The following introduction, as well as the above imagery and captions, is excerpted with permission from “On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement” by Rod Mickleburgh and published by Harbour Publishing (April, 2018). With thanks to the BC Labour Heritage Centre Society.
A militant labour movement has been part of British Columbia’s identity going back to earliest times. The region’s resource-based, frontier economy produced a toughened brand of worker, the result of onerous conditions, low pay and hard, hard work. Confrontations, when they took place, were often rough. For years the BC labour movement was the most combative in the land, full of radicals and talk of general strikes. There was rarely a time when the drive to increase profits at the expense of workers went unchallenged.
As with most movements, the influence of unions has ebbed and flowed. It has suffered painful divisions and enjoyed inspiring periods of solidarity. Unions have endured fierce, often violent opposition: firings, jailings, and red-baiting, not to mention intimidation by vigilantes, militias, cops, courts and hostile governments determined to keep them in their place. Some activists sacrificed their lives. Yet against all odds, unions remain a vital force in today’s world.
The scenes depicted in these pages are but snapshots—hopefully representative ones—from 150-plus years of working-class struggle in workplaces everywhere in BC. Collectively these examples represent a remarkable saga of workers and unions that stands with any in the province’s history. The figures who people these stories are among the heroes of British Columbia—not merely the trade union leaders, but the millions of workers, their names forgotten, who confronted those who would deny their right to take collective action in pursuit of better lives. While we celebrate builders of industrial empires like Robert and James Dunsmuir—their name writ large on streets and in the province’s chronicles—those who dared challenge their single-minded pursuit of wealth at the expense of workers are remembered minimally, if at all.
The practice of organizing to improve the workers’ lot started early in BC history. In 1850, eight years before the province of British Columbia was formed, Scots miners imported to work in the Hudson’s Bay Company coal mine at Fort Rupert went on strike to protest the employer’s violation of their contracts. It was a sign of things to come. More than sixty years later, several thousand coal miners spent two years on strike fighting just for the company to recognize their union. Only when they had spent their last penny did they finally surrender to the multiple forces arrayed against them. Despite many more early defeats, softened by a few satisfying victories, the BC labour movement kept on growing.