Jack Nichol’s death breaks link to union movement that shaped modern BC

The death Nov. 4 of former Fishermen’s Union president Jack Nichol, at the age of 83, broke another of the few remaining links to the turbulent post-war labour movement that did so much to shape modern BC.

Jack Nichol (right) and Homer Stevens examine the UFAWU's Prince Rupert organizing boat, 1974. A disappointing purchase, it was unaffectionately called the Northern Breakdown.

Jack Nichol (right) and Homer Stevens examine the UFAWU's Prince Rupert organizing boat, 1974. A disappointing purchase, it was unaffectionately called the Northern Breakdown.

His memorial service, to be held Friday at 1.30 p.m. at the Maritime Labour Centre, 1880 Triumph St., promises to be an emotional reunion of that era’s veterans.

As president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union from 1977 to 1993, Nichol was a leader in a generation of great union leaders who was unafraid of any personal sacrifice — including jail time  — to help move the members forward. He, like others, saw his role as much more than narrow collective bargaining. He had a vision of the union as a force for social justice in coastal communities.

In post-war BC, organized labour was virtually the only counterweight to the corporate power of resource companies. Those who look for the first fights for public power, environmental protection, sustainable community development, a nuclear-free world, workers’ rights, a decent Columbia River treaty and much more must look to the history of the labour movement.

Born in Ontario, Nichol came up from the ranks, finding post-war work in the Canadian Fish Home Plant at the foot of Gore Ave. Here his big build stood him in good stead in the demanding physical environment of the cold storage plant, where workers heaved 200-pound frozen halibut from boat to freezer and from freezer to rail car. He quickly became a union activist and then a full-time organizer.

His undoubted physical strength was matched by a powerful intellect. He was a strong writer, commanding public speaker and had near total-recall, able to quote from letters written and received years earlier with eery accuracy.

Nichol led the union from 1977, when Homer Stevens retired, until his own retirement in 1993. During that period he negotiated a new coastwide shoreworkers agreement nearly every year, through many strikes and the countless close calls that resulted from pressures of bargaining while the salmon ran.

But he also served as a leader of the city’s maritime unions, worked tirelessly as a member of the Canadian team in international salmon negotiations, ran for city council as a COPE candidate in 1976, and was a leading environmentalist in a union movement then split on the false debate between jobs and the environment.

A superb negotiator, he prided himself on the many increases he helped shoreworkers achieve. Even during the desperate days of the 1989 strike, when free trade rules nearly destroyed the bargaining strength of the union, Nichol’s firmness helped deliver pension benefits for the shoreworkers, who were overwhelmingly part-time women workers.

Yet he demonstrated his leadership qualities in many other fields, fighting for the survival of the industry he loved, eventually winning the respect of fisheries ministers from both sides of the House.

I had the privilege of working under Jack’s leadership for the 12 years I was editor of The Fisherman, the union’s paper. (We had a biweekly circulation of 6,000, coastwide,  supported by subscriptions and advertising.) Unlike most editors, I could count on Jack to provide both minimal interference and crystal-clear front-page stories, on deadline, during any major crisis.

I remember a tireless worker, an inspiring speaker, a family man, a great raconteur, an unparalleled singer of Danny Boy, a man who could have done anything, but found his greatest satisfaction in working for people like him to build a better life. A hero.