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“Part 1: Union Certification Challenged from Within” by John Mountain, Digging into History 2.11 (November 2020)

In this month’s deep dig, I’m burrowing into a situation that happened sixty years ago when some IWA members – powerhouse workers – thought they could get a better deal for themselves if they explored a relationship with another union.

As an IWA rank and file member at the sawmill level and then as an IWA national staffer, I know that the union has always made its own policy. From election of officers to major policy decisions, most members knew that policy is made by membership decision, either in convention, regional conferences, or by referendum ballot. This was the union’s strong suit and it’s what glued the membership together. However, it seems that sometimes that glue failed to adhere completely.

It was a democratic process where IWA members had always retained full control of their affairs – the members had always steered their own course and had generally ignored dictation from outside interests. And that was true for the most part, until government Labour Relations Boards became involved. At times the Board was called upon to sort out differences between management and the union, and even at times in the house of labour between the IWA and another union. That was the case in 1960 when the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) challenged the IWA for representation of power engineers who worked in sawmill energy plants. All of a sudden, it was “craft union” against “industrial union” again.

The IUOE is a craft trade union that represents primarily construction workers such as heavy equipment operators, mechanics, and surveyors. The IUOE organizes workers based on the skills of the individual or you might say, their craft. Whereas the IWA is an industrial union that organizes workers based on the sector where they work which would include the broad scope of workers in the forest industry.

But the IUOE also represents stationary engineers who maintain heating and other essential systems in buildings and industrial complexes – such as power engineers who work in powerhouses utilizing steam. It was from this position back in 1960 that the IUOE decided to raid IWA operations with sawmill powerhouses in an effort to wrestle workers away from the IWA. The IUOE claimed that power engineers were their sole domain and filed an application with the Labour Relation Board to correct the situation.

The list of operations that were affected is long and they were all on the BC coast. The ten plants listed were Canadian Collieries Resources Flavelle Cedar Division, Canadian Collieries Resources Timberland Lumber Division, Capilano Timber Company, Canadian Forest Products, Powell River Lumber Company Westminster Shook Mills Division, Evans Forest Products, Western Plywood Company, Powell River Lumber Company Westminster BC Manufacturing Division, Macmillan Bloedel Canadian White Pine Division, and Brownlee Industries.

Coast Sawmill with powerhouse on Fraser River

A vigorous defense of IWA interests was conducted by the Regional Council officers acting in cooperation with the local unions affected. Through this effort, a mass of evidence was accumulated and a submission to the Labour Relations Board was given by union counsel Alex MacDonald and Regional President Joe Morris.

For the application to be heard however, the IUOE needed some workers to back them so they enticed the involvement of seventy-nine IWA powerhouse employees in the above mentioned plants. At the time, the IWA held certification for approximately 27,000 employees in the coast lumber industry and of this number, approximately 20,000 were employed in lumber manufacturing plants with 329 of them employed as powerhouse crew.

The IWA argued that up to the time of challenge – the passage of some fourteen years – the union had secured three special increases for engineers and firemen. In 1947 for instance, the IWA gained 12½ cents per hour increase for engineers throughout the industry; in 1953 another 10½ cents per hour for 2nd class engineers and 4½ cents per hour for 3rd class engineers, and an average of 5 cents an hour for firemen. Nineteen fifty-six negotiations yielded even further increases for all four powerhouse categories with the IWA pointing out to the Board that powerhouse employees actually did pretty good under the stewardship of the union.

However, there was a bit of a fiasco in 1955 negotiations when after a settlement had been reached between the industry and the union, the IUOE attempted to interfere by calling out the engineers in plants in which they held certification in order to obtain additional benefits. And there were a few which included Port Alberni and if I remember correctly, at Youbou. When the IWA reached settlement, the IUOE managed to convince eight men in Port Alberni to keep the plant closed for 1,500 men for two weeks while attempting without success, to make a better deal – that move by the IUOE that was clearly interpreted as outside interference by the IWA. As if what might be called retribution for that interference, the powerhouse crew at BCFP Youbou later chose to leave the IUOE and join the IWA. But that’s another long raiding story that ultimately went before the Canadian Labour Congress to be settled.

1950s Sawmill Powerhouse

Despite arguments raised by the IUOE before the Board, the IWA was able to prove that all skills in lumber manufacturing were integrated in a continuous series of production processes. They reasoned a stoppage anywhere in the production line halts all operation and further argued that each phase of production and manufacture from the raw log to the finished product requires constant integration and coordination of well-trained and highly specialized personnel. The position taken by the IWA was supported by industry employers who also gave evidence to the effect that the principle of industrial unionism which provides a uniform settlement for all employees tends toward greater stability in labour management relations.

It was also proven in evidence before the Board that within the present framework of industrial unionism, there are effective and workable facilities for attention to the problems of special groups. Additional important evidence was given to the effect that when engineers and firemen were displaced by reasons of technological changes in the development of power alternatives, the IWA had been successful in providing for their absorption into other sections of the industry. It was stated that this could have only be done when representations are made through a single bargaining agency.

As a result of these arguments, the Labour Relations Board rendered a decision to reject the application made by the IUOE to obtain certification for powerhouse employees in those ten operations. The Board stated that the units to which the applications relate to are not appropriate for collective bargaining. The Board decision was the climax to a struggle that extended over four months, from the time the IUOE filed an application which signalled a raid on IWA operations, to the time when the decision came down.

The decision rendered by the Board in this case, set an important precedent in the BC lumber industry because it extended official sanction to observance of the principle of industrial unionism. In this respect the decision coincided with similar decisions made by the U.S. Labour Relations Board and the Ontario Labour Relations Board. And it stood as a warning that future attempts should not be made to carve splinter groups out of the IWA membership, as such action is detrimental to the interests of all concerned.

Chemainus Mill Powerhouse circa 1924

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.

Special Note – Excerpts from the Western Canadian Lumber Worker Newspapers were used as reference in this deep dig.

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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