The records of the I.W.A. Local Union 1-217 (Vancouver) have now been arranged and intellectual control has been asserted over them through the creation of a Finding Aid. Although the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives do not currently have provisions in place to host researchers, if you would like to view the Finding Aid and inquire about potential future visitation email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 1-217 was the largest I.W.A. local union in British Columbia. It was chartered in 1937, and the Red Band Shingle Plant was its first operation organized. Initially Local 1-217’s jurisdiction covered both Vancouver and New Westminster, until Local 1-357 took over New Westminster when it was founded in 1943. Representing woodworkers and other workers in multiple large Vancouver-based operations, including MacMillan Bloedel’s Red Band, Canadian White Pine, and Particle Board plants, by the 1950s local union 1-217 had upwards of 7,400 members.
Members and staff of the 1-217 played important roles in the I.W.A., as well as in British Columbia’s labour movement more broadly. Many of their personal records are contained in the records of the 1-217, and bear testimony to their involvement in labour and social causes. For example, Stuart Hodgson, 1-217 Financial Secretary between 1948 and 1965, was chair of the IWA International’s constitutional adjustment committee and was also chair of the I.W.A. B.C. District #1 publicity committee. Such was Hodgson’s prominence in the union that he was later appointed by Pierre Trudeau to be commissioner of the Northwest Territories.
Photo of IWA Local Union 1-217 President Syd Thompson from The Barker
President of the local union between 1958 and 1980, Syd Thompson was also a highly influential figure, both in the wider union as well as labour and political circles in Vancouver. Along with Stu Hodgson, Thompson played a key role in persuading Tommy Douglas to ally with organized labour, and hence form the New Democratic Party. Thompson also led the Vancouver Labour Council for many years and was the Financial Secretary for the 1967/1968 Fisherman’s Defence Fund, a solidarity fund for striking members of the United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union.
Members of the 1-217 were active in many political and social realms throughout Vancouver. Emmitt Holmes, the famed baseball player who represented the local union at I.W.A. conventions, was member and chair of the Joint Labor Committee to Combat Racial Discrimination and was highly involved in civil rights activism throughout his life. Doug Evans, who took over from Hodgson as Financial Secretary and later became President of the local union, was elected to Burnaby city council in 1990. Finally, Erich Ewert, who was Financial Secretary between 1980 and 1998, was Chair of the Kensington Community Association and later went on to be Director of the Vancouver Children’s Foundation.
Image of 1-217 Marchers from The Barker
The 1-217 collection contains records created during the multiple strikes that the local union engaged in over the years. Of noteworthy significance were the large strikes at MacMillan Bloedel’s Red Band plant in 1972 and a string of strikes and worker actions at Goldwood Industries. Local Union 1-217 also struck in solidarity with striking towboat operators in 1970 and ended up in court due to their solidarity work at Eburne Sawmill in Marpole. In their latter years, as the I.W.A. diversified its membership away from a sole focus on woodworkers, Local Union 1-217 also organized a strike against soap manufacturer LUSH in 2000.
Scan of Flyer distributed by Lush Strikers in 2000. Located in the IWA Local 1-217 Fonds, in the IWA Archive
However, it wasn’t all work at the local union. Their records attest to a vibrant workers’ culture of sports and social events; 1-217 members organized softball and curling teams, while their annual Christmas Party was so famed as to draw local labour celebrities such as Tom Berger to attend. The local union’s annual summer picnic, held in a variety of parks around the city, was incredibly popular, reaching two thousand attendees by the mid-1970s.
1-217 Social Advertisement from The Barker
Many of these social events were organized by the 1-217 Ladies Auxiliary, made up of the wives, girlfriends and daughters of union members, whose records are also housed in this collection. As well as organizing social events, the LA organized visits and gifts of candy and cigarettes to hospitalized union members, helped plan the logistics of union negotiations, and were active in Vancouver’s philanthropic scene. They were operational until the 1960s, when the increasing number of female members of the union and the growth of the Women’s Liberation Movement made the structure of the LA somewhat outdated.
IWA 1-217 Ladies Auxiliary in 1961 from The Barker
By the 1980s and 1990s the stresses of free trade, raw log exports, technological change, and the growth of old-growth-forest-environmentalism had caused massive job losses and layoffs in the forest industry. Faced with these challenges, the I.W.A. recognized a need for greater bureaucratic efficiency. With that in mind, in 1998 the 1-217 merged with the “Loggers Local” 1-71, forming IWA-Canada Local 2171.
Another way in which the I.W.A. worked to negotiate these challenges was collaborating with the company New Forest Opportunities in running a Forest Workers Transition Program, which provided training and advice for workers switching industries. The Vancouver centre of the FWTP was located in the office of the 1-2171 and was directed by local union officer Gary Wong. An extensive collection of records created by Wong in this position are therefore also housed with this collection.
In all, these records show the many trials and tribulations of this urban woodworkers’ local union. From the successes of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, through to the challenges of the ‘80s and ‘90s, IWA Local Union 1-217 never stopped fighting to create better working conditions for their members. Not only this, but they actively worked to foster a culture of pride in being a woodworker and a member of a dynamic union.
5 thoughts on “Woodworkers in Rain City: The Records of I.W.A. Local Union 1-217, by Henry John”
I was a very young woman who served as a delegate from OTEU Local 15 to the VDLC in the early 60s and
have always been grateful for the lessons in trade unionism I learned there. To be young and impressionalble
among these ‘leading lights of labour’ was a gift.
Do you have any link to an obituary for Syd Thompson?
Hello Myrna. I can’t send you a link, but if you email me at email@example.com, I have a PDF press clipping for an obituary. Cheers and be well!
I would like to inform readers that, in addition to this important archive, SFU Library, Special Collections, recently acquired a substantial archive on the IWA Local 1-217 (Vancouver) ca. 1960-1980 from the family of Syd Thompson. The archive contains photos, newspaper clippings, letters, and miscellanea. Most of the archive is about Syd Thompson and the IWA Local 1-217, but it also contains related materials on Tommy Douglas, Dave Barrett, Stuart Hodgson, Thomas Berger, Al Hartung, and other relevant people from that era. It is a useful source of historic information on the labour movement, in particular the IWA, for scholars, researchers, and anyone interested in the subject.
Because it was recently donated, the materials are not yet available. Hopefully in the not too distant future, people will be able to access it.
Hi Douglas! Wow that is so great to hear. I was wondering where Syd Thompson’s records had gotten to, since we did not have them here.
Are you by any chance a relative of Syd’s? I’m going by your last name there. Could you shoot me a quick email at firstname.lastname@example.org? Thanks so much!