VANCOUVER – Jack Munro, a titan of the British Columbia labour movement for half a century, has died. He was 82.
A charismatic character known for his blunt but colourful language, Munro climbed the union ranks to lead the powerful International Woodworkers of America union in the province and ultimately serve as vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Ken Georgetti, current president of the congress who met Munro in 1983, described Munro as a big man — in size and opinion — but also a man who loved his garden and who had a softer side than he showed on the six o’clock news.
“The soft side of Jack Munro was more amazing than the tough side of Jack Munro,” Georgetti said Friday. “He would stand up for any underdog, and if anyone was mistreated by the system or mistreated by people that had power, Jack would stand up for them.”
Munro was known for his fluent profanity, and Georgetti recalled Friday one particular court appearance where cussing landed his friend in trouble.
“Jack’s sitting in the courtroom, and he has a whisper at about 85 decibels,” Georgetti said.
“And the judge is reading off some stuff and finally he takes his glasses off and says `Mr. Munro, you look like you want to say something.’ And Jack stands up and says, ‘Yeah, your honour, Goddamnit.’ The judge whacks the gavel and says `That’ll be $25,000.’ And he says, ‘Do you have anything else to say Mr. Munro?’ and Jack says, ‘No sir.'”
Born in Lethbridge, Alta., in 1931, Munro grew up in poverty after his father died of tuberculosis when he was 11.
“My dear old Scottish mother had a tough struggle but she was a great lady. I loved her dearly,” Munro said in an interview with the Labour Heritage Centre in a video posted on YouTube.
He quit high school and went to work on a farm.
“I decided in Grade 11 that I was not related to Einstein — I sure as hell wasn’t going to be a scholar of any description,” Munro said.
“My mother said, ‘If you want to work on a farm, that’s fine, but I really want you to get a trade.’ I agreed. I certainly owed her that much, so I wrote an exam and I got a job with the CPR.”
When his railway job dried up, Munro headed West, landing a job in Nelson, B.C., as a welder and millwright for Kootenay Forest Products. It was there that Munro realized how dangerous the industry could be.
“Safety wasn’t a concern. Production was the concern,” Munro said. “You look at the numbers of people who were killed — over 700 I think in the 1950s. The numbers were astronomical.”
He became active in what was then called the International Woodworkers of America, and by 1973 Munro was president of the IWA in B.C.
In 1983, Munro was central to a provincewide Solidarity movement that brought British Columbia to the verge of a general strike to protest legislation proposed by the Social Credit government of the day. He was both celebrated and vilified when he subsequently played a key role in settling the dispute.
Following four decades in the movement, rising to vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, Munro retired in 1992. He became a chairman of the industry lobby group Forest Alliance of B.C.
In 1999, Munro became a member of the Order of Canada for his work in the labour movement.
B.C. New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix said British Columbians have lost one of their greatest champions, citing Munro’s “gift of communication” as an inspiration.
“It is a true understatement that without Jack’s tenacity and principles, British Columbia would be a very different place today,” Dix and NDP labour critic Harry Bains said in a shared statement.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark said Munro had “a knack for making friends in every part of the province.”
“The Jack the public saw was not an act,” Clark said in a statement. “He never shied away from speaking his mind, and often did so in a colourful fashion. He had a generous heart, and treated everyone he met exactly the same.
Munro died after a battle with cancer.
“I think I’ve very fortunate, and I had a great life,” he told the Labour Heritage Centre.
“I’m not smarter than anybody else, but it just seemed to work for me. It was good, and we had some great scraps.”