Frank Kennedy was key waterfront labour leader who reshaped Vancouver’s civic politics

Frank Kennedy

Several hundred people filled the auditorium of the Maritime Labour Centre this afternoon to celebrate the life of Frank Kennedy, a longtime officer of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union who died Feb. 18. Although he retired more than 20 years ago, Kennedy  had an enduring impact on the city’s waterfront unions, city politics, the peace movement and the wider labour movement.

In addition to his work at the bargaining table, Kennedy paved the way for the formation of the Committee of Progressive Electors in 1968 and was co-chair of End the Arms Race during the era of its 100,000-strong marches.

More than a dozen speakers took to the podium to assess Frank’s contribution and I was honoured to be among them. Here are my notes:

When we look back on the post-war history of the BC union movement, it’s hard to find any labour leader, in the public or private sector, who can match the enduring contributions of Frank Kennedy.
There may be some who had to lead their memberships through tougher strikes, although Frank was no stranger to tough battles.
There may be others who did more for the wider labour movement – but Frank had a remarkable career, in the ILWU, at the Vancouver and District Labour Council and at the BC Federation of Labour.
There may be yet others who played a stronger role in the community . . . but I doubt it.
Frank Kennedy left a legacy of achievement in his union, in the wider labour movement and in the community – and for the moment, I can’t think of anyone else I would put in that category.
Of course, Frank was a triple threat in other ways, as well: he was smart, pragmatic and – let’s be honest – good-looking.
Frank did not fit the stereotype of a tough, muscled longshoreman. Who does? He had that little smile and the glint in his eye that made him easy to talk to and a gifted leader.
I don’t remember the first time I met Frank, but it was undoubtedly at a labour council meeting in the late 1970s, when I was hired to edit The Fisherman, the paper of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union.
Once a month I would head over to Commercial Drive to the IWA Hall – we have condominiums there now – to cover the VDLC meeting, which often saw its delegates fill the hall for long debates on any issue you could think of.
Frank was a secretary-treasurer of that organization, led in those days by Syd Thompson and Doug Evans of the IWA.
Frank was already a 30-year veteran of the labour movement by then.
Born in Ontario in 1928, he moved to BC after the Second World War and worked at various jobs up and down the coast on coastal tankers and towboats. The ILWU was still putting down roots.
Frank’s first union was the International Longshoremen’s Association. The ILWU had been struggling to consolidate in BC since 1939 and Frank was among the ILA members who led their local into the ILWU to create Local 509, where he was soon elected to the leadership.
Longshore grew steadily during those years as the pulp industry expanded to a number of new BC ports. Contract conditions steadily improved.
Frank was instrumental in creating the amalgamated Local 500 in 1966 and became its first vice-president. A couple of years late,r the membership elected him Secretary of the ILWU Canadian area, a job he held with one small interruption for 15 years. He served as well on the union’s international executive board.
Nineteen sixty-six was a milestone in the union’s history. Ten local presidents were jailed for refusing to order the membership to work on a statutory holiday. When the dust settled, though, ILWU had its first coastwide contract. More gains followed in 1970, after two strikes and three contract votes, ILWU main big gains in wages and working conditions.
But Frank was already making a contribution in other areas.
By 1968, as chair of the Labour Council’s Metropolitan Advisory Committee, Frank spearheaded negotiations to pull together all civic political organizations – Harry Rankin, the NDP and others – to unite to end the NPA’s long rule over the city.
The labour council brought together 18 organizations to sanction the creation of the Committee of Progressive Electors that contested six elections in the next 10 years.
By the late 1970s, COPE was the established opposition to the NPA, first electing Rankin and they providing a crucial assist to Mike Harcourt’s election as Mayor in a few years later.
Frank’s work as a unifier, organizer and leader did not stop with the ILWU, Labour Council or COPE.
By the 1980s, the world was seized with the urgent need to End the Arms Race. That was the name of the massive coalition that Frank co-chaired for many years here in Vancouver.
Frank’s leadership skills were tested once again as literally hundreds of organizations combined forces to create an enduring movement that mobilized annual marches that often exceeded 100,000 participants.
Because of Frank’s high public profile and demonstrated ability to lead disparate groups, he was a natural candidate to lead the BC Federation of Labour.
In the wake of Operation Solidarity, the massive mobilization that met Social Credit’s restraint program in 1983, left and progressive forces were on the march – civic elections, peace marches, job actions all unfolded right across the province.
Key federation leaders, however, did all they good to bring the movement to a halt. Their actions triggered a movement to overhaul the fed leadership and bring in new officers committed to supporting the wider struggle against the Bill Bennett government.
Although Frank’s campaign for that job, backed by the federation’s progressive unions, was not successful, he did transform the leadership of the Fed. Members of his slate, like Fishermen’s union president Jack Nichol, won key positions. The campaign resulted in fundamental changes to the federatinn’s constitution effectively ending the left-right contest and ensuring that all major unions were guaranteed a spot at the table.
Even retirement did not slow Frank down.
He became an officer of the Federation of Retired Union members and an active member of the ILWU retirees association, where I last met him about three years ago as he and his colleagues organized a memorial to the Battle of Ballantyne Pier.
Frank’s death takes from us another link to great postwar leaders of the waterfront unions. I had the good luck to know Tom McGrath, of Local 400; and Jack Nichol, of the UFAWU. Frank was the third it was my privilege to watch in action on so many fronts.
He will be missed.

(My old friend Fred Wilson offered his recollections here.)