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Industry Watch: Bland New Era Beckons Generic IWA-Canada

By John Clarke
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

When former national president Gerry Stoney of the IWA-Canada retired at the end of 1996, shortly after Joe Morris, another former president, passed away, he closed the circle on one of Canada's most colourful and important trade unions. In a sense it was the end of the story because the IWA-Canada is going to become a different union.

Morris was one of the founders of a new kind of worker organization that emerged in the '40s from a bitter struggle between post-war social democrats and communists. The International Woodworkers of America was an alliance of Canadian and American woodworkers that transcended the border. The industry was more free-wheeling in those days, unrestrained by and large in its forestry practices and unfettered by environmentalist pressures. All has changed since then in the industry, and the union has changed with it.

It's no longer an international organization. It is now strictly Canadian, rejoicing in the blandly generic title of Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers, although still IWA-Canada for short. Stoney was the last of the old-time leaders. But while he could talk tough, he could be more effective behind the scenes than most of his predecessors in reaching for constructive compromise in the changing industry of the 1990s. He was a transition president.

The new president will not much recall those early struggles in the formative years, although he may read about them. It will be hard for him to understand the values that people like Morris brought to the table in the union's own Cold War for control of the workers' side of Canada's biggest dollar-earning industry at the time.

They were values that reflected the society of the '40s and '50s in North America. The IWA fought to extend workers' rights and for a bigger slice of a growing economy. But it considered itself a part of the social establishment and was accepted generally by the people in the corporate boardrooms. Its leaders were democrats, even if they were on the other side of the political stream.

In 1934 Morris had joined the old Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union, whose Eastern Canadian remnants only recently joined the IWA-Canada. But he was an early supporter of the IWA even then. He secretly distributed IWA literature around the camps when it was risky to do so. But the second World War intervened and he went off to serve as a lieutenant with the Canadian army. After the war he went straight back into the industry just when the communists were beginning their big push for control.

The workers became bitterly divided between anti-communist 'white' blocs and 'red' blocs, with squads from each side travelling up and down Vancouver Island and the mainland coast. By the late '40s the whites had won the day and the communists have never since held any high national or international office, although some former reds did hang on in some of the locals, much to Morris' chagrin and sometimes distress.

The industry was by no means an objective bystander through all this. It would not have relished dealing with a large communist union with ties to the Soviet Union. The whites understood this very well. They regarded the industry as an organic whole, even though Canadian and American corporations operated independently, and they concluded that a red union would find it very hard to make progress in a hard-nosed, strongly anti-communist environment.

Corporate leaders often perceived IWA leaders as co-adventurers of a sort. Some of them had personal friendships with the union people and all treated them with respect. It was the kind of relationship that made possible the big collective bargaining structures in which labour agreements are negotiated with the corporations acting together on one side and the union locals together under one central committee. Some companies are now pushing for more localized bargaining at the plant level. But it's unlikely that the basic structures will be changed significantly.

There have been serious disputes and damaging work stoppages over the years. Neither side believes in Pollyanna. But in many ways the IWA-Canada is one of the most establishment trade unions in the country. It has been part of the economic society, the yin of the corporate world's yang.

Morris eventually moved on from the IWA-Canada to become first vice-president and then president of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1974. In 1977 he became the first worker representative chosen to chair the governing body of the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He subsequently worked on the Independent Commission on International Development, known as the Brandt Commission, in honour of its guiding spirit, former German Chancellor Willi Brandt.

You can't get much more establishment than that. The union now is much more national than in Morris' day, not just in structure but in philosophy. It still considers the industry in Canada and the United States as an organic whole. But it no longer thinks it needs to be part of an international orgaization to protect Canadian workers. In global trade, with trade barriers breaking down everywhere, there's a scramble among workers in many nations to seek security against the competition. American woodworkers supported the American Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports in pushing for limits to Canadian softwood exports to their market. International brotherhood doesn't work in a situation like that.

Gerry Stoney was a bridge to the new unionism that will have to emerge. Not a larger-than-life figure like his predessor Jack Munro, but a hard bargainer nonetheless. More than any other leader he has had to come to terms with an industry that, some say, has aged beyond maturity. Old-growth timber has seriously declined in economically accessible forests. Allowable cuts are being reduced to help the resource recover. Employment is expected to fall off permanently, despite the best intentions of government to encourage job growth in silviculture and other rehabilition work.

The IWA-Canada has never resisted mechanization and modernization in the industry. It understood that the machines were needed for productivity to sustain the great growth of the last 50 years. Now a different accommodation will have to be found in an industry short of timber and facing enormous new costs in restoring the resource.

It's a challenge Joe Morris never had to face. It's one the new leaders can't avoid.

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