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The Divided House of B.C. Labour

January 1, 1985 -

Attempts to weld British Columbia's labour unions into a unified, Solidarity-type movement to fight the hated provincial government of Premier William Bennett are not meeting with much success.

The B.C. house of labour is suffering from a deep rift between the pragmatic and traditional private sector unions (especially in the forest industry) and the more militant public sector unions. The inner turmoil, which boiled to the surface at the recent B.C Federation of Labour convention, is fueled by the province's high unemployment rate of 14.9 per cent. Unemployment has eroded union strength; e.g., the membership of the International Woodworkers of America, once B.C.'s largest union, has dwindled from 50,000 in 1981 to less than 30,000 today. Confrontation with the B.C. government, which undertook a severe restraint program in 1983, further strained the B.C. unions. The unions came to an agreement with the B.C government in the fall of 1983, but according to the militants, the deal "sold out" the union membership, and moderates, led by Jack Munro, were to blame. (Munro was defeated in his recent bid for re-election to the executive of the B.C. Federation of Labour, a defeat which Globe and Mail reporter Ian Mulgrew described as part of a "purge" of the Federation by the militant public sector unions.)

The difficulties faced by the B.C. labour movement must be seen against the background of the shift in all Western countries from an industrial to a "postindustrial" society. This transition is accompanied by massive changes that affect especially the traditional unions, such as those in the forestry and manufacturing sectors. Unemployment is the principal problem and is the most obvious cause of the decline in union power.

The ideological militants are adamant that the adversary system of industrial relations be maintained and demand that government solve the unemployment problem. Jack Munro and other like-minded moderates spurn the militant rhetoric in favour of more practical steps toward creating new jobs, including increased consultation among business, government and labour. Says Munro: "People are trying to take advantage of words and phrases or somebody else's social conscience to justify what they are doing at the bargaining table. The biggest fear workers have is that they're going to lose their . . . jobs. Their fear is real. The threats [of the militants] are not."