Some surprises in new book about B.C. labour movement

“On the Line” charts history of the union movement back to the 1800s

The author of a new history of the B.C. labour movement says while fewer people belong to unions these day, they aren’t likely to become extinct. Supplied photo

Even for a former labour reporter with 16 years reporting on labour disputes, writing a comprehensive history of the BC labour movement was an educational experience.

“I learned stuff doing it, I really did,” said Rod Mickleburgh, author of “On the Line, A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement” which is scheduled to be published by Harbour Publishing on April 28.

Mickleburgh, a former labour reporter for the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers and a former senior writer for the Globe and Mail, was fascinated to learn the prominent role First Nations people played in the early labour history of the province.

“It was a surprise to me,” Mickleburgh said.

The books describes how indigenous people worked on the docks and in fishing, logging and mining, working during the summer and returning to their communities in the winter.

The book quotes the opinion of historian John Lutz, who said “coal would not have been mined in the 1840s and 1850s (without indigenous workers), sawmills would have been unable to function in the 1860s and 1870s, and canneries would have had neither fishing fleet nor fish processors.”

Then, the colonial governments began to methodically force them out.

People who had been trapping in a particular area for generations would show up on their trapline one day and discover that someone else had been given a licence, Mickleburgh said.

Indigenous fishermen saw non-natives take over the fishing industry.

“In every industry where aboriginal people had once laboured productively, they found themselves squeezed by new government restrictions on their hunting, fishing and trapping rights, and the desire by employers for year-round workers coupled with growing mechanization,” Mickleburgh writes.

The other surprise for Mickleburgh was the the fact that workplace safety is still such a problem.

“Tragedies are still going on in the workplace and I find that shocking,’ Mickleburgh said.

The book describes the fatal consequences of lax safety standards at a Langley mushroom farm in 2008, when two workers struggling to clear a clogged pipe in an enclosed pumphouse were rendered unconscious by toxic gases.

When three fellow workers rushed to rescue them, they too were overcome.

“With three deaths and two other victims unable to function, 13 children were left to grow up without their fathers or their active presence,” Mickleburgh wrote.

“The mushroom farm was run as if safety regulations and legalities did not exist.”

A coroner’s inquest “detailed a long history of missteps, failures, ignored warning signs and lack of concern by the operators for the basics of health and safety that culminated that fateful September day.”

The deaths at the Langley farm came several years after what Mickleburgh describes as a “heroic” but unsuccessful campaign to organize farm workers that saw another Langley mushroom farm unionized , then decertified three years later.

READ MORE: Guilty pleas in Langley mushroom farm deaths

Mickleburgh said the history of the labour movement in B.C. is a history of gains won, then eroded.

“The employers never stop trying to roll back conditions if they can.” Mickleburgh said.

“It’s always under attack.”

Many of the benefits workers enjoy, like eight-hour days, weekends, overtime pay, sick leave, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage were not the result of “benevolent employers,” but were won by workers in unions, Mickleburgh said.

“You just have to take your hat off to them,” he said.

“Why aren’t there (more) streets named after labour leaders?”

Mickleburgh said it’s been about 50 years since the last comprehensive history of the labour movement was written and published.

His book, he said, is not an academic history.

“I tried to tell a story to make the narrative come alive.”

A major challenge, he said, was keeping the book to a manageable length given the amount of material, which includes more than 200 archival photographs.

The book concludes by noting that after “more than 150 years of struggle marked by death, hardship, sacrifice, many bitter defeats and eventually a long period of solid gains and achievements” the percentage of B.C residents belonging to unions has fallen, especially in the private sector.

According to Statistics Canada, B.C. experienced a six-point decrease in the percentage of workers belonging to a union between 1996 and 2013, the biggest drop in Canada.

Despite that, Mickleburgh writes, “there is no sign of trade unions becoming extinct. They remain a key force protecting and advancing the cause of all workers in a no-holds-barred economy.”

The book was commissioned by the BC Labour Heritage Centre with sponsorship by the Community Savings Credit Union, which was originally formed by members of the International Woodworkers of America union.



dan.ferguson@langleytimes.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Rod Mickleburgh. Photo by Lucie McNeill

Just Posted

Campbell River's new hospital, July 2018
Nurse diverts opiates and falsifies records at Campbell River Hospital

Nurse facing disciplinary action for moving opiates out of the hospital

The recently acquired Thulin family car, photographed in front of the Willows Hotel in 1912. MCR7453. Courtesy Museum at Campbell River
No license to drive

A Look Back into the History of the Campbell River Area

The Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k:tles7et’h’ First Nation will be joining the SRD board as a full member in April, 2021. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Island First Nation on track to join Strathcona Regional District board

Representative Kevin Jules says he’s ‘thrilled’ to be a full member of the board

The Museum at Campbell River and Greenways Land Trust are hosting a virtual talk by UVIC PhD candidate Garth Covernton on Nov. 5. Tickets are only $7 and are available at crmusum.ca. Photo courtesy Garth Covernton
New Museum at Campbell River speaker series leads off with talk on microplastics

Tickets for digital event Nov. 5 are only $7 and include the opportunity to ask questions

North Island Votes. Campbell River Mirror graphic
Babchuk declared winner in North Island

Nearly three-quarters of votes counted and mail-in ballots still to come

FILE – Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides the latest update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province during a press conference in the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. shatters COVID-19 records with 817 weekend cases; masks now expected indoors

Three people have died over the past three reporting periods

Some of the characters in the League of Legends video game. (Photo: na.leagueoflegends.com)
E-sports trial at B.C. high schools to start with ‘League of Legends’ team game

For fall launch, Vancouver’s GameSeta company partners with BC School Sports

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

RCMP have released more details regarding what led up to an arrest caught on video in Williams Lake Sunday, Oct. 26. (Facebook video screenshot)
Review launched after ‘high-risk, multi-jurisdictional’ chase, arrest in Williams Lake

RCMP launching a full review and code of conduct investigation

Freighter drags anchor towards Boulder Point Oct. 22. It came within 730 metres of the shore, according to maps from the Port of Nanaimo. (Photo submitted)
MacGregor introduces bill to address freighter anchorages along the South Coast

Concerns about the environment, noise, pollution and safety abundant

(Pxfuel)
B.C. limits events in private homes to household, plus ‘safe six’ amid COVID-19 surge

Henry issued a public health order limiting private gatherings to one household, plus a group of ‘safe six’ only

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson speaks during a drive-in car rally campaign stop at a tour bus operator, in Delta, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Andrew Wilkinson stepping down as B.C. Liberal leader

Will stay on until the next party leader is chosen

Most Read