In 1969, a brash, young, cocksure Englishman took over a provincial government association in British Columbia that refused to acknowledge it was even a union, lest the word frighten its own members, disturb the public and, worse, offend the province’s long-standing, anti-labour premier, W.A.C. Bennett. Led for the previous 25 years by a court registry clerk with a fondness for wearing Homburg hats, the association was described by one frustrated member as “a marching and chowder society,” and dismissed by a Victoria reporter, who covered one of its conventions, as “a cross between a social club and a debating society, held together by charter flights to the old country.”
By the time John Fryer left the B.C. Government Employees’ Union 13 years later, it was the most powerful and progressive organization of provincial government employees outside Quebec, with contracts that were a model for provincial workers across the country.
Mr. Fryer, who died of a heart attack on Nov. 1 at the age of 82, went on to inject new life into Canada’s second-largest union, the National Union of Provincial Government Employees, and achieve further prominence internationally. But the transformation of the BCGEU under his visionary leadership stood tall over the many other achievements of his singular life.
It would be difficult to overstate the dismal status of the B.C. Government Employees’ Association, as it was then known, when a chance encounter between Mr. Fryer and two strongly pro-union, government ferry workers led him to apply for the association’s top job. He had a good position at the time as director of research for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), filling the large shoes left by his predecessor Eugene Forsey, who had been appointed to the Senate. Yet the challenge appealed to the ambitious 30-year-old.
Mr. Fryer had toughened his hide during three years working for the Chicago-based, left-wing United Packinghouse Workers of America, not all of whose members were enamoured with the union’s commitment to racial equality. When Mr. Fryer was assigned to tell stockyard workers their local was going to be integrated, one tapped him on the shoulder after the meeting and punched him out. Another time, he was smuggled out of an Alabama town in the trunk of a car after white workers objected to his request that they sit with Black union members. Mr. Fryer shrugged off both incidents, but he tired of the racial and political divisions in the United States, uprooting to work for the CLC in Ottawa and then heading to British Columbia.
He faced a monumental task. British Columbia was the only province whose government workers were without any bargaining rights, let alone the right to strike. The premier would announce their annual wage increase, usually around Christmas, and that was that. The association had 10 staff and a meagre budget of $250,000.
Once on the job, Mr. Fryer wasted little time breaking with the past. At the fall convention, he urged delegates to become a union at last, proclaiming: “If you walk like a duck and talk like a duck, call yourself a duck.” Mr. Fryer won the day, and the B.C. Government Employees’ Union was born. Dues doubled, a communications director was hired, and Mr. Fryer began to assemble a team of young, committed activists dedicated to the cause. “We would have gone to the barricades for him,” remembered Cliff Andstein, hired for a key union position at the age of 31.
Mr. Fryer irritated Mr. Bennett no end by cheekily submitting his imposed wage increases to a ratification vote and mocking the government’s refusal to reply to union letters by hiring a Cessna aircraft to circle the legislative building in Victoria, towing a large banner that read: “Drop Us A Line – BCGEU.” That escapade drew coverage across Canada.
Still, the union had to wait until August, 1972, for its ship to come in. Its aging adversary, Mr. Bennett, was swept aside in a thumping election victory by 39-year-old Dave Barrett and the NDP, which had promised full collective bargaining rights for government employees. The next morning, union liquor store workers showed up at a scheduled meeting with management, toasted B.C.’s new government with Champagne and walked out, declaring they would be back when they had bargaining rights.
It did not take long. By 1974, the BCGEU had bargaining, the right to strike and its first contract, making up for years of penny-pinching by the previous government with astonishing wage increases as high as 57 per cent, a 35-hour workweek, expanded sick leave and the right to refuse overtime. Government employees elsewhere could only look on with envy.
Barely slowed by a near-fatal car accident while travelling between union meetings in B.C.’s Cariboo region, Mr. Fryer continued to cement the BCGEU’s power base by radically organizing members into occupational components, instead of the regional structure that prevailed in other provincial government organizations. In 1982, the union had its first provincewide strike, which, despite some oddball moves by Mr. Fryer, managed to better the province’s public-sector wage guidelines. By then, it was time to move on.
Mr. Fryer was spurred by a healthy ego and a tendency to go his own way, which often rankled others in the labour movement. Yet no one disputed his role in transforming the BCGEU into a union powerhouse. “The footprints of John Fryer are the footprints of a pioneer,” assessed one of his internal foes, the late John Shields, who headed the union after Mr. Fryer’s departure.
John Leslie Fryer was born Oct. 6, 1938, in the sleepy London suburb of Morden. His father, Leslie Fryer, spent 42 years working for the same company as a clerk, totting up figures on high wooden desktops that seemed carry-overs from the days of Dickens. Away from the office, he became an expert at breeding species as diverse as goldfish, budgerigars and dahlias. John Fryer was strongly influenced by his grandmother, a suffragette who sympathized with Quaker ideals. He declared himself a pacifist, refusing to enter his school’s mandatory officer training corps and joining one of the early “Ban the Bomb” marches to the Aldermaston nuclear weapons research centre.
In the summer of 1961, after graduating from the London School of Economics, he married his girlfriend, Gillian Aston. A week later, the adventuresome newlyweds headed to the United States, where Mr. Fryer had been accepted into a master’s program in labour economics at the University of Pittsburgh. He honed his growing interest in unions with a one-year research internship at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington and his intense three years with the Packinghouse Workers. By the time he arrived in B.C., he and Gillian had three children. Identical twins were born five years later. The couple divorced in 1976. He married his second wife, Jeanne Crerar, four years later and they raised a son together before divorcing in 2000.
Mr. Fryer moved to the national scene in the early 1980s, as president of the floundering National Union of Provincial Government Employees (NUPGE), which had only four provincial unions as members. With Mr. Fryer at the helm, recalcitrant organizations joined up and NUPGE became the second largest union in Canada. Among those impressed by Mr. Fryer was a young Gary Doer, who went on to serve three terms as Premier of Manitoba and six years as Canada’s ambassador to the United States. In those days, Mr. Doer headed the Manitoba Government Employees’ Union. “I learned from him,” Mr. Doer said. Beyond just contract demands, Mr. Fryer emphasized the role members played in providing public service, he said. “He was one of the first to do that. Not every union in the public sector practised that, to their detriment.”
Mr. Fryer could be truculent. During a heated clash with Bank of Canada governor John Crow over interest rates, the union leader suggested the two go outside to settle the matter. “It was the one time I lost my temper in public,” Mr. Crow rued, later.
After leaving NUPGE in 1990, Mr. Fryer began to spend more time on international ventures, including a mission for the International Labour Organization to advise the new government of South African president Nelson Mandela on labour-relations policies. He served eight years as Canadian vice-president of the 20 million-member Public Services International and two years at World Bank headquarters in Washington as a special adviser on public-sector reform. He made so many trips, one prominent labour leader began referring to him as “frequent Fryer”.
Tragedy struck in 2001. His fiancée, lawyer Catherine MacLean, was struck and killed by a drunken Russian diplomat in Ottawa. The incident became a cause célèbre, after the diplomat was sent back to Russia before he could face charges in Canada. “It took him a long time to recover,” his son Blair recalled. “He was totally knocked over.”
A third marriage, to Brenda Bysouth in 2003, ended in divorce.
In 2008, Mr. Fryer, an unsuccessful, federal NDP candidate 20 years earlier, shocked many in the party by running for the Greens in the riding of Nanaimo-Alberni. “It was a real coup for us,” said then-leader Elizabeth May, a friend of both Mr. Fryer and Ms. MacLean. “He became our labour critic. He knew so much.”
In 2014, after 49 years in Canada, he once again surprised those who knew him by connecting over Facebook with a former school sweetheart, Penelope Roy, and moving back to England to marry her. He was sitting beside her watching TV when he died.
Mr. Fryer was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1994 for “his bargaining skills and contributions to economic and social justice.”
He leaves his wife, Penelope; children, Sherri, Darren, Blair, Tanis, Lisa Briggs and Andrew; and 13 grandchildren.