Memorial to Jack Munro reunited key figures from BC’s tumultuous struggles of the 1980s

Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett and IWA president Jack Munro in Kelowna, at the meeting that made Munro more than just BC's most powerful labour leader.

Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett and IWA president Jack Munro in Kelowna, at the meeting that made Munro more than just BC’s most powerful labour leader.

The very personal tone of yesterday’s moving memorial to labour leader Jack Munro, who died in November at the age of 82, had the inevitable effect of understating Munro’s pivotal role in this province’s recent history, particularly his decisive leadership during and after the Operation Solidarity crisis that brought the province to a standstill in 1983.

It was because of that role that the audience of about 400 included a remarkable reunion of some of BC’s leading figures during those unprecedented months in the wake of the 1983 election, when the province was gripped by a general strike.

Among those gathered to pay their last respects were former BC Federation of Labour president Art Kube, former BC Business Council CEO Jerry Lampert, former BCGEU president John Shields and former deputy minister Bob Plecas, a key architect of the Social Credit “restraint program” that triggered the Operation Solidarity movement.

It fell to Munro to fly, at the request of the leadership of the BC Federation of Labour, to a fateful Kelowna meeting with Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett to negotiate an end to the confrontation. Also in the crowd yesterday was Gerry Scott, then a staffer at the Fed, who flew to Kelowna with Munro.

As Angela Schira, former secretary of the BC Fed, reminded the audience, Munro endured a blizzard of criticism both inside the labour movement and out for a decision that had been taken by the entire leadership.

But the trip to Kelowna made Munro, already the longstanding leader of the IWA, the province’s largest and most powerful private sector union, into one of the most important figures in BC’s political leadership from any sector.

So it was no surprise to hear Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti, who struggled to maintain his composure during his very personal tribute to Munro, to hail him as a mentor and key advisor.

When the labour leadership of the day needed someone to step into Kube’s shoes in 1984, they tapped Georgetti, then a relatively unknown activist in the Steelworkers’ Trail local, for the job. After a lengthy career at the head of BC’s union movement, Georgetti has gone on to become the CLC’s longest-serving president, but he never ceased relying on Munro for advice and support.

Bennett’s political career never recovered from the Solidarity crisis, but the New Democrats proved unable to capitalize on the confrontation and Social Credit’s Bill Vander Zalm won the 1986 election handily against the backdrop of Expo 86.

But Vander Zalm’s attempt to roll back labour rights in 1987 triggered another one-day province-wide strike under Georgetti’s leadership. (Plecas had been called in to draft Bill 19, which sharply restricted the right to strike.) The battle over the labour code was just the first of a series of crises that set the stage for the collapse of Social Credit and the election of Mike Harcourt’s New Democrats in 1991, ushering in a decade of NDP government.

As leader of the IWA and an officer of the federation, Munro played a key role in the drive to elect the first NDP government since Dave Barrett’s victory in 1972. Shirley Barrett, the former NDP Premier’s wife, was also at the memorial.

By 1991, Munro had moved to centre stage of another battle, this time over the management of the province’s forests. In the controversies over Clayoquot, the spotted owl and land use, Munro’s defence of his members’ jobs made the “war of the woods” a dominant reality of BC politics.

Throughout, however, Munro remained an unapologetic New Democrat. There’s little doubt his unique status as labour’s pre-eminent voice to the corporate sector, at a time when forestry was the largest single contributor to the province’s economy, made him one of the most important British Columbians of his generation, as well as a beloved leader and friend to those who gathered yesterday at the Convention Centre to say goodbye.