STRETCHING FROM THE YUKON border in the North to Alberta in the east to Smithers, BC, in the West, Local 1-424 covers more territory than any other BC local in the IWA and with over 5,400 men and women in its ranks, it is also one of the largest locals in terms of membership.
Local 1-424 received its charter in 1945, at a time when demand for lumber was huge, labor shortages were acute, and working people were on the offensive in BC and across the country. Initially, the bulk of the union’s support came from the men who lived in Giscome and worked for Eagle Lake Mills, but after the province wide strike in 1946 the local’s ranks swelled, reaching 1,700 by the end of the decade. Wages and conditions improved steadily too. Like the IWA as a whole, Local 1-424 was swept up in the rivalry between communism and anti-communism in the late 1940s and 1950s. At a pivotal meeting of the BC Federation of Labour in 1948, a gathering in which the red and white blocs were running for leadership positions, it was Howard Webb, a shop steward from Giscome, who cast the deciding ballot to elect a “white” secretary-treasurer, a move that tipped the balance of power on the provincial body’s executive in favor of the social democrats tied to the CCF and the Canadian Congress of Labour. Webb went on to become secretary of the Prince George Labour Council and, with the local’s backing a city councilor.
During the early 1950s the local’s membership improved modestly with victories in Quesnel and Dawson Creek. But in 1953 its future appeared to be in jeopardy as it battled local mill operators for stronger closed-shop guarantees, including compulsory dues check-off, and higher wages. Dubbed by one writer as the “most serious episode” in 1-424’s history, the strike lasted for over 100 days. In the end, the local secured some modest concessions on both fronts, but it had done so at considerable cost: membership constricted, many woodworkers and their families went broke, and several small operators went out of business. In the wake of the strike, the local steered a less confrontational approach and was, in time, able to secure compulsory dues check-off and a menu of other improvements, including wage hikes and better vacations, safety provisions, and grievance procedures.
By the late 1950s the local was back on solid ground – membership was increasing, albeit slowly, and labor relations were, on the whole, peaceful. Throughout the next three decades, 1-424, like other IWA locals, added thousands of new members, reaching an all-time high of 7,000 and negotiated successive collective agreements that included better base wage rates and pensions for retired workers. Today, as the economy of the northern Interior changes and environmental concerns persist, Local 1-424 has successfully reached out to workers in other industries, including value-added and secondary manufacturing and the service sector.
The IWA’s strength had always been centered around the coastal forest industry, but in the mid – 1940s, British Columbia’s District 1 officers decided to further their organizing efforts in the Interior. Like the Interior forest industry itself, union organization in the interior had been scattered. Now IWA organizers found that wages and working conditions in major mills near larger communities were comparable to those on the Coast. However, in more isolated mills and logging camps, conditions ranged from worse to terrible – loggers organized at a Canal Flats operation had to make demands for such basic needs as fumigation to destroy bedbugs, proper ventilation in the bunkhouse, and more than one shower per 40 men.
Inspired by the success of the 1946 Cost strike and spurred on by increased production, IWA Interior locals began to grow in Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, Nelson, and Prince George. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, production at Interior camps and mills was expanding much more quickly then it was on the Coast, and Interior locals were unhappy with their wages, low in comparison to those on the Coast. There seems little reason that wage parity was denied to the Interior union members.
The lumber market was weak in 1953, and coastal IWA members had won relatively small gains in their contract that year. This played into operator’ hands when Interior locals decided to purse big improvements in their contracts. In the Northern Interior, operators represented by the Northern Interior Lumberman’s Association were only offering an extension of the previous agreement. Although a conciliation board suggested a 6 percent increase, three more paid holidays, and a modified union shop contract, the operators refused to consider the proposal.
As a result, the interior locals decided to take a strike vote in September 1953. LRB regulations called for strike votes to be taken in each bargaining unit, and the results of the strike vote were uneven. In the north, 20 out of 34 units voted to walk off the job on 28 September. In the Southern Interior 19 units out of 39 voted to strike, and on 23 October they began to walk the picket lines.
Local 1-424 was based in Prince George and represented 1.500 workers, “I came up here then,” one woman commented about Prince George, “took one look, and got out fast. There was nothing but loggers and prostitutes.” Local 1-424 members worked at mills controlling 90 percent of the lumber shipments in the interior, and with the promised co-operation of the railroad union they vowed to shut down the northern Interior industry to support their demands. The bosses did not blink. It was a tough strike as the cold fall and winter weather began.
In his history of Local 1-424, Ken Bernsohn vividly recalled the gut-level reaction to the onset of the strike:
If you were a union member you were angry. But you were also confused. You know what it’s like when a strike starts. You worry about money. You wonder what’s really happening… What’s going on? How long will the strike last? What’s the strike pay? What’s this I hear about the Northern Planer? Better go down to the office and find out about picket duty.
Everyone’s there you know, plus a lot of others. Lame jokes. People moving fast through the crowd…are they really that hassled our just trying to look important? Guys with instant speeches. The men who leave the room when someone catches their eye and nods toward the door. It’s the opening scene of the strike, but you feel like you walked into a play halfway through the third act and spent the afternoon trying to sort it all out…
To much time to sit and worry. What about your car payments? Your house payment? On the 28 th , a lot of husbands and wives stayed up late talking. Worrying. Some people responded by buying lots of canned goods. Some stocked up on cigarettes. A few stocked up on booze (their supply didn’t last as long as they thought it would). The union executive responded by meeting with strike captains, setting up committees, planning, and got home only long enough to change their clothes.
By the time three days had passed, a soup kitchen had been set up in the CCF Hall. The menu was moose stew and coffee, three times daily, for as long as the strike lasted. That took a lot of moose, and during [hunting] season, the members brought them in. After the season was over they were supplied by other sources. A phone would ring late at night, “There’s a moose out back of the CCF Hall. Do you think you can get it off the street?” Allegedly, the local conservation officer made midnight deliveries of moose that had been hit by trains or cars. Farmers offered free vegetables if the strikers would pick them. Merchants donated food. The first day over 200 men registered for picket duty and strike benefits. By the end of the week over 400 men, including non-union types who had been thrown out of work when the strike stared, were eating at the soup kitchen. Everyone in the union who was married ate there as a matter of course. It would help the food last at home a little longer.
The IWA quietly encouraged single men to leave the area and look for work elsewhere in order to extend the strike fund. Union locals from the Coast donated almost two tons of clothing, most of it for children. Local car dealers agreed to suspend strikers’ car payments for the duration of the strike. The local economy was seriously affected by the strike and there appeared to be no end to hostilities in sight.
The northern operators essentially wanted to bust the union in their region. They hired goon squads, and violent clashes ensued. While many IWA people knew it was crucial to maintain public sympathy, others were angry and frustrated with the companies’ actions and did not shy from confrontations. “It was goon squads against goon squads,” commented Ken Bernsohn. “It wasn’t safe to have tow or three men out picketing. There had to be at least a dozen or they’d end up battered.”
Aggravating these frustrations was the blatant anti-union bias in the media. A Prince George Citizen story about a confrontation between strikers and mill owner illustrates this bias:
A group of pickets overturned a mill owner’s car and tore his clothing following a brief altercation. A shot was fired in an effort to disperse a group of about 80 pickets near a planning mill. The manager was alone in his car when pickets overturned it and dragged him to the ground.
The same incident, according to a striker on the scene, unfolded this was;
We heard this guy was going to start up, so we drove out to the mill. As we went toward the office, this guy opens up with a .303. As you can imagine, we didn’t like this. So we waited until he ran out of shells, then dumped his car in the ditch and went home. We’d called the RCMP when he started shooting, but they didn’t show up all the time we were there. It turns out they showed up two hours later.
The employers’ use of the courts and the law against the strikers was also a problem for the union. The operators filed a series of injunctions in the courts in an attempt to wear the IWA down. Alex Macdonald, later attorney-general of British Columbia, was the sold lawyer for Local 1-424 and was run ragged trying to keep up the fight against the flurry of injunctions. “The real issue wasn’t union shop or union wages. It was union recognition,” Macdonald recalled. By the late autumn of 1953 there was serious concern about the impact of the strike on members. The IWA’s Tage Morgenson observed;
People were frantic. They couldn’t feed their families, they couldn't’t get jobs, they had no hope…We began to have trouble with people stealing from the soup kitchen. If your children are really starving, you do things you’d normally be shocked by. I was lucky. I had money in the bank and planned to by a new truck for Christmas. Then the strike stared. When it was over, I had less then $100 in the bank and no truck.
In December 1953, Justice Arthur Lord was appointed to look into the dispute and make recommendations, and on 6 January 1954 the strike came to an end. The IWA’s goal in the interior had been to fight for wages and benefits closer to those being paid on the Coast. Lord’s terms of settlement fell far shot of that goal. Members received a 5 ½ -cent per hour increase and a “maintenance-of-membership” clause, but did not obtain full union shop recognition. The Interior members had been out for three to four months in difficult, cold weather, but received less than their coastal counterparts had obtained months earlier. It was a bitter and violent strike and ended with only 800 IWA members remaining in Local 1-424. “It would take years to rebuild the union [in the north],” commented Ken Bernsohn. In the ensuing years, the gap between Interior and coastal wage rates actually widened, setting the stage for another pivotal strike by Interior woodworkers in 1967.
The IWA in CANADA
The LIFE and TIMES of an INDUSTRIAL UNION
By Andrew Neufeld and Andrew Parnaby
Foreword by Mark Leier
IWA Canada/NewStar Books, Vancouver 2000
The IWA was founded as the International Woodworkers of America in 1937 when it was a union that represented loggers and millworkers in Canada and the United States. On September 1, 2004, I.W.A. Canada merged with the United Steelworkers of America and now in our region, we are known as United Steelworkers, Local 1-424.