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“Digging into History: The IWA and the 1948 Split” by John Mountain, Vol. 1 No. 9 (September, 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.

The IWA Salutes the Past – Challenges the Future

BC Lumberworker Vol. XXXIV, No.1 – January 1971      Editor: Pat Kerr

The October Revolution – The 1948 upheaval was a turning-point in the affairs of the IWA. It must be regarded in the light of the developments which arose out of the early days of the Union.

Communist influence in the IWA may be traced to the days of the Workers’ Unity League, and the period which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. Workers in the western world were excited by the revolution of the Russian workers and peasants and were at first entirely sympathetic. This sympathy cooled when agents of the Soviet Union demanded that Canadian workers take the same course of action under entirely different circumstances.

The fiery Socialist orators who had done much to activate trade union organization after World War I threw their energies into the organization of the OBU, which proved to be an impractical dream. Later they became absorbed in the organization of a political party — the CCF.

The real cleavage between Socialists and Communists came in 1921. Canadian Socialists and trade union leaders rejected the proposal to form an underground revolutionary movement. They preferred to rely on the known democratic procedures.

As a matter of fact, Communists here spoke a different language than Communist leaders in the Soviet Union. Lenin had predicted that social change would develop in North America through parliamentary democracy in much the same manner as the Labour Party rose to power in Great Britain.

Any account of the period prior to World War II is bound to record that the rank and file IWA members were not adverse to Communist leaders, provided they took a militant attitude on questions of wages and working conditions. Traditionally, woodworkers in British Columbia have firmly believed in freedom of conscience on ideological questions, and have resented anything in the shape of “witch-hunting.” IWA members bitterly resented steps taken by the U.S. Immigration Department to refuse entry for the elected officers of the IWA because they were known to be or were suspected of being Communists.

The real issue, as internal conflict grew in the Union, was self-government of the IWA by the membership. Rumblings of rebellion were heard during World War II, when the policy of the Union was made to shift with the shifting policy of the Soviet Union Foreign Office. This rebellious mood became more pronounced when, in the years following World War II, the Communists in office insisted upon adherence to the Communist “line” to the point where open cleavage with the trade union movement at large was evident.

The break first developed in the International Conventions. Al Hartung and Jim Fadling, International officers, were alert to the danger. Unhappy about developments in British Columbia, the International Executive Board commenced its own broadcast and paper in Vancouver to reach the membership. Organizers, nominated by the B.C. District Council, were promptly fired when they engaged in unconstitutional activities. Matters came to a head with the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in the United States, and union officers were required to take non-Communist affidavits.

The International Union firmly opposed the Taft-Hartley requirements. Finally, the Union in the U.S. was given the ugly choice of either signing the affidavits or surrendering certifications to the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union under rulings of the National Labour Relations Board. An International Convention ordered that the affidavits be signed.

The B.C. District Council officers violently opposed this decision, and openly flouted the convention action. International President Jim Fadling suspended the officers who refused to sign in accordance with the convention decision, including one from British Columbia.

This set the stage for bitter debates in the 1948 District Convention, held in March. For the first time the “white blocs,” which had been organized in a number of Locals, openly declared their opposition to Communist control. Leading speakers for the rebels were Fred Fieber, and the late George Mitchell who were supported by a solid delegation from Local 1-357. E. Dalskog, who in some mysterious manner had become Acting District President, presided, with Harold Pritchett alternating.

International President Jim Fadling presented the position of the International Union, but Karley Larsen, District 2, gained sustained applause in his attack on Fadling. Harvey Murphy of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union lectured the convention at length in a barefaced intrusion into IWA affairs to justify Communist policy. Harold Winch, CCF Leader of the Opposition in the Legislature, was heard briefly. Nigel Morgan, Leader of the Labour-Progressive Party, former District Secretary, Editor of the B.C. Lumber Worker, and International Board Member, was heard at length on the policy of the LPP.

One of the central issues was a resolution supporting District 2 in demanding the initiation of a referendum recall of International President Fadling for his suspension of International Trustee Jack Greenall, who hailed from British Columbia. A roll call vote was demanded with the result that 17,377 were recorded as in favor of the resolution, and 4,370 against. This infuriated the “white bloc” members who claimed that the convention had been packed with pro-communist delegates, not properly instructed by their own Locals on the issue.

Between March and October, matters came to a head, when complaints about the District Council’s finances required an investigation by the International Union. This investigation exposed juggling of the Union’s funds, and, in some instances, definite misappropriation. The auditors reported that over $100,000 had not been accounted for by supporting vouchers. Large loans had been made to District Officers and members of their families.

August and September were months of intense activity on the part of the Communist leaders to prepare for the October revolution. On October 2nd, a meeting of selected shop stewards developed plans to railroad a secession resolution through the District Council on October 3rd. WIUC buttons were in readiness. The Council’s decision to disaffiliate was contained in the script of a broadcast delivered by Pritchett to Station CJOR at 2 p.m., hours before the motion was carried by the Council’s delegates.

Upon the adoption of the resolution of disaffiliation, delegates from Local 1-357 walked out in a body. It was evident that the Council’s meeting had been “packed” by pro-Communist delegates. The officers of the International Union and the Canadian Congress of Labour were prepared for some overt move by the Communists.

On the following day, Jim Fadling, International President, and Stewart Alsbury, President of Local 1-357, applied for a court order to freeze the funds and assets of the IWA until the matter could be settled in the courts.

Al Hartung, International 1st Vice-President, also entered the battle for IWA constitutional rights and stated, “We are really not surprised at this desperate new move. The tactics of the Communist Party, whose game Pritchett has been playing for years, is to rule or ruin.” Provisional officers were immediately installed.

The weeks that followed were hectic ones in IWA circles. The membership in one Local after another rallied to the flag of the IWA, and rejected all appeals from the leaders of the new WIUC. Disloyal officers in the Locals were ousted. The International Union was sustained everywhere, despite the appearance of a few WIUC buttons on the job.

The IWA became involved in a complicated series of court actions to recover the assets of the District Council and the Locals. The WIUC officers barricaded themselves within their offices in an attempt to retain office equipment and funds. More than once the courts ordered the Sheriff to confiscate property in their hands. The Loggers’ Navy, property of Local 1-71, was discovered hidden in a remote bay, only after an extensive search in B.C. coast waters. Until the Union could recover control of the B.C. Lumber Worker, a special publication was issued weekly called “The Voice of the IWA.”

When the smoke cleared a few months later, the IWA, through a decision of the courts, had recovered some of the assets of the IWA. It was impossible to secure a proper accounting of the funds, formerly held by the Union. Office equipment disappeared. One of the Union’s most valuable assets, its records, were never found. Its most precious asset, the loyalty of the membership, was intact.

At the next International Convention, the traitors were named and barred from membership in the IWA. At the 1949 District Convention of the IWA, Stewart Alsbury was elected as District President, giving proof that membership loyalty to the IWA was steadfast.

As predicted by Fadling and Hartung, the upheaval revitalized the IWA and membership control of the Union’s affairs was upheld and more firmly entrenched. The lesson has not been forgotten, and membership control is today a rock-bound principle of IWA administration.

The housecleaning that followed the October revolution established sound administration and gave a marked impetus to the Union’s growth in membership and strength to fight for better wages and working conditions. In 1949, the Union entered upon a new era in which it has consistently displayed a virile trade union democracy.

Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll cover off the 1949 to find out how the IWA rebuilds. Thanks to the BC Lumber worker for this excerpts.


Deep Dig – September 2019

1948 Split – Time and time again, I have met people whose roots go back over 70 years ago to the 1948 White Bloc Red Bloc Split that fractured the IWA; a split that in a way, shook the union membership to its core. I can help but notice, that even to this day, some people are still very emotional when they talk about the split and how divisive it was to the membership.

In this deep dig, I bring forward a 1998 story that is related to the 1971 BC Lumber Worker story above by Pat Kerr, on what happened in 1948 from an editorial standpoint. Pat Kerr made note of a blacklist where traitors were named and barred from membership in the IWA.

In 1998 however, the IWA under then National President Dave Haggard, reached out to blacklisted members and their families in order to acknowledge the pain that they must have endured at that turbulent time, and to let bygones be bygones.

Banned Communist Members List Abolished By National Convention Action, from the 1999 IWA Annual

History was made at the 1998 convention, held last September in Vancouver, as the union decided to let bygones be bygones. The delegates unanimously endorsed a resolution that rescinded an “errant members” list of members that were banned from the union in the late 1940’s for their communist beliefs.

Before the International Woodworkers of America split into two factions 50 years ago — into the “red bloc” and the “white bloc” — and communist members formed their own independent Canadian union, the Woodworkers Industrial Union of Canada (WIUC), the then IWA imposed a ban on communist membership in it. Under U.S. law, communists could not hold office in what was then an international union.

In several cases the WIUC seized IWA finances and property for their new union. The bitterness of this Cold War division was felt within the ranks of working people for decades as the errant members’ list banned thousands of workers from taking part in a union that they helped build.

Before the list was banished, the delegates heard from guest speaker Maurice Rush, a former leader of the Communist Party of British Columbia.

Mr. Rush was present to speak on the 1948 split and deliver Local 85’s original charter to it, after it was removed from union headquarters by communist leaders 50 years ago.

Rush said that in 1948 the Cold War had developed and “Some people in this province got the idea that the workers in this province would be better off if they broke away and set up a different union.”

“That was a mistake. Separation did not strengthen the workers,” said Rush. “What it did was that it divided the workers and weakened them in the struggle with the employer.”

IWA CANADA National President Dave Haggard recalled some discussions he had had with people who were members of the Communist Party. “They were workers and they were I.W.A. members and they helped build this union. And I really believe that this resolution is far, far overdue,” said Haggard.

National Financial Secretary Terry Smith said the IWA paid a terrible price for the 1948 split. “Virtually all of the activists in our union who said that they weren’t prepared to take some of the stuff coming out south of the border were put on the list and couldn’t run for office even in the plants,” he said.

Brother Smith said it took 50 years to get the resolution through, because until now, the resolution would not have passed as bitter memories would be dug up and there would have been fights on convention floors.

Local 363 President Sy Pederson, himself a former Communist Party member, said he was privileged to know many of the people that were banned by the IWA.

“The debate was never about whether or not workers should have a union or representation. That was given and that was common ground,” he said, adding that the real debate was whether or not the working class would prosper under capitalism and whether or not capitalism could be reformed.

Local union president Larry Rewakowsky thanked Mr. Rush for returning the charter. He also thanked Dave Pritchett, Harold Pritchett’s grandson, for giving the charter back to the local after taking care of it. Rewakowsky also thanked Local 2171 business agent Bill Owens for orchestrating the event.

Acknowledgment given to the IWA Canada 1999 Annual and it’s section on News From The National Office.   

I’m so glad to be playing a part in preserving the history of the IWA. If my story about the 1948 White Bloc Red Bloc Split spurs any further interest, I urge you to contact staff at the Kaatza Museum. Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll take another deep dive into the archives and share some more interesting stories.

Until next time,    John

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 volunteers some of his time at the Kaatza Museum in Lake Cowichan.

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