“Digging into History: IWA Ladies Auxiliary” by John Mountain, Vol. 2 No. 7 (July, 2020)

Deep Dig for July 2020
IWA Ladies Auxiliary: Women Hone Valuable Leadership Skills – What a super find this month. It’s a couple of items that speak volumes about the important part that loggers and sawmillers wives, their mothers and/or their daughters played in union building and I want to share them with you.

First up is a thesis paper called “Be a Union Wife. Build a Better Life: The Women’s Auxiliaries of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) in BC: 1936-1948. It was written by Arley McNeney – a student I suspect – for the history studies class of Associate Professor Dr. Rick Rajala at the University of Victoria. I note Dr. Rajala’s name because of his interest in the social, political and environmental history of Canadian and American forests, with a particular emphasis on British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. He has studied and written about the history of the IWA.

In Ms. Arley McNeney’s paper on the Ladies Auxiliary, she explains…

“When the first International Woodworkers of America (I.W.A.) women’s auxiliary was created in 1935, its mandate was “to assist our union brothers to obtain union agreements and collective bargaining”. In reality however, the organization’s role was far more complex and ambivalent.

Despite the belief of the male union members, and often of the women themselves, the auxiliaries were most successful when they strayed beyond the union’s framework. In fact, their greatest accomplishments came when members broke outside the role of passive supporter and developed activist tactics tailored to the reality of their lives both as women and as members of small communities.

Viewing issues through a wider, community-focused lens, the auxiliaries garnered support for their causes by creating a network of interpersonal and inter-organizational ties. In doing so, they often succeeded where the union had failed.

This web of reciprocates was a logical extension of the survival strategies necessary for life in isolated, one-industry communities and reflected the women’s relationship with their environment. It enriched community life and empowered individual auxiliary members. By approaching activism through this framework, however, the auxiliaries were dependent upon solidarity and unity both within the organization and the community. The 1948 IWA split, which forced auxiliary members to take sides, was therefore disastrous to the movement.

As early 1931, when the I.W.A. was still the Lumber Workers Industrial Union, small, informally organized groups of women campaigned alongside men. During the Fraser Mills strike of 1931 and the Lake Log strike of 1934, women lobbied other organizations for support, fed strikers, held fundraising dances and manned picket lines. Inspired by previous trade-union auxiliaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the growing auxiliary movement in the American IWA, the wives and mothers of loggers began to consider a permanent, formal Women’s Auxiliary.

The organization, they decided, would be made up of female relatives of loggers or millworkers and would address the issue of “how to best back up our Union in realizing its aims.” ‘In 1935, in the wake of several strikes in the area that featured active female participation, the first auxiliary was formed in Lake Cowichan. The Lake Cowichan auxiliary assisted in the formation of other auxiliaries in communities nearby. Often, the Union also offered varying levels of resources and organizational expertise.

The gains made by women during the war benefitted the auxiliaries and the necessity of women’s war-time labour caused a rise in their status. Women had proven that they could help fight against Hitler, many reasoned, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to fight against the boss? In 1942, the scattered auxiliaries united under the B.C. District Council of Federated Auxiliaries. Since the isolation of many logging camps made communication between communities difficult, the auxiliaries were organized into sub-locals, each based out of a particular settlement or town. These sub-locals interacted with each other whenever possible and met at an annual convention, but often their campaigns and charity activities tackled local issues.

During the 1946 strike, female involvement reached new heights. Besides being active on the picket lines, women took part in the March to Victoria, where union locals and their supporters from all over B.C. traveled to Victoria to protest. While the men negotiated inside, auxiliary members led supporters in a parade around the legislature buildings. The 1946 strike inspired the creation of four more auxiliaries, bringing the total to 15, and ushered in the zenith of the movement.

The auxiliaries were a logical extension of this support network, formalizing previously existing relationships and creating new ones. Women who had been like sisters were now Sisters in a union sense. The relationship was reciprocal; the community-based atmosphere created an ideal environment for the building of auxiliaries and, once established, the auxiliaries strengthened the community atmosphere by providing a means in which to bring new arrivals into the fold and draw shyer women out of their houses. In their fundraising efforts, auxiliaries also strengthened the community by holding dances, bazaars and picnics. These activities allowed members of both the union and the community to interact: sharing ideas and creating personal friendships.

Unlike the union, the auxiliaries held social meetings along with business meetings. The gatherings strengthened both the community and the auxiliary because they gave women a concrete reason to set aside time to leave the house and interact with others to establish this network. What may normally have appeared frivolous to busy women and to their husbands was given importance and authority by being under the banner of a union activity. The social meetings brought women together to discuss their lives and issues that concerned them. They were a place to generate ideas and to forge bonds that would be needed to create a united political front. In addition to these meetings, the auxiliaries held baby showers, wedding showers and birthday parties for members, thereby fulfilling a role normally carried out by family and friends. Since many of the town’s social functions were hosted by the auxiliary, newcomers had an entrance into the community network. Said Myrtle Bergren: “These women, many of whom had been too shy to even go out and meet the wives of other loggers had discovered that they had a power undreamed of, working together.”

This power had a positive effect on individual auxiliary members. Meetings were a comfortable place where women could learn how to speak in front of a group, gain political knowledge and become “activists in their own right” According to Mona Morgan, “The auxiliaries helped women to find new resources they didn’t know they had. They found knew talents they didn’t know they had.”‘

For the women who became involved, the auxiliaries were a source of self-esteem and self-confidence. They provided a unique opportunity to find satisfaction in activities outside the social sphere. Instead of being valued as a supporter — loving wife, provider for children — women proved that they could take a proactive stance. Often, the auxiliaries allowed women to question dominant attitudes and go against social norms. Though auxiliaries claimed to take the passive role of supporting their “menfolk,” the opportunity they provided for women to hone their skills in a female-only environment helped members to view themselves as valuable outside of the role of supporter.”

These words are entirely those of Arley McNeney and I have included them – directly from her paper text – because they provide one of the most complete pictures that I have come across on why the IWA Ladies Auxiliaries were so important to IWA’s formation in the early days.


Second up are more historical tid-bits on the Women’s Auxiliaries that seems to speak – at least locally – to a series of incidents that may have led to the formation of the Cowichan Valley chapter of the Women’s Auxiliary to Local 2782 of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union just a year before the IWA was formed in 1937.
As reported in the September 1936 Lumber Worker, a house to house canvass was conducted on February 27, 1935 in Cowichan Lake to find members for a women’s auxiliary to Local 2782 of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers’ Union. At the first meeting seven members joined and in six months the membership tripled. Dances were organized to aid them by raising funds for their needs.

Included in these needs were the visits to the Duncan and Chemainus hospitals. The hospitals were always full of patients injured in camps and mills and most of them had no near relatives or anyone to care if they received proper attention or not. Copies of the “Lumber Worker” as well as books and magazines were given to the men. The dances the Women’s Auxiliary sponsored, brought the Union to the forefront, as it was the first time in the history of Cowichan Lake that anything in the nature of a dance, social or meeting had been arranged wholly in the interests of the workers in the lumbering industry.

The Women’s Auxiliary was instrumental in having a twenty mile section of road improved between Cowichan Lake and Duncan. A resolution was passed at their meeting and sent to the Minister of Public Works, followed by a 500 name petition. The government improved the road. The Auxiliary also played an active role in raising funds for the striking relief camp boys, longshoremen and, the Canadian Defense League. Meetings were held to acquaint residents with their struggles. Sports days and parties were held for the children. The Auxiliary celebrated their first anniversary with the staging of the first all-union affair to be held in the District. Invitations were sent to other union members.

When the Loggers’ strike broke out in 1936, the Auxiliary assisted both financially and morally and was largely responsible for the solidarity of the loggers. A Union Club House was financed by taking up collections at dances. Funds were raised to improve the picket camp which was used during the strike. Funds were also raised to aid the “B.C. Lumber Worker” who in 1936 was celebrating its fifth anniversary of publishing. Most important, funds were raised to pay off debts contracted in the recent strike.

In September 1936, the Lake Cowichan Women’s Auxiliary decided to seek a charter from the American Federation of Labour and also vowed to assist the formation of other auxiliaries in the surrounding area. Some dates worth noting were…

• 1934 – First Auxiliary set up in Vancouver. (Lumber and Sawmill Workers’ Union.) It is believed the first Secretary was Muriel Bradley (now Mrs. Lloyd Whalen). Mrs. Whalen is employed as secretary to the Vancouver and District Labour Council.
• 1935 – February 27th – Cowichan Lake Auxiliary formed: Cassie Beech, President; Edna Brown, Secretary-Organizer. In April the Port Alberni Auxiliary formed and the most pressing need was to save the Workers’ Hall from a tax sale so workers in the district could get together for meetings and dances. Every logger and sawmill worker could feel welcome to enter and be at home.
• 1936 – First industry-wide strike took place with Youbou Camp 3 & 6 leading the way. Cowichan Lake Auxiliary played a large part in giving financial help and moral support.
• 1937 – Portland – Edna Brown becomes District President of the Women’s Auxiliaries in B.C. The name of International Woodworkers’ of America was adopted and a convention was held in Victoria.
• 1938-39 – The Blubber Bay Strike, which saw police brutality and terrorists use violence against strikers. People were evicted from company houses, food was scarce and was brought in by outside groups. Bob Gardner became a martyr to the IWA when he died in hospital after being taken from a jail where he had been badly beaten by Constable Williamson. Williamson was later convicted of assault and jailed six months. If ever the need for auxiliaries was present, it was then.
• 1943 – The first IWA Ladies Auxiliary Conference was held.
• 1945 – Third Annual Ladies Auxiliary Convention held in Port Alberni. Attempts by the IWA were being made to organize the BC Interior.
• 1949 – Charters were issued to ladies auxiliaries under the IWA to Local 1-80 Duncan on April 7th, Local 1-217 Vancouver on April 14th, on May 17th to Local 1-363 Courtney and Local 1-85 Port Alberni.
• 1950 – IWA Charter issued to New Westminster Local 1-357 on May 4th.
• 1953 – IWA Charter issued to Local 1-424 Prince George on December 7th.
• 1954 – Charter issued to Local 1-405 Cranbrook on January 27th. A strike began in the North in September followed by the southern Interior in October. Strikebreakers were brought in from Alberta and yet the strikes continued until after Christmas 1955. It was the first serious challenge faced by the newly formed auxiliaries in Prince George and Cranbrook.
• 1957 – Local 1-417, now based in Kamloops, had its head office in Salmon Arm and it was here that Local 1-417 Ladies Auxiliary came into being. They received their charter on November 22nd.
• In 1959, the Coast Locals were to see their longest strikes ever when 27,000 woodworkers walked off the job on July 6th and stayed off for 70 days. Auxiliaries in the areas involved rallied behind the strikers as many problems arose and morale became an important part of the strike. From 1960-1966 there was relative calm on the labour scene. In May 1962, two charters were granted to auxiliaries; one at Local 1-423 Kelowna and Local 1-71 Vancouver. Important strides were being made in gaining benefits for workers, for example, the Health and Welfare Plan. But an unequitable situation was developing in the Interior Locals as they were falling further and further behind the Coast and contract expiry dates were far apart.
• In 1967 these frustrating developments resulted in one of the longest strikes ever held in IWA history. What ensued was a three-way battle between politicians, employers and employees. While 5,000 workers started the strike, the 1,000 Northern workers returned to work in a few weeks which left the 4,000 Southern Interior workers to grind on for a devastating 7½ months – hungry sometimes, hopeless sometimes, but determined nonetheless. Ladies Auxiliaries in the areas gave their support to the Union as dances were held to boost morale, costs kept to a bare minimum – coffee and sandwiches were served at Union meetings. Food hampers were sent to people in dire need wherever possible.


I’m so glad to be playing a part in preserving the history of the IWA. If you’re interested in my discoveries, I urge you to contact staff at the Kaatza Museum for more information. Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll take another deep dive into the archives and share some more interesting stories.

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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