baker Street. “It was an amazing sight and gave us all a tremendous sense of purpose,” he said. “The scabs got our message. So did the employers.”
The mill at Castlegar struck its own deal after 119 days, but the rest of the interior stayed out over the winter. The employers eventually relented on money but not on contract expiry dates. Their offer was again overwhelmingly rejected, but a negotiated settlement followed shortly thereafter that brought workers within 14 cents of parity. The union had spent over $3 million out of its strike fund.
“It was the most important strike in my life,” Munro recalled. “That strike completely changed me. I had 4,000 or 5,000 people really dependent on my decisions. They were giving up everything because of the decisions I was making.”
After the strike ended in May 1968, Munro was elected third vice-president of the IWA and moved to Vancouver. He became president in 1973 and held the job until his retirement in 1992.