While his brutal harangues could tear a strip off union halls and boardrooms alike, a trip to Central American refugee camps during the U.S.-backed contra wars reduced him to tears. And, amid all his verbal bluster, Jack Munro was a trade-union moderate. He believed in settlements and relationships over confrontation. If that meant going on fishing trips with forest executives or drinking Scotch all night with Federal Labour Minister John Munro, so be it.
“He knew that a collective agreement needed two signatures,” says Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti, whom Mr. Munro mentored early on. “You fought like crazy for it, but you still had to make a deal both sides could live with.”
Jack Munro was a child of the Depression in Alberta, born into hardscrabble poverty on March 28, 1931. His father, a butcher, died from tuberculosis when Mr. Munro was 11. His mother, Agnes, a proud, stern woman who could intimidate her imposing son well into adulthood, picked up work where she could. Mr. Munro left school after Grade 10 to help out. “Swearing came easier to me than education,” he confessed, in his rollicking autobiography Union Jack.
Mr. Munro was smart enough, however, to earn a tradesman’s ticket, spending his initial working years fixing up steam locomotives. He loved trains all his life, a passion he parlayed into a huge model train set in his workshop.
He married young. Although a troubled marriage, it lasted nearly 20 years, producing three sons, Terry, Dale and Scott. Tragically, “Scotty” was killed in a car accident at age 13. “Losing a child is something you never really get over,” Mr. Munro disclosed, later in life. “It’s always with you.”
Eventually, he and his young family drifted across the Rockies to idyllic Nelson, where he found work in a sawmill. His straight-shooting and tireless approach to solving problems soon cast him into a union leadership role.
In 1967, he led a historic strike that brought woodworkers in B.C.’s Interior wage parity with their traditionally better-paid union brothers on the coast. The hard-fought dispute lasted more than seven months, taking thousands of workers through the winter and into the spring of the following year. For Mr. Munro, the strike was a watershed. He spent sleepless nights, worrying that so many people were suffering financially because of decisions he was a major part of. “That strike changed me, entirely,” he wrote in Union Jack. Mr. Munro soon moved up to IWA headquarters in Vancouver. He took over as president in 1973, a job he dominated for the next 19 years.
After a failed second marriage, to lawyer Connie Sun, Mr. Munro met his third wife, Deborrah, at a hangout for Harley-Davidson riders. They married in 1998. “He liked to say: ‘She chased me, until I caught her,’” Deborrah says.
Mr. Munro spent his final years promoting his last big cause: labour heritage. He campaigned tirelessly for workers and unions to be accepted as part of society, their role recognized as critical to the building of British Columbia. Despite his illness, he continued to go into work, until the last days of September. Says the woodworkers’ current head, Stephen Hunt: “He stayed tough, right to the end.”
A public memorial service celebrating Jack Munro’s full life will be held Jan. 4 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.