Design a site like this with
Get started

When a Woodworkers’ Union was at the Cutting Edge of Environmentalism, by Henry John

This blog post is based on findings discovered in the records of the International Woodworkers of America Local 1-217’s Vancouver office, currently housed in the Kaatza Station Museum’s IWA Archive in Lake Cowichan. For more information on this archive, follow this link or email

There was a day when forestry workers and environmentalists walked arm-in-arm to make the world a more inhabitable, safer, and cleaner place. In recent decades we have become used to debates over “jobs or the environment”, to images of environmental activists blockading logging worksites, and to angry workers responding with strong words and sometimes physical retaliation. An icon of the forest labour movement, former IWA Canada President Jack Munro was certainly one who never hesitated to criticize environmentalists and once told a reporter in 1990 “I tell my guys if they see a spotted owl to shoot it”.  

Image of Jack Munro courtesy of Montreal Gazette,

Things were not always this way. As U.S. labour historian Erik Loomis notes in his 2015 book Empire of Timber, which focusses on the American wing of the International Woodworkers of America, the IWA has campaigned for more sustainable logging practises and nature conservation from its inception in the 1930s all through the so-called “War in the Woods” of the 1980s and 1990s.

We can see this pattern in the records of the IWA Local 1-217 (Vancouver) as they reflect both the politics of the labour movement and the IWA more specifically. This post focusses in particular on the early-1970s, in many ways a high-water mark time in environmental politics where a global shift in concern for pollution control and nature protection seemed to touch all levels of society and both sides of the political spectrum.

Although it won’t really touch on logging practices, saving this vast and complicated topic for a later post, the research here suggests the IWA had a keen interest in environmental issues. During the 1970s the International Woodworkers of America, and the British Columbia labour movement as a whole, made environmental policies a key point of focus and even worked with groups they would later call enemy in the name of cleaning up the province.

At the center of the B.C. labour movement at this time, and seemingly key to driving workers’ environmentalism, was the BC Federation of Labour. The records of IWA Local 1-217 from this period are filled with letters from the Federation’s Secretary Treasurer Ray C. Haynes encouraging local unions of all stripes to push for stronger environmental standards. For example, in a February 1971 letter he called on affiliate local unions to adopt the following measures:

1: Delegates should join anti-pollution groups and urge their local members to do so too.
2: Identify and monitor pollution and/or environmental situations on the jobs and in the communities.
3: Negotiate anti-pollution and environmental control clauses in your agreements or, in the interim, attempt to set up such committees either with the assistance of the company or without it.
4: Set up workshops and/or seminars and invite pollution control experts to address them.
5: Try to get the local press to cover these seminars.
6: Publicize all environmental activities of your local.

Indeed, the BC Federation of Labour was also instrumental in coordinating organized labour’s support and involvement in what many see as the founding moment of British Columbia’s environmental movement. As Frank Zelko shows in his book Make it a Green Peace!, when the United States announced the testing of nuclear weapons on the Alaskan island of Amchitka a broad coalition emerged in Canada to protest the bomb. This coalition was the birthplace of the original Greenpeace, and in the early 1970s was also fiercely supported by the labour movement.

Letters from BC Federation of Labour Secretary-Treasurer Haynes can be found in the 1-217 records encouraging unionists to financially support the Coalition to Stop the Amchitka Nuclear Blast. Furthermore, displayed below, Haynes also sent a fax to the 1-217’s leadership requesting them to coordinate an emergency union-wide work shutdown on Nov. 6, 1971 in order to brief workers on the dangers of the Amchitka testing.

From the IWA Local 1-217 Records, at the IWA Archive, Kaatza Station Museum and Archives, Lake Cowichan.

Local unions of the IWA heartily took up the environmentalist challenges laid down by the B.C. Federation of Labour. Officer meetings from the 1-217 in 1971 show that the local union was actively involved in distributing petitions from SPEC (at the time called the Scientific Pollution and Environmental Control Society) regarding pollution in the Vancouver area. They also made donations to, and held memberships with, a variety of environmental organizations including SPEC, Environmental Control, and the Four Seasons Defence Fund (the campaign to protect Coal Harbour from hotel development). Indeed, in August 1971 the IWA Local Union 1-80 took to the environmental ethos of the era so wholeheartedly that they distributed samples of IWA-themed litter bags to other IWA local unions, all in the name of “keeping our countryside clean”.

IWA locals also took a leading role in pressing environmental resolutions into policy at the BC Federation of Labour’s convention in 1972. Indeed, almost all of the resolutions on the environment passed at the convention that year were brought to the floor by IWA locals. These included resolutions to call on the federal and provincial government to legislate against pollution, to support recycling initiatives, to oppose the damming of the Fraser River by the Moran Dam, and to better manage fish reserves. Perhaps most pertinently to the discussion of forest environmentalism, the IWA Local 1-405 (Cranbrook) brought forward a resolution to urge the Provincial Government to introduce legislation that would “ensure the perpetuity of our forests and the maintenance of nature’s balance in connection with our ecology”.  Finally, and perhaps most surprising to folks more familiar with the IWA membership’s stance on the creation of parks in places such as the Carmanah Valley, at the same convention the IWA Local 1-417 (Salmon Arm) brought forward a resolution calling the government to strengthen the protection of parks and recreation areas since “we sincerely want our children to inherit a clean country”.

BC Federation of Labour Proceedings from the IWA Local 1-217 Records, at the IWA Archive, Kaatza Station Museum and Archives, Lake Cowichan.

The concerns with environmental protection and pollution control impacted IWA Canada’s policy at its highest levels and affected high stake decisions. For example, the coast 1972 Coast Negotiations between the forest industry and the union came at a crucial moment for woodworkers, with the onset slowed growth, job loss, and competition. Nevertheless, a key bargaining point during the 1972 coast negotiations issued by the IWA Negotiating Committee was that companies commit to “the setting up of joint pollution control committees in the camps and mills”.

From the IWA Local 1-217 Records, at the IWA Archive, Kaatza Station Museum and Archives, Lake Cowichan.

What this brief dive into the records of the IWA 1-217 indicates is that during the early 1970s the IWA maintained a commitment to environmental protection that it kept to in both word and deed, and in doing so collaborated directly with prominent environmental groups. In some ways the IWA kept with this commitment into the 1980s; the National office launched its Forestry-Environment committee in 1988, while in the Cowichan Valley President of the Local Union 1-80 Bill Routley founded the “Forest Workers Survival Taskforce” in the late 1980s to protest the destructive forestry practises of  companies such as Fletcher Challenge.

Why then was there this cataclysmic confrontation between forestry workers and environmentalists in the 1980s and 1990s? Were preservationists asking for too much? Were workers too greedy? Or was it the companies or the government playing the two sides off against each other? Feel free to vent your thoughts in the comment box below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: