Henry here- I’m back in the Archive, woo! It’s been a while since I contributed anything to the I.W.A. Archive blog. However, upon returning, I found these freshly archived letters so interesting that I had to write about them.
This blog post builds on John Mountain’s December 2019 “Digging into History”, which provided background on the I.W.A.’s industry-wide strike in 1986. It explores the personal impact of the strike on I.W.A. Western Canadian Regional Council #1 President Jack Munro, using a collection of letters sent to the labour leader at the height of the dispute.
The Vancouver Sun labelled it “the $2 billion strike”, and it’s certainly true that the 1986 industry-wide I.W.A. strike was one of the costliest in British Columbia’s history. With near to 20,000 workers on strike for four-and-a-half months, the collective action famously reduced the union’s strike fund to just a single $20 note. Were it not for generous $1 million donations from each of the Canadian Labour Congress and the B.C. Government Employees Union, as well as a pool of smaller donations from smaller unions and members of the public, it’s likely the strike would have rung the death knell for the enormous forestry union.
The dispute had been brewing for years, and particularly centered around the industry practice of contracting out work to non-union workers. This could occasionally be done as a means of bringing in specialized skilled labour, but more-often-than-not served as a way for company bosses to undermine seniority and reduce wages. In May 1986, employers arrived at contract negotiations demanding concessions to ease contracting out, and, led by Jack Munro as chief negotiator, the I.W.A. drew a line in the sand.
It’s certain that there was widespread support for the strike at all levels of the union. In June 1986, during the initial strike vote, 89% of ballots were cast in favour. In November, when the Hodgson Commission (led by the former Vancouver Local 1-217 Secretary Treasurer Stuart Hodgson) submitted recommendations for the union to accept contracting and return to work, over 90% voted to continue the strike. Individual actions also demonstrated the popularity of the strike at the grassroots level. For instance, a mass picketing at Schon Timber in Ladysmith drew some 800 supporters to prevent MacMillan Bloedel contracting out to the non-union company.
Despite the high level of support for the strike throughout the union’s membership, the seemingly endless continuation of the shutdown also attracted criticism from the media and public. Jack Munro, the towering, gruff-talking, cuss-throwing President of the Regional Council, was on the receiving end of most of this criticism. Indeed, building on from his involvement in the Solidarity Movement in 1984, as leader of the union side during the 1986 negotiations Munro became something of a media celebrity. Hence, newspaper headlines announcing strike updates invariably featured his name.
Being in the media spotlight meant Munro received hate mail and fan mail in equal measure during this time. Letters sent to Munro during the 1986 strike, which are now being held by the I.W.A. Archive at the Kaatza Station Museum, certainly bear testament to some of the biting criticism that came his way. However, many letters were also effusively supportive. One writer, a retired I.W.A. member from Sechelt, noted the dramatic decline of employees at his former operation, and enthused:
“You are fighting for the life of the working force in British Columbia, keep up the good fight against the manipulators and the drones of our society” – Letter to Jack Munro (3 Oct. 1986)
In another letter, the wife of a forty-year I.W.A. member in North Vancouver wrote:
“At no other time has it been so important for us to be stalwart and firm in our convictions concerning trade unionism in British Columbia, and I wanted you to know how very much we appreciate your efforts on our behalf” – Letter to Jack Munro (7 Oct. 1986)
And a Comox-based faller, the union fallers rep at Woss Lake, wrote as the strike entered its final stages:
“In all my 18 years as a logger, never have I been so proud of labour leader… What ever you do, don’t give in. I know we’ve won. Be careful of the next steps you take. Defy the government if you have to.” – Letter to Jack Munro (2 Dec. 1986)
However, as much support there was for Munro’s staunch position and bombastic language, there was also as much, if not more, criticism. Occasionally, this criticism came from the broader public, sometimes focusing on Munro’s no-holds-barred rhetoric. For instance, a writer from White Rock, after praising the labour leader’s “zeal”, opined:
“I was disturbed too, and therefore prompted to write following your address to the I.W.A. workers in New Westminster last week which I viewed several times again on the TV News. I’m very concerned about certain words you include in your messages and media comments. The words are the names God, Jesus Christ and Hell” – Letter to Jack Munro (18 Oct. 1986)
More often than not, however, harsh and critical letters came from out-of-work members and their families. Many of these pointed equal blame at both union and industry figures. A letter written to both Munro and Forest Industry Relations chief negotiator Keith Bennett from a Port Alberni sawmill worker’s wife thus decried both sides of the dispute:
“I am furious about your unintelligent kindergarten-like game termed “NEGOTIATIONS”. As far as I know you are both getting paid to do this job and up until now you have been wasting time and money and accomplishing nothing!” – Letter to Jack Munro and Keith Bennett (26 Aug. 1986).
Criticisms from family members, partners, and even the sons and daughters of involuntary strikers make up the majority correspondence sent from members of the public in 1986. For a family man such as Jack, critical letters from the children of striking members must have been particularly tough to take. One such letter, written from the daughter of a striker in Squamish to “Mr. I.W.A.” recounted the financial stress the strike was placing on her family:
“My sister is probably going to have to quit school so we can make ends meet. But school is important, everyone says. So please, I beg you to get the I.W.A. workers back so our family is not going to be deeply in debt” – Letter to Jack Munro (19 Nov. 1986).
Munro went to great efforts to reply to letters from youngsters, and his responses were all laden with kindness, sympathy, and support. For instance, he responded to the above writer in the following fashion:
And to a grade-5 writer from Surrey, writing to a famous person as part of a school assignment and asking for a photo and an end to the strike, Munro replied:
Interviewing former I.W.A. Canada staff and officers who worked with Jack, a constant remark they have is how kind he was, and how much he cared deeply about the union’s members. This side of Jack, clearly evident in these letters written at the height of the crisis, was often overlooked by the media, who portrayed almost a caricature of the bombastic, insensitive, coarse leader.
History books may tout the industry settling the strike in the union’s favor in December 1986 as a great success. The I.W.A. received a letter promising prohibitions against contracting out, a wage increase, and new pension guarantees. However, the level of criticism in these letters (some of which is too personal and harsh to include here) and the widespread suffering caused by the strike clearly weighed heavily on Jack Munro’s conscience. It’s understandable therefore that he later said, in interview with Andrew Neufeld and Andrew Parnaby, “I hope things never get that bad again”.
Do you have experiences of the 1986 strike? Feel free to share them in the comment section below!
All letters cited here to and from Jack Munro can be viewed at: Letters from Public (1986-1987), Box 249 Folder 2, Jack Munro Papers, The I.W.A. Archive at the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives.
Unless otherwise cited, photos are from the I.W.A. Local 1-80 Photo Collection in the I.W.A. Archive at the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives.
The Vancouver Sun
The Nanaimo Daily Free Press
Hak, Gordon, The Left in British Columbia: A History of Struggle (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2013)
Mickleburgh, Rod, On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement (Madiera Park: Harbour Publishing, 2018).
Neufield, Andrew and Andrew Parnaby, The IWA in Canada: The Life and Times of an Industrial Union (Vancouver: I.W.A. Canada/New Star Books, 2000).
Palmer, Bryan D., “The Ghost of Jack Munro”, The Ormsby Review, #348, https://bcbooklook.com/bc-labour-movement-history/
5 thoughts on “‘Sometimes Strikes are Sort of Like Some Wars’: Letters to Jack Munro During the 1986 Strike”
Enjoyed this piece on the 86 strike… it was a tough strike for sure! Many members in the Chemainus Ladysmith area spent days and nights on the Schon Timber picket line… it was an intense time with members standing up to scabs who were intent on driving their pickup trucks through the line. That photo brings back memories.
Really glad to hear that your back Henry. Hope to see you soon.
Jack Munro was my grandfather, unfortunately I never met him before he passed in 2013 so it’s really awesome to see this – I haven’t seen any letters from him until now. Thank you, great article.
Hi there, great to hear from a relative of Jack. Just so you know we have all kinds of records and correspondence belonging to your grandfather. So if you or any of your family wish to connect and chat about this at any time drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss. Cheers!
It was a tough time!…but communities like Youbou stuck together as best we could. If you had..you shared, if you needed..you asked…in the end we learned resilience and toughness bring out the best. The kids learned too..not everyone needs new clothes,shoes, a big Christmas to have some of the very best community times…it was worth every fear, every loss of sleep and in the end, the union proved itself. The rallies were some of the greatest memories..old Jack knew how to play to a crowd!..loved those rallies!…union strong!
I remember the strike of 86 and the mass picket at Schon timber. Even though we won the effects of the contracting out language still benefits the workers today. In 2008 we had a huge lay-off and after UIC ran out I went to Alberta to try to get some work. I got a call from the local President telling me they won an et al contracting out grievance and I was one of the beneficiaries of the win. If I remember correctly there were about 10 laid off workers who got money from the settlement. I came back to the island and shortly after was brought back to work.