Design a site like this with
Get started

“Part 2: Interview with Harold Pritchett, Founding President of the International Woodworkers of America” by John Mountain, Digging into History, 2.9 (September, 2020)

Deep Dig for September 2020

Harold: Founding President of the International Woodworkers of America – This month I have the second part of a two part story that speaks to the origins of the IWA from the mouth of its founding President Harold Pritchett.

Harold Pritchett was born on May 9, 1904 in the city of Birmingham, England. At the age of eight, the Pritchett family emigrated from England to Canada and traveled to Port Moody in British Columbia where they settled. Pritchett received his first job at the Thurston-Flavelle sawmill in Port Moody, BC in 1919. He tended conveyors in a planer mill for eleven hours a day for ten cents an hour which was his first exposure to the industry. It did not take him long to begin campaigning for worker rights.

Pritchett quickly became a leading figure in the Northwest’s union community and in 1931, he rose to prominence when he chaired the Fraser Mills Strike Committee. By 1933, at age twenty-nine, Pritchett was president of a Shingle Weavers local and had asserted himself as a dominant influence in the labor movement, a powerful organizer, and a charismatic leader. However, in what was perhaps the first move in a major battle that would rage for more than ten years, the American Federation of Labor expelled the Pritchett-led Shingle Weavers local and renounced their charter on the grounds that the Union was in the hands of Communists. These difficulties continued throughout the 1930s and in 1936 the poor relationship between the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union and United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Jointers came to a conclusion.

In September 1936 representatives from ten District Councils of the LSWU met in Portland and formed the Federation of Woodworkers with Al Hartung as chairman and Harold Pritchett as president. Next year in July 1937 at its convention in Tacoma, the woodworkers voted to affiliate with the CIO and change the name of their organization to the International Woodworkers of America thus founding the IWA.

The 1936 strike at Boundary Road Shingle Mill on the Fraser River became what was considered at the time as important as the 1931 Fraser Mills strike, the 1934 Logger’s Strike, and the 1936 General Strike that preceded it, the Boundary Road Shingle Mill strike became noted as the catalyst which contributed greatly to the eventual establishment of the International Woodworkers of America.

This is a transcript of side two of a tape recorded interview that I discovered in a file folder from the office of former IWA historian Clay Perry. It’s an interview that Clay recorded with Harold Pritchett in late October 1978 which was just a few years before Harold’s death in 1982. Harold Pritchett sat down with Clay Perry to talk about the AFL CIO split in 1936 and the resulting challenges that faced the new union called the International Woodworkers of America. Again, this is the transcript of side two of the tape recording.

Clay: All right, Harold, let’s leave the U.S. scene again and come back to the B.C. scene in the development of the so-called White Block here in British Columbia. We last heard, for example, Stu Alsbury winning on the Strike Committee in the Fraser Mills strike, ’31, ’32. Do you recall hearing of him and his appearance and increasing activity here?

Harold: Yes, the first time I met Stewart Alsbury is when he was elected by the membership to the Strike Committee and the Strike Committee consisted of 18 people. He was very outspoken, noisy in the meetings on militant policy that the strike should pursue and about half way through the strike which lasted three months, he found he wasn’t getting very far with the Strike Committee and the membership. He and his wife took off for a vacation in California by car and that didn’t sit very well with the strikers.

Clay: They had some money, eh?

Harold: Well, he must have because I’m sure even if he didn’t have, he had a good income from the various jobs he held. One was the member of the Harbours Board which he had been for years and still is, I believe.

Clay: Was he a member of the Harbours Board as far back as ’31, ’32?

Harold: Well, I’m not so sure about that but I believe so. If not, it was immediately following that. Anyway, that can be and we can check that out. The next time Alsbury showed up was after the strike was settled and the discrimination took place in which the entire leadership of the Lumber & Sawmill Workers Union was eliminated from the plant. Whelan undertook – Lloyd Whelan – who became later President of Local 1-357, I mean Local 1-217, sorry. He undertook to organize Fraser Mills and the only way that Fraser Mills could be organized into the I.W. of A. was by calling small groups of workers together in various departments in a more or less clandestine fashion to give them protection because MacKain and Company were discriminating right and left against anyone that dared to look Union let alone join.

Clay: MacKain had some unfortunate experiences with unions and he wasn’t going to have them again, eh.

Harold: No, he said it’ll never happen to him again. So from time to time, Whelan would call these groups together and Alsbury would, how he got to know, would show up, and next day after the meeting where they discussed names and people to extend the union to, and two or three would be fired.

Clay: We’re talking ’39, ’40 or something?

Harold: Yeah this would be, yes this would be after ’37 Convention, Tacoma. Possibly before, even in the Lumber and Sawmills Workers Union. Anyway, Whelan volunteered and accepted the job of organizing Fraser Mills and they worked hard at it. And he got up in meetings, union meetings, and my brother-in-law Jim Hamilton was Secretary and I believe he recorded and stated that there was no question in his mind (Whelan’s mind) that Alsbury was a company stool pigeon. That constituted some anti-union activities up until that point.

Now, in addition to what Whelan was doing we were also organizing various groups, and I had the responsibility also of later working with the Fraser Mills group to extend organization to Fraser Mills. And one of the workers in Fraser Mills agreed to use his home which is right on the Central Park line up on the hill. I can’t remember his name but he became later elected on the executive committee of the I.W. of A.

We had about twenty workers in his home in the front room on a Sunday afternoon, and the meeting was well under way and somebody pointed to someone coming down the sidewalk to the house. And one guy looked and he said, “Oh, that’s George Mitchell”. Now that’s the first time I ever saw George Mitchell and I heard later that he was a shoe-maker cobbler in New Westminster and he quit that and got a job in Fraser Mills. And I asked the group there, because we were working on a clandestine policy that nobody would come to the meeting without we inviting them and have our agreement of the group. I said, “Do you want him in the meeting?” I said, “Because we have to decide now whether he’s acceptable or not”. And some said, “Oh, he can’t do any harm, let him in”. So he was at the door by this time and they let him in. So that’s how Mitchell got into this group of workers organizing Fraser Mills. And that’s the first time I ever saw him.

From that day on Mitchell became a disrupter and he worked very closely with Alsbury. Now they had to have something to hang their hat on and the leadership of the Local that was established in Westminster, and this is quite a distance on after the union had been established and the Fraser Mills and other plants were certified. The I.W.A. was certified not only in Fraser Mills, but in Alaska Pine and the other big mills – Westminster Shingle Mill and United Shingle, and Mohawk Sawmill (it’s gone now). The Officers were elected and I was elected the first president of Local 1-357 and they asked me to act as President until they got on their feet.

Clay: You were then District President. You’d returned.

Harold: District President, yes. So, the Officers of the Local then elected at the next meeting, in the next year; they elected Percy Smith as President and his daughter as financial Secretary and Alsbury as 1st Vice President and someone else as 2nd Vice President. I submitted that picture        to the paper for publication.

Now, due to very sloppy work Mitchell discovered that shop stewards were coming in and turning in blue slips with money, and there was no checkoff then. We depended entirely on the shop stewards collecting the dues and giving receipts. And where they collected dues, they had to turn in the dues plus a blue slip and those blue slips that didn’t show up naturally couldn’t be accounted for.

In addition to that, it was found that money of the till was missing and Mitchell and Alsbury grabbed on to this weakness in the Local to create a big storm. And the results were that we set up a special committee consisting of Dan O’Brien, the Regional Director of the Canadian Congress of Labour, Karley Larson, the International Vice President, and Ernie Dalskog the District Vice President. And that committee met with the Officers and members of Local 1-357 to try and find a way out of this without it becoming public knowledge and without it being used by the boss to destroy the union. They made some very excellent recommendations and you have copies of those, and the recommendations were not carried out. The results were that Mitchell and Alsbury established in 1-357 a very active white bloc. They called themselves the “White Bloc”. We didn’t. And then they got in touch with other locals in the District and they had a corresponding contact and telephone contact with these individuals who were lined up for District Conventions.

Now, that is the activities of the White Bloc here and there is no doubt in my mind that they were in touch with the white bloc in the Columbia River District, either through Don Helmick or through some other individual because one person made the statement that, “We got rid of Pritchett in the United States, we had him deported and we can help you get rid of him in Canada”. Even though I’m a Canadian citizen.

Clay: The next big development along these lines that I’m aware of is the Nanaimo conspiracy in which John Ulinder who now is with MacMillan Bloedel and who was at that time, I think, on the Island in the Duncan Local sent out a letter, copy of which, or the original of which you gave me the other day. Is there anything that you want to say about that at this time?

The Timber Worker – February 16, 1937

Harold: Well, Ulinder had been working for some time in a very skillful manner of attempting to discredit the leadership of the District Council and attempting to set up what he called himself, the “White Bloc”. And as a result of his activities, charges were filed by the Officers and members of Local 1-80 against Ulinder. But Ulinder was in touch with the White Bloc in New Westminster and they had formed a Provincial White Bloc with as many as they could gather together in the various Locals.

Clay: Okay, Harold, somewhere at about this time you must’ve been conscious – you and the people close to you – that the list of opponents that you had including the developing White Bloc and including to some extent, and certainly will at a later time at any rate, the CCL, the FBI, an some evidence of employer participation in the thing; that you were developing a very long list of opponents and at the same time that the union was taking so radical and out front a posture – that it must have occurred to you that sooner or later it was going to get too big. Did you recall any feeling like that?

Harold: Well, Clay, history repeats itself always and in this case there is a repetition of history in the old days of the OBU when Ernie Winch was the Secretary and where the bosses and the government moved on the OBU, and Ernie Winch as secretary of the OBU was charged with stealing funds, etc., etc.. And it was by a concerted drive of the lumber manufacturers then in that day and the reactionary government that the OBU was forced out of existence.

So what we were faced with is something similar to what history had already established. There was certainly an understanding that one union in Canada such as the I.W. of A. couldn’t always spearhead the drives. The Canadian Congress of Labour was definitely in the hands of right-wingers. Mosher himself came from a national organization. He was a breakaway from Trainmen in the Railway unions and he set up the all-Canadian Congress and he finally became the President of the Canadian Congress of Labour. Conroy was a renegade from the Coalminers. He at one time was a militant coalminer worker in the mines and he became, finally, a labour attaché in Washington, D.C. and wore the tails of office then.

So that, with the concerted efforts of the bosses and the bosses’ agents and the reactionary governments, the I.W. of A. couldn’t continue to lead the parade as it were on wages, hours and working conditions without getting some support behind us and that support was not forthcoming in the general sense. We attempted at one time to extend the organization across Canada into Quebec, into Ontario, into the Atlantic Seaboard where the I.W. of A. tried to deal with Joey Smallwood’s opposition.

Later, this received terrific opposition from Mosher, Conroy and McCoughlin. They didn’t want the I.W. of A. in Quebec because it would do the same for Quebec workers as we had been able to do in B.C.. We were the spearhead. So I, myself, and others believed it was almost inevitable that the bosses would be successful with their agents to move on the I.W. of A.. We were not only spearheading in organization but in wages, hours and working conditions. Do you realize we established the 40 hour week in the basic industry in this Province in 1947 without a strike?

That was a tremendous feather in our cap because some workers that were a little bit weak figured that we were hitting the bricks too often, and I was opposed to hitting the bricks too often because you can wear your membership out, as Columbia River finally found out. So to say that there was an understanding, maybe it’s a better word, of how a spearhead organization such as ours would meet with the wrath of big business and big government.

Clay: There wasn’t much that you could do about it except to try to get the CCL to help out in some way?

Harold: Consolidate.

Clay: Consolidate.

Harold: Sure, that was the only answer but the opposition was growing, you know, from the government, from the Canadian Congress and it culminated in the Canadian Congress appointing a hatchet man to come to B.C. and do the job. And Grant MacNeil’s article recognized the role of the right wing of the N.D.P. and that doesn’t condemn the middle-of-the-road or the left-wingers of the N.D.P. or the honest membership of the N.D.P.. I should sometime give you the history of Alsbury’s brother Tom.

Clay: Let’s talk about that. Let’s get that on the record. You didn’t meet Tom who became a mayor, didn’t you?

Harold: Yes, Tom Alsbury was the mayor of Vancouver and he was a well-known NDPer and CCFer before that. As a matter of fact, he is now the Vice President of the old-age pensioners organization of Canada, elected in the convention recently in Vancouver. Now, in the summer of 1944, I believe, I’m not sure of that date – it’s ’44 or ’45 – he was President of the B.C. Teachers Federation of British Columbia.

Clay: AF of L?

Harold: AF of L. He was also President of the NDP in the province.

Clay: CCF.

Harold: This was after, I believe, he was mayor of Vancouver. I’m not sure of that point. That has to be cleared. Anyway I received word from the Eburne Sawmill membership who had a meeting every second Sunday in the Legion Hall in Edmunds, not Edmunds but somewhere at the bottom part of Granville Street.

Clay: Vancouver South.

Harold: Yes.

Clay: I’ve forgotten the phrase for it.

Harold: And they said that Alsbury claimed to be a member of the I.W. of A.

Clay: Marpole?

Harold: Marpole. In the Marpole Hall of the Legion. They met there regularly. Alsbury who claimed to be a member of the I.W. of A. and had a card to show. He attacked the District leadership and especially me, and wound up with his brother Stewart and George Mitchell in the White Bloc.

So I made enquiries of how he got a job during his school vacation in Eburne Sawmills and I went to the Plumbers Union and found out that a scab plumber was installing’ lavatories in the Eburne Sawmill under sub-contract and that he knew the sub-contractor as a personal friend who had given him a job helping to install these toilets in Eburne Sawmill, and therefore because Tom was working in Eburne Sawmill, he claimed to be entitled to membership in the I.W. of A. and obtained a card on that basis – all while he was still President of the Teachers Union on vacation. He was President of the NDP and now he was working in Eburne Sawmill during his vacation at scab wages, carrying an IWA card.

Clay: So he had a plumbers card, eh?

Harold: So I heard of this and the next meeting the boys invited me down and I arrived a little late Sunday morning and he was again holding forth. When I walked in the hall he was talking about Pritchett, Pritchett this, Pritchett that. And I walked into the front and I said, “Alsbury, I will give you two seconds to leave this meeting, otherwise, I’ll publicly expose you as President of the CCF, the NDP, as President of the school teachers on vacation working for a scab employer in the Eburne Sawmill and wrongfully carrying an IWA card”, and I says, “you get down and withdraw your membership immediately”. And he left the hall with his tail between his legs and Monday morning he was down to take his withdrawal from the I.W. of A. Local 1-217.

Clay: Let’s get back now to the feeling of the White Bloc and, in particular. there’s been some things said to me by prominent White Bloc people that I’d like to have your comment on. One was that the no strike pledge which of course was in favour of the war effort, especially toward the end of the war and particularly in respect of the strike of the Street Railwaymen which occurred, as I recall, in the early part of 1945 just before the end of the war, that that no strike pledge was used to considerable advantage of White Bloc speakers. They used it and the membership, especially as it related to that Street Railwaymen strike responded positively to the White Bloc message that this wasn’t the way to run a trade union, etc.

President’s Column from The Timber Worker – November 1938

Harold: Well, first of all, I’ve got to make it very clear that the no strike pledge adopted by the International Woodworkers of America was not only a District policy, it was IWA International policy and was CIO policy. And on top of all that, it was the policy of the Canadian Congress of Labour that everybody of any reasonable brains realized that with the drive of Hitler across Europe in which he destroyed trade unions, socialist parties, communist parties, even fraternal organizations and the people were subjected to complete dictatorship including prison camps and millions murdered, that the trade union movement now must pledge to fight to defeat Hitler and nothing must stand in the way.

And incidentally, talking about the Railroad Street Carmen strike, I don’t know much about that. I remember about it. We had a strike in the Queen Charlotte Islands of the loggers who were working under bad conditions to produce the Sitka spruce for the Sitka bombers. And it lasted a few days. Over a week. And we obtained a dollar a day increase for them because of the heavy timber, the side hills, the bugs and the rain. They were entitled to a preference pay and they got it. Now, that was a spontaneous strike and nobody could have stopped it, and nobody wanted to stop it. We put it out to the bosses that if you continue to put those signs up – that not all saboteurs are Japs – then you’re not going to get the kind of co-operation that we all want to win the war.

So they were forced to pull the signs down. Now top leaders – the right-wing leaders of the CCF and the NDP – were opposed to the no strike pledge. Not because it give them something to swing on; not because of a principle question. So I fully supported the no strike pledge and fought continuously and we did all we possibly could to win the war.

Clay: To pay the price.

Harold: As a matter of fact I had four sons in the Armed Services and two of them went overseas.

Clay: Okay, the other thing I wanted to get a comment on you from is that the White Bloc figures have reported to me that there was a labour lobby to Victoria toward, I guess, the end of the war to discuss the legislation under which trade unions would get certification. That the then White Bloc forces and CCF leaders took the position that the government ought not to be involved in any way in certifications. That it ought to happen sort of naturally or something and that you and the other so-called Red Bloc leaders had taken the position that had supported the notion of certification by some kind of government process. Again, these White Bloc figures have reported to me that they were able to use that controversy to their advantage in the later disputes.

Harold: Well, tell you Clay, during that period the Liberal-Conservative reactionary coalition Anscomb-Johnson government introduced Bill 39 which took away all labour’s rights as they do now introduce various bills. I believe the bill of the Federal Government that denies the Postal Workers, 68 is it?

Clay: Yeah, something like that.

Harold: 68C. So that the struggle of labour and the people in the Province of British Columbia was against Bill 39 and the NDP always maintained, at least the right wingers maintained that you don’t need to go to Victoria and lobby, just elect us the Government and we’ll take care of your political problems which is a denial of the rights of labour to activate politically. In other words, we’ve long since learned that you can’t fight with one arm tied behind your back. That you have to fight with your good right arm of economics together with your good left arm of politics and utilizing the NDP or any other group that’s willing to work for that end.

Now, there’s no doubt about it that person or persons you were talking to were looking all the time for measures which they could destroy the IWA leadership or even disrupt the organization. There is no doubt about that. I don’t deny that. I agree with them.

Clay: Well, essentially you agreed to or supported or accepted the notion of legislation that would undermine which trade unions would go to get certification.

Harold: What we were fighting for Clay, was a proper labour bill in which labour would be given its rights. That’s what we were after.

Clay:  I see. Well, one more thing, George Homes in particular was recounting to me his recollections of the very critical time around early October 1948 and there was a CCL Convention at that same time as you may recall, He said that he and Mahoney had left for Ottawa to attend that CCL Convention on or about October 1st, that they arrived in Toronto on or about the 4th or 5th and learned over the phone of the decision to set up the Woodworkers Industrial Union of Canada, and that their sources out here in British Columbia had told them that they had nothing to worry about; that it was clear that the White Bloc would win. They continued on their trip to go to the CCL Convention, and that they discovered there that members of the Communist party at the convention had already in a sense acknowledged the failure of the effort to set up the Woolies and were in a sense working for some kind of reconciliation between the two. Do you have any comment on that?

Harold: Well, you see Clay, that’s all hearsay and you are asking me to comment on what a Communist may or may not have said in convention. I don’t know. If they state some names of people who said that. Now, obviously Homes, one-vote Homes, had proceeded to the Convention and their hatchet man had returned to the convention but that’s about the only comment I can make is it’s all hearsay. Whether we made a mistake or not is something you should ask me, not him.

Clay: Okay. It’s widely reported in the papers Harold, that you personally did not feel very happy about the decision to break away or at least in the way it was done in October 1948. Is there anything that you would like to say?

Harold: Well, first of all Clay I want to say on the record that obviously it was a mistake or otherwise we’d be still be in existence. That’s obvious. So that in order to avoid any similar mistakes in future, we should be prepared at all times to take the working class into our confidence. And in taking them into our confidence, it includes membership meetings and if necessary, a referendum vote which wasn’t done. And I think we should learn something from this mistake and if we admit – and I do admit – it was a mistake.

Now I wasn’t very happy about the manner in which we proceeded because I had led the campaign in the United States on a very similar but much larger scale in the fight against Hutchison and we conducted a two-year struggle to maintain our rights in the Carpenters and Joiners and having failed, we took a referendum vote and the referendum vote backed us. In addition, we had somewhere to light. We didn’t have in this case. We didn’t approach the Canadian Congress. And I don’t think it would have done us any good.

Say, well in the event we do decide to leave the IWA, will you find a bed for us? They would have said absolutely not.

Clay: There was no equivalent to…

Harold: Because they were in bed with the White Bloc.

Clay: There was no equivalent to the CIO when you…

Harold: No. So, the kind of campaign that we conducted in the United States should have been conducted here and I maintain that I didn’t have the support and therefore I wasn’t going to walk out and say, “To hell with it”. I had to stay in. My loyalty was to the worker.

Clay: Were you pretty much alone in that posture?

Harold: Not entirely, no.

Clay: But you didn’t, weren’t able to carry the day, eh?

Harold: No. These are incidents, aye?

Clay: Sure. Harold, you mentioned the name of George Pulling who played quite an active role in the IWA.

Harold: Yes, George was working in Alaska Pine when the Korkur Brothers came over from Czechoslovakia during the war by permission of the Federal Government and they brought with them $19 million dollars with agreement from the Federal Government that they invest their money in industry in Canada or buy Victory bonds within a limited time. So they bought as one of their projects Alaska Pine.

They also attempted to buy Fraser Mills. They also bought the B.C. Box which is now part of 1-357. Anyway, George was working at Alaska Pine when the Korkur Brothers took over and they brought most of their staff with them. And they set up a company union and George was elected chairman of the company union.

The Korkur Brothers practiced a paternalistic policy as they had did in Czechoslovakia prior to the revolution and that paternalistic policy included a union which they could meet with and deal and do business with in their own way and they dealt with such things as a beautiful dining room. You could eat your lunch off the floor, it was clean and polished beautiful and they had a little store and with 24 hours a day operation and they can oft times call the crews on their time into the dining room day and night shift in which the management would speak on policy, management policy and did it affecting the workers.

And Mr. Korkur always addressed the meeting as “fellow workers”. Anyway, we got to know George and asked him what was the possibilities of having a good union instead of a company union. He said, “Well, we could work at it”. And he went to work at it with others, some good friends in there and eventually they brought the whole membership of the company union, day and night shift, by ballot into the IWA.

That was a tremendous accomplishment for George and the membership of 1-357 advanced quite numerically and George was elected on the executive of the Local. Later he came as a delegate to the various conventions. I think we should give due, we should give credit where credit is due. George today is not a well man. He has some sort of sickness that makes it impossible for him to go out and walk which he used to do. I shall have to go and see him because he’s a fine old trade unionist.

Shingle Sawyer circa. 1950

I want to mention a little about my return to the industry Clay. I believe it was in 1950. I applied and got a job at what is now or what was then Watson Shingle although it was owned by two Englishmen and the filer, the former filer was the superintendent. When my first arrival in the morning to go to work…

Clay: I see, your first return after the…

Harold: After the…

Clay: Many years.

Harold: Yes. I hadn’t sawn for quite a while. The whole crew come to shook hands with me which was very moving, stimulating, you know. I expected some hostility because I wasn’t a member of the union and couldn’t join, although I tried after and was rejected. Anyway I gave the union every support I possibly could during my eight years I sawed there. It changed hands from the two Englishmen to Watson and Watson Shingles was where we did, where I sawed most of my shingles. Even to the point when they went in to negotiating with Watson or with these former owners they’d take me along with them for support which I gladly went. Now that is one incident when I returned to work.

Another one was when I left Watson, they shut down, I got a job at McNair. Tipadel who was expelled from the AF of L union at the same time as I was away back in 1932 by Bill Green of the AF of L. He was also named as a Communist but he was a mill owner and he owned the big shingle mill down in Marpole. I worked there too. He lost that because of his wayward habits and he then took the job as general manager of the McNair Shingle Mills and he gave me a job and that was a big mill.

(End of Transcript)

For more on Harold Pritchett, visit this University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights and Labour History Project website:

As always, 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.


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: