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Jack Munro, former IWA leader and current head of the Labour Heritage Centre, is photographed in Burnaby, British Columbia, Wednesday, August 28, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Forty-five years ago, Jack Munro led a strike for the ages. More than 3,000 lumber workers went without pay for 224 days in the heart of the B.C. Interior, walking picket lines through the winter to win wage parity with union members on the coast.

There were threats of scabs, union warnings of retaliatory violence, worker marches down the streets of Nelson, and, by the end, emotions so raw that two company representatives died by suicide, brought on, according to Mr. Munro, by their dismay at losing the bitter dispute.

In 1986, the tough-talking, larger-than-life head of the IWA led another historic walkout, calling 30,000 union members off the job for five months, in a successful, all-out battle to beat back contracting-out demands by equally determined forest companies.

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"You lie awake at night. You know people are hurting, but you can't give up," recalls Mr. Munro.

Mr. Munro presided over the International Woodworkers of America for 19 years. "We had to win both those strikes for our very survival."

Now, as workers prepare to mark another Labour Day, the feisty, 82-year old union veteran shakes his head and wonders what has happened to B.C., home of the most militant, most highly unionized work force in the country.

Amid some recent signs of a modest union revival, statistics nevertheless paint a sobering picture.

From the top of the pack, B.C.'s rate of worker unionization has fallen to sixth, its 31.3 per cent trailing even that of bucolic Prince Edward Island.

While the public sector remains heavily organized, private-sector ranks have been devastated by increased global competition, automation and a shift away from manufacturing toward smaller work units. Only 18 per cent of private-sector workers currently belong to a union, down a dramatic 12 points from the 1980s.

And at the bargaining table, unions have become much more likely to sign on the dotted line for minimal wage increases than take up picket signs.

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Between 2007 and last year, an average of just 1,500 workers a year ended up on strike, a far cry from the past, when it was common for more than a million days to be lost to labour disputes during heavy bargaining years.

"It's certainly different, no doubt about that. The trade-union movement is having a hell of a time," Mr. Munro said. "We're not headed up, we're headed down. It's very frustrating for a guy like me, very frustrating."

This decline in numbers and clout, accompanied by growing employer aggressiveness, dwindling government tolerance for strikes, an ever-changing economy, and an indifferent public, has some suggesting unions, at least those outside the public sector, may never again be more than a fading force in B.C.

Such talk is vigorously rejected by union leaders, and questioned, too, by Jock Finlayson of the Business Council of British Columbia. "It's a big challenge, but unions are not standing still, like a deer in the headlights. They're working quite hard to hold on to their historic gains," Mr. Finlayson said. "They're not going to go away."

At the B.C. Federation of Labour, longtime president Jim Sinclair says the organization has been concentrating for some time on issues that affect all workers, not merely union members.

He pointed to the federation's prolonged but eventually successful campaign to persuade the government to raise the minimum wage, agreed to by Premier Christy Clark after a 10-year freeze, and its relentless stress on worker safety, highlighted by the drive for Grant's Law to protect late-night gas-station employees and high-profile support for families hit by the tragic deaths of three Langley mushroom-farm workers.

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"It's critical for us to speak out for more than ourselves," Mr. Sinclair said. "Unions are going to be successful when they're out there organizing people not just into unions, but getting them their rights."

The labour body is also redoubling efforts to crack the workforce's toughest organizing nut, workers under 30, many of them in low-paid service-sector jobs.

Today's young people rarely view trade unions as a social movement with the panache of environmentalism or other worthy causes. "Labour is seen as more of an organization than a movement, and that's a problem," said Mark Leier, a labour historian at Simon Fraser University.

Mr. Sinclair acknowledged the difficulty, but said his group's last convention had 115 delegates under 30, and its Young Workers' Committee is busily spreading the word about worker rights among unorganized youth. "We're starting to learn how to do this," the federation president said.

At the same time, private-sector unions are organizing themselves into ever bigger institutions to confront the powerful weaponry wielded by employers in these tough economic times.

This weekend, 300,000 members from the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union merge officially into Canada's – and B.C.'s – largest private-sector union, the awkwardly named Unifor.

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"It's about power," said retiring CEP president Dave Coles, whose early union years were spent representing pulp-mill workers in Crofton. "We've been losing power and influence, and I'm very encouraged there's now a willingness to push back. I think we're heading back into a period where workers are going to say, 'enough is enough.' "

Some of that renewed militancy has been visible in B.C. this summer. Lower Mainland hotel workers and non-teaching school board staff across the province are armed with strong strike mandates. More than 200 Fortis employees have been off the job in the B.C. Interior since June 26, and, most notably, 350 Ikea employees are into the fourth month of their picket line battle against a worldwide company that made a profit of more than $4-billion last year.

"Yes, employers have more power than they've had for a long time," Mr. Sinclair said. "But they don't always have the upper hand. We still have collective bargaining. I'll take the respect and dignity of those Ikea employees over the power of $4-billion any day."

Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at the University of B.C.'s Sauder School of Business, said the decline of the union movement from its glory days has been "amazing to see in my lifetime," much of it cheered on by elements of the public.

But when unions become less of a factor, society loses something, besides higher wages, according to Prof. Thompson.

"If you care about income equality, if you care about job security, if you care about an alternative voice to employers, government and the general public discourse, then unions are a good thing," he declared.

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Meanwhile, Jack Munro worries that not only are unions struggling, their contribution to the province's history and economic well-being is being lost.

To counteract that, he has been spending his retirement breathing life into a Labour Heritage Centre, where he reports to work every weekday.

"Workers are such an important part of our society, our way of life, our social consciousness," Mr. Munro said. "Too many people have forgotten that. Without unions, we'd all be a lot worse off. That's my message for Labour Day."

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