In 1972, Bill King stepped from the cab of his diesel locomotive into a political hot seat as labour minister of British Columbia’s first NDP government, charged with taming the most unruly industrial relations in Canada. That year, with a work force of fewer than a million, B.C. lost an astonishing 2.5 million work days due to labour strife.
Yet on-the-job heat was nothing new for the tall, imposing railway engineer. In his youth, when trains were powered by steam, he had spent three years as a fireman shoveling coal to feed the engine’s furnace. Years later, Mr. King remembered it took eight tonnes of coal to power a CP Rail steam engine from Nelson to Grand Forks and on to the summit station of Farron.
He took on his government mission with a steely resolve. Toughness was never a problem for Mr. King. Early on in his tenure, he confronted then premier Dave Barrett over a minor union request Mr. Barrett had agreed to without consulting him. “If I’m going to go down the goddamned tubes, it’s going to be because of my decisions, not someone else’s,” he told the chastened premier. “Either I’m in charge, or you can find someone else.”
Far from going down the tubes, Mr. King made a mark as labour minister that few, if any – in B.C. or elsewhere – could match. Little more than a year after taking office, he had authored a revolutionary labour code that forever changed the old ways of doing things. To an extent not seen anywhere in Canada, even today, the code stripped jurisdiction over strikes and picketing from the courts and transferred it to a reconstituted Labour Relations Board (LRB) with broad, interventionist powers whose scope was unprecedented. This put an end to the widespread use of ex parte court injunctions (determined without unions represented) that had put so many labour leaders in jail over the years, convicted of contempt of court for defying them. The right of parties to appeal LRB decisions to the courts was also severely restricted.
Opponents decried the change, warning of the dangers of a labour tribunal wielding such arbitrary, unchecked authority. An editorial in the Toronto Globe and Mail spoke for many critics when it declared: “The BC government appears … to have jettisoned the rule of law for the rule of man.” Mr. King was unmoved. Most judges lack expertise in the complexities and dynamics of industrial relations, he contended. Jurisdiction was better left to those experienced in the union-management fray, Mr. King said.
Thanks in large measure to the acumen of the LRB’s first chairman, Paul Weiler, whose sound judgments are still being referenced today, the bold move worked. Parties were soon beating a path to the board to resolve their conflicts.
Buttressed by other innovative measures that further levelled the industrial-relations playing field and greatly facilitated union organizing, the B.C. code was considered far and away the most progressive in North America, attracting positive attention from labour law experts across the country. “The B.C. Labour Code was the gold standard that liberally minded people in the field aspired to,” said Harry Arthurs, retired professor of labour law at Osgoode Hall in Ontario. “It went further than any other jurisdiction in Canada.”
Mr. King, who chose a medically assisted death on Dec. 3 after an onset of health problems, brought in equally progressive reforms in human rights, workers’ compensation and employment standards that also stood head and shoulders over anything else in place at the time in Canada. While these were largely done away with by succeeding non-NDP governments, his landmark labour code remains mostly intact today. “It was a model, and it is still a model,” prominent Vancouver management lawyer Peter Gall said.
In spite of that, although a number of unions welcomed the changes, the province’s militant Federation of Labour mounted a strong campaign against the code, singling out its failure to grant unions untrammelled picketing rights. At a private meeting between Mr. King and a Federation leader, matters became heated. After weathering a series of insults, Mr. King had had enough. According to Mr. King’s account of what happened, as he left, he revisited his occasionally brawling past, telling his adversary: “The next time we meet and you’re insulting, I just want you to know that I’m going to knock your teeth so far down your throat, you won’t be able to talk.” There were no more meetings between the two.
William Stewart King was born Sept. 15, 1930, in Tisdale, Sask., the youngest of eight children born to British immigrants Minnie and Patrick King, who was wounded twice during three years in the terrible trenches of the First World War. In the early 1940s, the family moved to Nelson, B.C. Mr. King left school at the age of 15, taking a job as a section hand with the Canadian Pacific Railway for 50 cents a day. It was the beginning of a long working life on the railroad. He worked his way up from a wiper who oiled and wiped down locomotives, to fireman and then an engineer, guiding trains through the mountains of eastern B.C. “I did that for twenty years, until I became a cabinet minister,” Mr. King recounted.
His home base was the railway centre of Revelstoke, where he married bank teller Audrey Lennard in 1953. The couple had two children, Linda and William Jr.
Politics took root at an early age, and always on the left. One of his idols was legendary railway union organizer and American socialist Eugene Debs. While two of his siblings became members of the Communist Party, Mr. King stayed a moderate socialist, committed to the CCF and then the NDP. He took part in numerous election campaigns, beginning when he was just 13. In 1968, he stood for the NDP himself in a provincial by-election, winning that race but losing the Revelstoke-Slocan seat in B.C.’s general election of 1969. Finally, in 1972, he was part of the landslide victory by the provincial NDP that swept out premier W.A.C. Bennett and his Social Credit Party after 20 years in power.
The next 39 months were among the most turbulent in B.C. history, as the new socialist government ushered in dozens of dramatic changes that transformed the province. With the age of polling and backroom strategists still a ways off, there was room for a lot of fun, even as hostility to the government raged. Mr. King, known for ruining jokes because he would start laughing so hard he was often unable to deliver the punchline, recalled one tense cabinet meeting, when he objected to some appointments by new minister Gary Lauk. “He tore a strip off me. I didn’t say a word. But after the meeting, I picked him up and kissed him on the forehead.”
There were no laughs, however, when Mr. King, despite his proclivity for unions, brought in legislation in the fall of 1975 that forced an end to a wave of crippling strikes in forestry, supermarkets, the propane industry and rail transportation. The strikes were fuelled by double-digit inflation that neither Mr. King nor the LRB could do anything about. Years later, Mr. King defended what remains the largest back-to-work order in B.C. history, covering 50,000 workers. “It was an economic threat to the province,” he said. “We had to get it settled.”
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Barrett called a snap election, which the NDP lost to a rejuvenated Social Credit Party. Mr. King returned to the Opposition benches. NDP caucus members referred to him as “Senator.”
“He had an integrity that could not be falsified, and everyone knew it,” said former MLA Charles Barber.
When Mr. King lost his seat in the 1983 election, he went back to Revelstoke and the railroad. A TV crew accompanied him on his first shift, wanting to record the end of his journey from locomotive engineer to cabinet minister and back. Mr. King tried a return to politics with a run for the provincial NDP leadership in 1984. He finished third, and that was it.
Mr. King’s wife Audrey died in 2013. He married Glenna Whyte in 2016, the two having met over dinner at their retirement residence. He leaves Glenna King, his daughter Linda Gillis (John), grandsons Matt, Corey and Jared, and two great-grandchildren. His son William King, Jr., died of cancer later on the same day as Mr. King’s passing.