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“Digging into History” by John Mountain, Vol. 1 No. 1 (January, 2019)

These first few blog posts are backdated issues of John Mountain’s historical newsletter “Digging into History”. As of March 2020, John had been working on sorting the collection for over a year and a half, publishing a newsletter every month detailing his findings.

Every magazine article or piece of writing created for public consumption normally begins with figuring out a catchy title that would hopefully be memorable or outstanding and maybe even remarkable. This piece of writing is no different. Digging Into History – the title – is what I have been doing for the last six months as I burrow into a mountain of dusty boxes that contain the International Woodworkers of America archives now located at the Kaatza Museum in Lake Cowichan. Don’t know if it’s remarkable, but I hope the title works for you!

Deciding on a title really was not that difficult because it’s “simply describing what I’m doing” – head down, elbows deep, digging through boxes of what was left of the IWA files and records once the IWA ceased to exist after the 2005 merger with the United Steelworkers (USW). And as bits and pieces of the IWA story pass through my hands, fascinating stories and colorful union leaders that are the foundation of the union’s history are presenting themselves in a way that compels me to share the narrative with others who might be interested the union history. After all, a lot of what happened had its roots in the Cowichan Lake area.

This current piece of writing and the future articles that follow are intended to do just that; to share interesting bits and pieces of what was found as this archive material as it’s sorted and categorized for storage in the museum. I’ve been at it for six months now and not yet even close to halfway through the stack of boxes that number into the hundreds. I’m looking forward to discovering and sharing treasures that may be deeply buried; it’s like opening up a new box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get!

Bit of background on how the IWA archives found their way to the Kaatza Museum and a little on my relationship with the archives; there are two story threads that converged back in 2013 when I had not yet retired from my position with the United Steelworkers labour union. While based in the USW District 3 Burnaby office, I worked as a union staff representative for the Toronto-based Canadian National Office of the United Steelworkers.

I was the administrator of all industry-union jointly-managed forest industry job evaluation and rate determination programs in Western Canada. Initially a IWA Local 1-80 sawmill worker on Vancouver Island, I began my union career at the IWA National Office in Vancouver in 1998 where my job evaluation and rate determination administrative work took me all over British Columbia and the Prairie provinces. In my time working for the union, I met so many worthy individuals in the union and the industry and learned allot about union history.

In 2005 the IWA ceased to exist when it merged with the United Steelworkers. And when unions merge there is always a house-cleaning of sorts to remove or discard anything related to or branded with the vanquished union. The IWA was packed away and in this case, boxes of records and files, and banners and flags, pictures and convention memorabilia were placed into boxes and pushed offsite into storage. The archives would have likely remained in storage and been forgotten about if fellow Burnaby staffer Norman Garcia and I hadn’t decided to try and find some place that would keep the archive together and to find some organization that would welcome and value having the IWA archives – to hopefully find some organization who would appreciate preserving the history of IWA that was once the biggest private-sector forestry union in Canada. Both Norman and I felt that preserving the archives for future labour studies research would be beneficial project for the two of us to tackle and we were eager to take it on.

It wasn’t easy to find a suitor to take on the archive because of the administrative costs involved. Simon Fraser University rejected us as did the University of British Columbia; the cost of administering the archives being the main reason. But the Kaatza Historical Society and its Kaatza Museum was willing to take the project on and a deal with the USW to transfer the archive was signed in the fall of 2014 on October 2nd. And I believe it was the grass-roots can-do attitude of the Kaatza Historical Society and the professional approach to securing the archives that impressed the USW that made the difference.

The following month on November 4th, I delivered a truckload of banker-sized boxes to the Bell Tower School on museum grounds on an unforgettable day in what I call normal Lake Cowichan weather – it was absolutely pouring with rain – during sadly, a fairly common occurring power outage. Needless to say I was welcomed by a large group of Kaatza Historical Society volunteers who braved the elements and unloaded well over two-hundred banker boxes of archives and numerous other articles of history that were too large for containers. Thankfully the coffee was made before we lost power. It was a memorable afternoon.

I believe the Kaatza Museum is a natural fit for this incredibly important trade union archive. The museum already contains displays, photographs, murals and archives pertaining to logging, lumbering, railways, mining, as well as pioneer life. But it moves beyond that because the union movement has deep roots in the Lake Cowichan area. In 1934, Lake Logging was the first logging operation in BC organized under the Lumber Workers Industrial Union who were a precursor of the IWA. So these developed connections between the Lake Cowichan area and the union date back to those early times.

But the historical bonanza does not only mean items from the Cowichan Valley are coming to the museum. The IWA archives are really a massive collection of trade union memorabilia, documents and photographs that reflect both international and Canada-wide forest trade union history with some materials dating back to early times of the past century.

Fast forward to today. The Kaatza Museum has wonderfully provided a very large research space that was constructed as an addition to the existing museum building and locally financed for the most part by community fund-raising efforts. The museum edition is finished now and they are moving stuff in which is timely because volunteer sorting of the archive continues. Which bring us back to why I am sharing little bits of union history and any interesting “finds” that pop up as I sort and categorize.

I like history. For this reason I am committed to writing an article for the Kaatza Museum on a regular basis as a way to assist them in gauging my progress and as a way to make any interested readers aware of what I find. The format for each of my writing installments will be a glimpse into a specific year or number of years of IWA history and then finishing the piece with an overview of something cool that I found and feel that may be of interest to history buffs. As you can imagine I have lots of material to work with and luckily, I have the BC Lumberworker newspapers at my fingertips. My quick looks at a year in the union’s history will be an excerpt pulled from the BC Lumberworker union newspaper. Here we go.


The IWA Salutes the Past – Challenges the Future
BC Lumberworker Vol. XXXIV, No.1 – January 1971 Editor: Pat Kerr

1912 – The rise and growth of the IWA can be fully appreciated only against the background of the struggle to organize in the period 1912 – 1937.

The IWA must acknowledge its debt to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, who, during that period, quickened recognition of the need for organization among BC loggers. The direct job action “quickies” of the Wobblies were the outcome of a desperate need for trade union organization.

The loggers’ bunkhouses were filthy and infested with bed bugs and lice. The word “crummies” survives as a reminder of days when unwelcome livestock travel with the loggers into the tall timber. Food was very bad, for the most part, and was served on battered tinware. Clothes were dried in crowded discomfort around the bunkhouse stoves; washrooms were unknown; men stood in line to use wash basins, and found their own latrines in the bush. Each man packed his own blanket from camp‐to‐camp, and was deducted fifty‐cents a day for the use of a rotten mattress, and unappetizing fare on the cookhouse table.

1913 – Top wages averaged around sixty‐dollars a month less board rates and one‐dollar a month subtracted for non‐existent medical attention. Little wonder that the loggers responded to radical views of the IWW members with their “1000‐Mile Picket Line”.

The Wobblies suffered vicious persecution at the hands of the employers and the authorities, but with sturdy hobo tactics they invaded the BC logging camps and stirred the lumberjacks into forcing a clean‐up that won them camp conditions a little more fit for human beings.

The Wobblie song, “Lumberjack’s Prayer”, credited to a Finnish logger expresses the mood for that period.

I pray, dear Lord, for Jesus sake
Give us this day a T‐bone steak
Hallowed be Thy name.
But don’t forget to send the same.

Oh, hear my humble cry, O Lord,
And send me down some decent board,
Brown gravy and some German Fired
With sliced tomatoes on the side.

Observe me on my bended legs,
I’m asking You for ham and eggs,
And if Thou harvest clustered pies,
I like, dear Lord, the largest size.

Oh, hear me cry, Almighty Host,
I quite forgot the quail on toast,
Let Your kindly heart be stirred
And stuff some oysters in that bird.

Dear Lord, we know Thy holy wish,
On Friday we must have some fish,
Our flesh is weak and spirit stale,
You’d better make that fish a whale.

Oh, hear me Lord, remove those ‘dogs’,
Those sausages of powdered logs,
The bull‐beef hash and bearded snouts,
Take them to Hell or there abouts.

With alum bread and pressed beef butts,
Dear Lord, they’re damn near ruined my guts,
Their white‐washed milk and oleorine,
I wish to Christ I’d never seen.

Oh hear me Lord, I’m praying still
But if you don’t, our Union will,
Put pork chops on the bill of fare,
And starve no workers anywhere.

IWW organizers were virtually exterminated during World War I with bloodshed, brutal police and company goons tactics, and jail sentences. Many workers went to jail for anti‐conscription activities and the possession of subversive literature. One trade union organizer was mysteriously shot. Others were brutally beaten.

Organization did not survive although the possibilities of trade union action remained latent in the minds of the loggers. The IWW despised the craft unions of the day as tools of the bosses. Parliamentary reforms were ridiculed. It turned to the One Big Union (OBU) to unify the workers.

The year 1919 saw an abortive attempt to organize a general strike in the woods. Finally, the IWW would not work with either the craft unions, the One Big Union or the Third International of the Communists. The Wobblies placed their faith mainly in sabotage, the general strike and the eventful destruction of the wage system.

It was a great try, but was doomed for failure. More stable organization of the loggers was imperative to meet the growing centralization of ownership in the industry, improved logging methods and larger operational production.

1914 – World War I brought the IWW into collision with the 4L, into which the lumber workers in the Pacific Northwest States were herded by the U.S. War Department and the employers. The organization of structure of the 4L was a hybrid organization of military discipline and company unionism.

Craft unionism made little headway when the Shingle Weavers (AFL) attempted in 1912 to embrace loggers who knew the need for industrial unionism. The BC Logger’s Union sprung into existence in 1919 with the aid of the Vancouver Labour Council. The union and socialist leaders in the Council envisaged the growth of a new labour movement based on industrial unionism, in which the loggers would have a large part. In a few weeks 5,000 members were enrolled and provided a stable source of income for the One Big Union, with which it affiliated.


Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll cover off the years 1919 to 1921. Thanks to the BC Lumber Worker for these excerpts.

Here’s an interesting find about former IWA National President Gerry Stoney. While I was sorting through a number of file folders and papers from his era, I discovered that Gerry Stoney strengthened his local union leadership skills by attending labour college in Montreal Quebec in 1976.

Gerry Stoney became IWA Canada President after Jack Munro stepped down in 1992. With Jack Munro standing at six foot five inches, he had big shoes to fill yet arguably, Gerry Stoney brought in a new style of leadership when compared to the larger-than-life figure of his predecessor Jack Munro.

To many, Gerry Stoney was a bridge to the new unionism that emerged with the decentralization of the forest industry and the industry’s insistence of moving away from pattern bargaining. He was a hard bargainer nonetheless and more than any other leader, he had to come to terms with an industry that, some say, had aged beyond maturity.

Gerry Stoney was a one of the strongest supporters of the NDP within the ranks of the IWA. In the early 1970s when he was president of IWA Local 1-217 in Vancouver, Stoney lobbied the Barrett government incessantly during its tenure; fighting for extended healthcare benefits and financial assistance for senior citizens and encouraging the development of a vibrant education system. Gerry Stoney helped in many capacities in the provincial NDP and served as president of the BCNDP for six years from 1982 to 1988.

What makes finding the files of Gerry Stoney so interesting to me is the contrast between union leader politician, and that of a family man. Along with handfuls of college course content papers, test results, and study material from that three month long stay at college in Montreal, there were hand-written letters from home – personal letters from his wife; personal letters from his friends and
colleagues; personal letters from his children. And when reading the letters – well, it clearly illustrated the personal sacrifice that many labour movement leaders endured to make work life better for others.

I met Gerry Stoney on a number of occasions at union functions an knew some of his background. But until now, I had no idea that he gave up so much time away from family to make a difference in the lives of others – his union membership. After poring over the letters, for some reason I now view Gerry as a more noble person. I suppose if I looked closer into the background of some of the other union leaders, I would probably find the same kinds of sacrifices. These are the types of people that built the union to give workers a voice. I get it. Yet I suspect it’s a different world in the union movement now.

I’m so glad to be playing a part in preserving the history of the IWA in Canada.

Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll take the risk of dredging up strong feelings around the Clayoquot Sound War in the Woods.

Until next time,

John Mountain is a retired United Steelworkers Canadian National Office Staff Representative and former IWA Local 1-80 Union Member. He lives in Chemainus and currently volunteers some of his time at the Kaatza Museum in Lake Cowichan

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