WILLIAM PRITCHARD AND PAYING A PRICE FOR THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE

(Defendants accused of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the Winnipeg General Strike pose outside the jailhouse after their arrests. William Pritchard is in the dark clothes, on the far right.)

On a wintry March morning in 1920, William Pritchard stood in a packed Winnipeg courtroom, far from his home in spring-like Vancouver, to defend himself against six charges of seditious conspiracy. “I owe a duty to my wife and children in this matter,” he began. “I also owe a duty to my fellow workers, and I do not propose to shirk those duties in any particular.”

And indeed, he did not. For two full days and into the evenings, the socialist union leader gave a riveting discourse on why workers are driven to resist those who oppress them, why the charges against him represented a fundamental breach of the right to freedom of speech, and why the working class yearns for a better world, where production is for use, not for profit.

At the end, close to collapse from the strain of his long oration, he told the spellbound courtroom: “Standing on the threshold of the parting of the ways, one path leading to concrete and iron-bound walls of the penitentiary, and the other to freedom, I say I have done nothing for which I feel I need apologize. What I have done, I have done in good faith with sincerity and the purest of motives.” As the 32-year old Pritchard concluded his remarks, the courts normally restive onlookers were moved to silence.

The next day the Winnipeg Evening Tribune praised the West Coast labour leader on its front page. “Speaking with gripping intensity, Pritchard seemed to hold the entire court through the sheer force of his personality and the power of his logic,” the paper’s reporter wrote. “His closing words showed him a man apparently earnest in his convictions, unafraid to stake his future on the sincerity of the motives behind the actions which had brought him before the bar of Justice, charged with seditious conspiracy.”

Well might Pritchard defend his alleged criminal actions, since they had nothing to do with those of his six fellow defendants, all local trade unionists charged for their roles in actually leading the previous year’s six-week Winnipeg General Strike. The mass walkout by more than 30,000 workers had terrified government and business leaders, who believed a Bolshevik-like uprising was at hand. But Pritchard had spent only a week or two in Winnipeg near the end to make some speeches and offer support. He had had nothing to do with the strike.

He was nevertheless nabbed in Calgary on his way back to Vancouver, charged with the same seditious conspiracy as those directly involved. His arrest showcased authorities’ determination to pin blame for the working class revolt on the industrial unionism of the radical One Big Union, of which Pritchard and most Winnipeg strike leaders were major proponents. No matter that the OBU was only in the planning stage when the strike began. Winnipeg workers could not have had legitimate wage demands or been so willing to fight for union recognition on their own, reasoned the powers-that-be. They must have been provoked by revolutionaries intent on overthrowing capitalism, and this incipient revolution had to be nipped in the bud.

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As a result, leaders of the general strike and any other prominent advocates authorities felt were spreading the socialist gospel of the OBU were rounded up, including Pritchard and the future founder of the CCF, J.S. Woodsworth. Like Pritchard, he had only stopped off in the city to lend support to the strike, through speeches and, at the very end, co-editing a stopgap strike newspaper after the Western Labour News was banned. “One cannot escape the conviction that the real prisoner in the dock was the OBU,” said Woodsworth. However, charges of seditious libel against the ordained minister, who had also worked on the Vancouver docks for a time, were dropped after, among other things, prosecutors realized that some of his “seditious” material came from the biblical prophet Isaiah.

But the Crown went after Pritchard with a vengeance. Son of a British miner, he had come to Vancouver in 1911. An early member of the Socialist Party, he edited the party’s Western Clarion, from 1914 to 1917, then found work in a sawmill and on the waterfront. He was in Cumberland the day after labour martyr Ginger Goodwin was shot dead. At the funeral parlour, after examining the angle of the bullet holes in Goodwin’s body, he pronounced his certainty that Goodwin had been murdered by the special constable who fired the fatal shots. Years later, Pritchard reiterated his conclusion: “He was taken unaware by a minion of the government, given no chance to surrender, as he evidently was unaware of what was taking place, shot from an elevated position at close range.” Pritchard paid the final tribute to his fellow Socialist over Goodwin’s grave in the Cumberland cemetery.

A true class warrior, Pritchard played a leading role in the Socialist Party, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, the B.C. Federation of Labour and the OBU. He had a purity of belief that, later, caused him to spurn both the Communist Party and the CCF. Eventually, he settled in Burnaby, where he was elected Reeve during the 1930’s. As a fascinating aside, he was the grandfather of former NDP cabinet minister and left-wing guru to some, Bob Williams.

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Yet in 1920, Bill Pritchard was in that Winnipeg courtroom, asserting his innocence and laying his socialist beliefs on the line. “Did you ever consider, gentlemen of the jury, that you cannot kill ideas with a club?” he postulated. “You cannot drive theories into oblivion by machine guns. If an idea be healthy, sunshine will help it grow. If it is not healthy, sunshine will help to kill it.”

He denounced the newly-introduced income tax as yet another burden imposed on the people, designed to “fatten a whole host of parasites on the public wealth”. As for the stream of anti-union vitriol in the newspapers, “some of these scarred, black-faced toilers from the depths of the mines could write better editorials with their picks, than the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press with his pen,” Pritchard told the court. Towards the end, he proclaimed his Utopian vision for the future. In the face of “the sins of their blind or corrupt masters”, said Pritchard, “the proletarians shall remain erect; they will unite to form one universal proletariat and we shall see fulfilled the great Socialist prophecy. The union of the workers will be the peace of the world.”

His ringing words had no effect. A day later, the jury found William Pritchard and four other defendants guilty of seditious conspiracy. All five were sentenced to a year in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. One got six months on a common nuisance charge, while strike leader A.A. Heaps was acquitted. Before they were taken away, the men were given a few minutes in the cleared courtroom to bid an emotional goodbye to their wives and other distraught family members. A reporter for the Winnipeg Evening Tribune called it “the most moving spectacle ever enacted in a Winnipeg courtroom….Women crying. Men doing their best to comfort them.”

As Pritchard’s wife, her eyes wet, sat talking to her husband, he tried to calm her spirits. From one of his pockets he produced a blue streetcar ticket. According to the reporter, he smiled and handed it to his wife, explaining: “You’ll have more use of it than I will, for some time to come.” At this point, wrote the reporter, “Mrs. Pritchard almost broke down. She stood for several minutes crying, as she gazed at the car ticket in her hand.”

On Pritchard’s release from prison, his health weakened by the ordeal, an estimated 10,000 people turned out to greet his returning train to Vancouver, more, it was said, than showed up for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1919.

IT WAS LONELY AT THE FED

Image John Reed was the only Western reporter covering the Russian Revolution. Now I know how he feels. Assigned by The Tyee, I was the only reporter covering last week’s convention of the B.C. Federation of Labour. Okay, not quite the same. For all his anti-corporate fulminations, not once did Jim Sinclair proclaim: “Let us now begin to construct the social order”. Nor did anyone storm anything, let alone the Winter Palace, unless it was the coffee bar. The masses actually voted to choose their new leader. How non-revolutionary. Kerensky would have been pleased. Still, there I was, the lone scribe at last week’s B.C. Fed convention.

You can see why editors would take a pass on assigning coverage. After all, the Federation represents only half a million workers, the convention was merely going to choose its first president in 15 years that was not named Jim Sinclair, and the winner would be the first woman to head the labour organization in its 104-year history. Plus, the contest between Irene Lanzinger and Amber Hockin was tight as a drum. What could possibly be newsworthy about any of that? (There was coverage of the Fed fight before and after the convention, but none during.)

Of course, this is not surprising. The mainstream media decided long ago that regular coverage of organized labour was like Iron Maiden, some sort of relic from the 1980’s with no place in the hip world where editors reside. Just another self-interest group trying to crowd out all those much worthier self-interest groups on the business page. Yes, labour matters are still occasionally covered on a one-off basis, but the ranks of full-time labour reporters in the country are the same as the number of working steam locomotives. Zero. Despite my solitude, however, in addition to picking up free pens at the booths and buying buttons from Melva, the famous “button lady”, I did manage to keep myself engaged. Herewith, an old-style Mickle notebook on some of the things that caught my interest.

  1. I should not have been surprised at the dearth of reporters. Even the Fed seemed shocked that a journalist would show up. When I arrived, a staffer escorted me around the room, looking for the media table. Finally, she realized that all those empty chairs at the front were, in fact, the media section.
  2. Outgoing president Jim Sinclair did his best to emulate Lenin, delivering a long, fiery speech on Day One that seemed Image 13to touch on every hot button issue in the country. The standing ovations piled up like cockroaches at the Cobalt Hotel, where Sinclair once lived. As the convention headed towards a sharply divided vote for his successor, Sinclair, who was backing Fed secretary-treasuer Irene Lanzinger, pleaded for unity: “I hate it when we fight each other. I really hate it when unions raid each other. I worry when workers fight, and we are not there to help them. I love this movement when we are truly one.” And in case anyone was wondering what Brother Sinclair will be doing when he turns 77, he told delegates: “I will be out on the picket line with you.”
  3. There was a good, vigorous debate over strategic voting, as delegates considered a resolution opposing the “stop Harper” strategy of voting Liberal in ridings where the NDP has no chance of winning. “We have to support the NDP right across the country,” said a guy from CUPE. “The answer is not Justin Trudeau. He is not going to stand up for workers in this country.” Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s impressive BC area director, strongly disagreed. “I will never stand by and see Stephen Harper win another election,” he declared, in ringing tones. “If there are aliens from another planet who can defeat the Conservatives, then I’ll vote for those aliens.” The resolution passed, narrowly.
  4. Guaranteed applause line: “First time delegate, first time speaker.” A speaker who said he was a “second time delegate, second time speaker” drew laughter.
  1. This was my first chance to hear from the man who shared a drink with Christy Clark this summer and parlayed that lounge relationship into helping settle the bitter B.C. teachers’ strike. That would be new Canadian Labour Congress president, Hassan Yussuff, who toppled our boy from Trail, 12-year incumbent Ken Georgetti, from the post. Hussuff had a message for anti-union governments and employers: “We’re not going to take this shit no more.” Ooooo-kay. Hussuff went on to pledge union defiance, should the government pass Bill C377, the odious private member’s bill that would require public disclosure of all union spending over $5,000. “If Stephen Harper wants to throw us in jail, he will have to start with me.” Applause.
  1. There was also non-labour news at the convention. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, announced Tuesday he would be arrested at the Kinder Morgan pipeline protest on Thursday morning. “This is a matter of principle. Leaders can’t just talk the talk. We have to walk the walk. As I’m being arrested, I’m going to think of my grandchildren and your children.” Huge, emotional ovation. And CUPE BC president Mark Hancock revealed that his union would be suing failed mayoral aspirant Kirk LaPointe and the NPA over their “union corruption” charges during last month’s campaign. “You picked the wrong people to fight with,” Hancock thundered. “We will kick your ass in court.” Two modest scoops and nowhere to go with them, except Twitter. If there is news and no one is there to report it, is it news?
  2.  Delegates also rallied in the rain to support the Fed’s new campaign for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Even the mayor was there.IMG_41227 (a). There was yet another tribute to Big Jim Sinclair, this one featuring not just a video and veteran Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer suggesting Sinclair go back to newspapers as an unpaid intern, but real live people extolling the outgoing Fed head. Along with the likes of former premier Glen Clark and prominent First Nations leader Ed john, there was the afore-mentioned Hassan Yussuff. Perhaps thinking it was a roast, the CLC president wondered who was this great great guy. “The [Jim Sinclair] I know has been pretty annoying for all these years. He always had an opinion he couldn’t wait to get out,” Yussuff observed. Alright, he also said: “Jim has shown you’ve got to stand up and fight for others who don’t have a voice in this province. We are a better labour movement today because of [Jim Sinclair’s] leadership.” In response to all the accolades, Sinclair rebuked a reporter (me) who had pointed to the perceived split in the Fed, given the strong challenge for president by those wanting a change in direction: “There’s not a divided B.C. Federation. There’s some democracy going on.”
  3. A scholarship in Jim Sinclair’s name will be established as part of the Labour Studies program at Simon Fraser University. No, no, really. There are young people who study labour history. Think of them as medieval scholars. Here’s the link to SFU’s worthy program. http://www.labour.sfu.ca
  4. There was a presidential debate between Lanzinger, former head of the BCTF, who defended the Fed’s record and policies under Sinclair, and challenger Amber Hockin, Pacific Regional Director for the CLC, who called for change. Neither said: “You had an option, ma’am.” Hockin noted B.C. has had the biggest drop in unionization in the country. “If we’d kept our foot on the gas over the past 15 years, we’d have 95,000 more workers with union cards….This is no time for the status quo. It’s simply not getting us to where we need to go.” Lanzinger pledged to continue Fed policies developed under Sinclair, particularly its philosophy of standing up for all workers, not merely union members. Part of that, she recounted, was occupying the Kitsilano Coast Guard station to protest its closure by the feds. “It’s been a long time since I slept in a sleeping bag beside a 20-year old.”

Image 110. Election years are always a big deal at Fed conventions. Unions pack the hall, filling as many of their allotted delegate slots as they can muster. With two credible candidates – and clear divisions between them –running to take over from Jim Image 10Sinclair, there was a record turnout of more than 2,200 delegates. Unions large and small seemed to line up evenly on either side. Adding to the drama is always  the dramatic, archaic announcement that they are “tiling the doors”, meaning no one, especially pesky reporters, can enter the hall while voting goes on. After a long count that inextricably stretched past lunch, “Landslide” Lanzinger was declared president of the Fed for the next two years by an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny margin of 57 votes.

11. Running on a two-person slate with Amber Hockin, BCGEU’s northern regional coordinator Aaron Ekman had been unopposed to take over as secretary-treasurer of the Fed. But a surprise, last-minute nomination put Howard Huntley of the storied Grain Workers Union on the ballot. His nominator explained he didn’t like having the public sector holding both of the Fed’s top positions for the first time. The result was no romp in the park. Ekman defeated his virtually unknown opponent, but with only a modest 60 per cent of the vote. Some delegates may have registered their dislike over a remark he made while expressing support for Amber Hockin. He pointed to her “decades of experience, not limited to one union, alone.” That was a clear shot at Lanzinger’s long tenure with the BCTF. Cries of “shame” and boos erupted in the hall. Still, he is the first northerner to hold high office in the Fed, and, a committed trade unionist at 36, he could be organized labour’s face of the future.

12. I took Friday off. Solidarity, sisters and brothers. Image 11

JIM SINCLAIR LEFT HIS MARK

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On Thursday, a record number of delegates to the biannual convention of the B.C. Federation of Labour elected Fed secretary-treasurer Irene Lanzinger as the 500,000-member organization’s new president. Lanzinger was supported by outgoing leader Jim Sinclair. Yet she nipped challenger Amber Hockin by a mere 57 votes, indicating deep division within the labour movement over its future direction. Many felt it was time for a change. Still, few would dispute that Lanzinger, in replacing Sinclair at the helm of the Fed, will have a tough act to follow.

During his unprecedented 15-year run as head of the Fed, there was never any doubt which side Jim Sinclair was on. More than almost any previous head of the century-old trade union body, he was an activist leader. Whether taking on government, supporting strikes no matter how small, protesting global worker injustices, or advocating for his great passion – workplace safety, Sinclair was always ready to lend a hand and his high-pitched, foghorn voice to the fight. The former newspaper man threw himself into issues in a very personal way to advance the interests of workers, on the picket line, at rallies and demonstrations, in the media and behind the scenes.

Nor was his commitment confined to members of the Federation. It was a signature feature of his leadership that all workers, regardless of whether they held a union card, deserved help when they were dealt a bad hand.

Two examples, among many, particularly stand out: Sinclair’s compassionate advocacy for families and victims of a deadly release of toxic gas at a Langley mushroom farm, and his tireless, ultimately successful, campaign to protect late-night workers, following the death of gas station employee Grant DePatie, killed trying to prevent a gas-and-dash robbery. Today, we have “Grant’s Law”, in large measure due to Jim Sinclair.

At the same time, Sinclair has also presided over a rather grim decade and a half for organized labour. The BC Liberals have won four successive elections, wage increases are barely keeping up with historically-low inflation, and the percentage of B.C. workers belonging to unions now hovers around the level of the workforce in (gasp) Prince Edward Island. Candidates running for a change in direction by the Federation have taken dead aim at this, calling the drop from 40 to 31per cent unionization the largest provincial decline of its kind in the country.

Yet it seems unfair to blame Jim Sinclair so directly for these depressing matters. The B.C. economy has mostly limped along in recent years, government austerity is the name of the game, once highly-unionized resource industries are shadows of their former selves, while the Liberal government’s ending of automatic union certifications when a majority of the workforce has signed up put a huge crimp in union organizing drives.

Although opponents contend that Sinclair and the Fed could have fought more effectively against these developments, no one questions his heartfelt dedication to the struggle, and, yes, some significant achievements. In fact, there were so many tributes and accolades showered his way during the first two days of this week’s convention, I was reminded of a past convention long ago, when then Fed president Len Guy told a skeptical reporter (me): “It’s a love-in, you sausage.”

Image 1There were two video tributes, a succession of speakers extolling Sinclair’s leadership and efforts on their behalf, a typically fiery, keynote speech by the man, himself, that prompted eight standing ovations, and, finally, an announcement of a scholarship in his name attached to the Labour Studies program at Simon Fraser University.

It was a long and winding road for Sinclair, now 60, to the top of the B.C. labour movement. I’d known him for years before he surprised everyone but himself by becoming president of the Fed in 1999. We were often at the same parties, Sinclair clunking around on the dance floor in his logging boots or tirelessly talking “social issues” in the kitchen, as the bottles of beer in the fridge slowly disappeared. He was also a fixture at good old Co-op Radio back in the day when I, too enjoyed myself so much behind the mike at the station’s Pigeon Park studio. Sinclair, of course, was far more serious.

He covered pipeline hearings in the far north, spent three years at the Conrad Black-owned Nelson Daily News before being fired for criticizing the paper’s “editorial bias”, worked 18 years for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union, until surprisingly, the Fed presidency beckoned, just before the Liberals ousted the NDP from government. I also learned this week that Sinclair walked his first picket line at 17, and once lived at Vancouver’s legendary dive, the Cobalt Hotel. Through it all, he has never wavered a moment in his drive to uproot injustice and speak for the voiceless and underdogs in our society.

And not only that. For anyone to survive so long in the rough and tumble world of union politics, where longstanding feuds and back room disagreements are so rife, is an accomplishment, itself.

Still, after 15 years, Sinclair’s time seemed to be up within the Federation. Although he might have squeaked back in, growing internal division over his leadership style and effectiveness made the result uncertain. Sinclair chose to step down now, rather than risk defeat.

He leaves a legacy of hands-on union activism that few would deny. “The labour movement is my life, my family, my home,” an emotional Sinclair told delegates, as he opened his last convention as president. “I may be stepping down, but I’m not leaving this movement. You’ve heard that I first walked a picket line when I was 17. That changed my life. Now I’m telling you: ‘When I am 77, I will still be out there on the picket line with you.”

Later, after a lengthy special tribute to his leadership on Tuesday afternoon, Sinclair deflected praise for helping out individuals and workers who were outside the ranks of the Federation. “I don’t care what movement they’re part of. They are part of us.”

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