MOTHER JONES COMES TO BC

(Mother Jones rallying Colorado miners)

Notwithstanding the dread my teacher mother felt every Labour Day, today is a day to celebrate the contribution of working people and their unions, not only to the building of BC, but to the many social benefits they fought for over the years, which we now tend to take for granted. You know, boring stuff like the eight-hour day, the five-day work week, paid holidays, workers’ compensation, safety standards, pensions, sick pay, the simple right to join a union and so many others. Sadly, some of these gains are being eroded in this scary new gig and everything-goes economy that seems to be driving workers down, rather than up. But that’s a topic for another day. Instead, to mark this country’s 123rd Labour Day, I offer a little-known tale from BC labour lore. At a time when the heroic fight of Vancouver Island coal miners against the robber baron mine owners was seriously flagging, done in by strikebreakers, militia soldiers and the courts, they received a legendary visitor.

Mention Mother Jones today, and thoughts immediately turn to the prominent muck-raking journal of the same name. But 100 years ago, the world knew a different Mother Jones. Mary Harris Jones was arguably the most famous woman in America. She was also regularly denounced by authorities as the most dangerous woman in America. A diminutive firebrand well into her senior years, Jones preached a fierce, anti-capitalism gospel of resistance and socialism wherever she travelled, and that was mostly wherever miners were on strike. Undeterred by jailings and frequent arrests, she took on mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, strikebreakers and governors alike, with her no holds barred support for miners and their families. She once wrote of miners in those grim days of low wages and terrible working conditions: “For a second more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the colour of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”

In June of 1914, she came to British Columbia. Two thousand Vancouver Island coal miners were in the second year of a desperate struggle against the mines’ grasping owners. Their union had sent for Mother Jones to buoy the strikers’ spirits. She made the long journey to Seattle from the violent Colorado coalfields, where striking miners were being gunned down by the state militia. As she prepared to board the steamer for Victoria, however, Canadian officials barred her way, labeling the feisty 77-year old “a disturbing element…likely to stir up trouble.” Mother Jones, who had friends in high places, retorted: We’ll see about that. She contacted U.S. Labour Secretary William B. Wilson, a former official of the United Mineworkers Union, who pulled strings in Ottawa, demanding that she receive “every right she is entitled to as an American citizen”. The next day, Mother Jones was on her way to Canada. The country was not new to her. A daughter of Irish parents, driven from their homeland by the potato famine, she grew up in Toronto, educated at Toronto Normal School, before heading permanently to the United States at the age of 23.

In Nanaimo, Mother Jones received a rapturous reception from the hard-pressed miners. As she recounted in her autobiography: “A regiment of Canadian Kilties met the train, squeaking on their bagpipes. Down the street came a delegation of miners [who] wore the badge of the working class—the overalls. I held a tremendous meeting that night, and the poor boys who had come up from the subterranean holes of the earth to fight for a few hours of sunlight, took courage. I brought them the sympathy of the Colorado strikers, a sympathy and understanding that reaches across borders and frontiers.”

A photo of that first meeting shows crowds of miners and their families, decked out in the best clothes they could manage, gathered on a hillside as Mother Jones hammers home her message of miner solidarity and resistance. From there, she went to four other strike battlegrounds, including Ladysmith and Cumberland. Years later, one of the strikers remembered: “She was a fiery one. I think she was 4-foot-5 or something. A short woman but, by God, she was something.” Mother Jones finished her BC visit with a rousing speech at the Labour Temple in Vancouver. Before an overflow crowd, she called for unity and a general strike, if necessary, to win the battle of the coalfields.. “Capitalism,” she told cheering trade unionists, “has danced too long on the hearts of the aching miners.”

 

MJ Funeral Headline

When miners’ guardian angel died in 1930 at the age of 93, no less than a young Gene Autry, the famed, future Singing Cowboy, recorded The Death of Mother Jones. Sang Gene: This grand old champion of labor/Was known in every land/She fought for right and justice/She took a noble stand.” The song concluded: “May the miners all work together/To carry out her plan/And bring back better conditions/For every laboring man.”

Surprising, yes, but as someone pointed out, in his big hit 15 years later, Here Comes Santa Claus, Autry wrote the words: He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, he loves you just the same.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THOUGHTS OF CHAIRMAN JACK

I talked with Big Jack Munro a few days before he died. It was pretty tough going. The big booming voice that had bellowed from the podiums of hundreds of meetings was down to a whisper. His legendary fire was just about spent. But some things had not changed. His endearing, infectious chuckle was still in place, despite the pain of his illness. And, 40 years after I first covered him for the Vancouver Sun, Jack was still calling me Rob.

As I write this, there’s a hard, blowing wind and a majestic full moon over Long Beach, where I am for the weekend. My thoughts on the long life and extraordinary times of Jack Munro are all a-jumble, trying to process the legacy of the most dominant labour leader this once-militant province ever had, and the multitude of different things he did during his wild, 82-year ride through life. (How many remember that Munro went to the Forbidden Kingdom  in 1974 with then Premier Dave Barrett and MacMillan Bloedel CEO Denis Timmis, trying to sell Maoist China on buying B.C. timber?  Crazy.)

I will write more about Jack Munro, and in particular his controversial role that dramatic Sunday night in Kelowna almost exactly 30 years ago, when Bill Bennett, the premier of the province, and Munro, a union man,  met face to face in the premier’s living room to hammer out an end to the very real threat of a general strike. It was as dramatic a moment as it gets, even in B.C., and  arguments still rage today about the pros and cons of their so-called Kelowna Accord.

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But for now, let’s hear from Jack Munro, himself. These observations by Brother Munro are from an interview I did with him just last August for a story on the relatively sad state of the B.C. labour movement. Whatever one’s thoughts on Jack Munro, and he was not “the good guy” on every issue, no one can deny his commitment to the cause of working people, and his genuine sorrow and anger at the decline of union influence. It’s all here.

Take it away, Jack.

MUNRO: Everybody delights in kicking the hell out of the labour movement. It’s having a tough time. Everybody’s struggling. The  world is somewhat upside down. I think we’ve lost some really important values. Too many people have forgotten that it was the labour movement that was able to bring about changes in our society, in our way of life, in our social consciousness.

But we’re no longer headed up, we’re headed down.  You listen to these commentators. Every damn thing that goes wrong, with wages and whatnot, they blame the workers. Cut the workers’ play, cut this, cut that, cut the benefits. If workers get money, they spend it. They buy things. They keep our economy going. And to drive the bloody people that keep it going down to the bottom is absolute insanity.

MUNRO: Society is a helluva lot worse without unions. Absolutely. But I don’t know what the hell’s happened. Maybe unions have been too acquiescent. They don’t get any awards for that. The economy is this and that, so they go a couple of years with no wage increase, or 1 and 2 per cent, and the bosses think that’s just great. So they concentrate even more on keeping wages down. They think, ah, we’ve got ‘em now. They pile on. It’s very frustrating for a guy like me, very frustrating.

MUNRO: Leading a strike is tough. When the IWA went on strike, all the staff went on strike pay, too. So we had the same hardship as the members. It’s emotional. You lie awake at night. You know people are hurting, but you can’t give up. If you give up, it’s going to be worse. You have to keep on.

MUNRO: We’re trying to get more worker-type history into the schools. Right now, there’s nothing teaching kids in school about how the hell we got here. Governments and entrepreneurs encouraged expansion and development. They opened the doors. Workers walked through and did a hell of a job, developing industries and systems and that sort of stuff. But nobody’s being taught that. So with our Labour Heritage Centre we are trying to remind people and society that workers have made an important contribution. If no one knows something, they don’t understand it. If unions don’t come back, society is in big trouble.

Amen, Brother. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.

My old colleague Doug Ward, like myself an ex-labour reporter who covered Jack Munro, has written a good synopsis of his  turbulent career.

And I am left with one last memory. As I hung up the phone this week from my final conversation with the big guy, Jack Munro made sure to remind me: “It’s been a good life, Rob.”

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