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.”
When it came to straight talking, Mr. Munro took no prisoners, whatever the circumstance. At a small reception he happened to be at for no less than Prince Philip, Mr. Munro mentioned that affordable housing for workers was a big problem in Canada. “Canadians are always complaining about something,” Philip responded. Perturbed nary a whit by the Prince’s royal status, Mr. Munro shot back: “Well, that’s bullshit.” When the Duke of Edinburgh walked away, the burly unionist went after His Royal Highness to continue the argument, until aides intervened.
Sometimes, his irreverence got him into trouble, most notoriously when he quipped to a New York Times reporter covering the growing threat to logging: “I tell my guys when they see a spotted owl to shoot it!” He said later he was just kidding.
But Mr. Munro’s real forte was doing the job he was elected to do: boosting union wages and working conditions through negotiations. Few were better at it. He never left a nickel on the table he thought was there and never backed down on an issue he believed was fundamental.
Keith Bennett, Mr. Munro’s chief adversary on the other side of the bargaining table, recalls an early set of negotiations when the company had agreed to raise the tradespeople’s rate by 21 cents. Mr. Munro thought the increase should also apply to cooks in the logging camps. He kept badgering the companies about it, meeting after meeting, like a non-stop buzz saw. Finally, the companies caucused and MacMillan Bloedel CEO Robert Bonner said: “For Chrissake, can’t we give that big bastard his 21 cents?” Laughs Mr. Bennett: “So we did, and Jack got what he wanted.”
With forestry responsible for half the B.C. economy, IWA contract talks, involving more than 50,000 members, engaged the province in a way that is inconceivable today. “It’s hard to imagine how big labour was back then,” agrees veteran industrial-relations expert Mark Thomson of UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Labour guys in the private sector had clout. They could cause a lot of disruption. If Jack called a strike, it wasn’t taxpayers against taxpayers. It was workers against capitalists. Everyone felt the hurt.”
Over time, Mr. Munro forged an unusually close relationship with Mr. Bennett, who represented the big forest firms. The two scrapped. They yelled at each other. Yet, they almost always managed to hammer out a deal without a strike. Mr. Munro and Mr. Bennett found they liked each other. They respected and trusted one another. Nor were they above heading to the bar to settle ticklish matters over a few drinks. After both retired, they continued to meet once a week for lunch.
However, neither could head off the IWA’s acrimonious strike over contracting out in 1986. Lasting 4 1/2 months, it was the most damaging walkout in B.C. history, costing the provincial economy an estimated $2.5-billion. For those who may have questioned Mr. Munro’s union bona fides over the Kelowna Accord and periodic hobnobbing with corporate bosses, the long strike was a sign of his unwavering commitment to workers. He knew which side he was on.
Mr. Munro was the whole ball of wax, a throwback to an era of rough, tough, brawling trade unionism. He lived hard and he drank hard, until one telephone-pole confrontation too many caused him to quit. But there were many sides to his complex personality.
He had a passion for riding Harley-Davidsons and growing roses. Far from a feminist, Mr. Munro nonetheless showed up one Saturday morning to bolster the picket line of SORWUC, an ultra-feminist, independent union whose strike against a local pub was being sabotaged by the bartenders’ union signing up strikebreakers. “The lowest form of humanity that exists is a scab,” Mr. Munro explained to surprised reporters. “How any so-called respectable trade union can even talk to them is a total disgrace.”
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.