Big Jack Munro headed British Columbia’s largest union, the International Woodworkers of America, for 19 years, at a time when forestry was king. He led two of the toughest, costliest strikes in the province’s long, militant labour history. During the decades when his large frame bestrode B.C. as one of its most prominent, powerful, larger-than-life personalities, he had the ear of not just tens of thousands of union members, but prime ministers, premiers, tycoons and, on a single memorable occasion, the Duke of Edinburgh.
He was awarded the Order of Canada, he dined with the Queen, he travelled the world fighting for markets for the cut B.C. timber that kept the IWA in business.
Yet, Jack Munro is not likely to go down in the history books for much of this.
Instead, his place in the lore of the province will forever be marked by a dramatic night in Kelowna 30 years ago, when B.C. teetered on the brink of an all-out general strike against the Social Credit government’s draconian restraint legislation. A union leader, Mr. Munro, and a premier, Bill Bennett, met head to head to try to avert it.
While British Columbians held their collective breath, the two got down to business in the premier’s living room, drapes pulled tight against prying cameras. Several times, Mr. Munro went upstairs to Mr. Bennett’s bedroom, ignoring dirty socks on a chair, so he could talk privately by phone to other union leaders back in Vancouver.
Finally, Mr. Munro and Mr. Bennett emerged onto the front porch, blinking into the blinding glare of TV lights. They announced the threat of a general strike was over, ending one of the most prolonged mass-protest movements the country had ever seen, waged for nearly six months under the romantic, Lech-Walesa-inspired banner Operation Solidarity. It was history writ large.
But the so-called Kelowna Accord was a weak agreement, with few government concessions. Even though top officers of the B.C. Federation of Labour signed off on the deal, Mr. Munro wound up taking the blame for ending the movement with a whimper. He was vilified for years by activists and left-wing trade unionists as a sellout.
Several months before his death from cancer on Nov. 14 at the age of 82, Mr. Munro acknowledged he was hurt by the criticism. He noted it was not his idea to go to Kelowna to meet Mr. Bennett, but a decision by other strike leaders. “They wanted out. The thing was falling apart. The officers knew there would be flak,” Mr. Munro asserted, with a trace of lingering bitterness. “They told me I was the only one in good enough shape with my members to be able to take it. So I went.”
It was no surprise he was singled out. No labour leader ever enjoyed the stature and profile Jack Munro had in British Columbia, from the time he took over as president of the IWA’s large Region 1 in 1973, until he stepped down in 2000 from his controversial, post-union role as chairman of the Forest Alliance, an institution financed by the forest industry to counter growing demands by environmentalists to preserve old-growth forests.
Mr. Munro was tall (6 foot 4). He was large (265 pounds in his prime). He was loud. He was outspoken. His sentences routinely carried more “goddamns” and “bloodys” than nouns. He was absolutely fierce on behalf of IWA members, his negotiating style described by one local union president as “pound, pound, pound.” He was as colourful as all get-out. And he was funny.
The tale is still told of a time Mr. Munro was out in Newfoundland helping with a union organizing drive. Two of them knocked on a door, only to be confronted by a guy with a shotgun, who took aim. As they beat a hasty retreat, his union buddy asked Mr. Munro if he was scared. “Scared?” Mr. Munro replied. “You couldn’t have knocked a hat pin up my [butt] with a sledgehammer.”