Building the Power: The Labourers’ Union in British Columbia

Building the Power: The Labourers’ Union in British Columbia

M.C. Warrior

Reviewed by Gordon Hak

This book tells the story of the Labourers’ International Union of North America in British Columbia since 1937 and is intended primarily for workers and retirees associated with the union. It is an insider’s perspective: for eight years prior to the book’s publication, the author, M.C. Warrior, was engaged in strategic research and analysis for the union. However, the book has a broader appeal, and at a time when unions and working people are increasingly losing their profile in public life and in the scholarly world, Building the Power is a reminder of the rich union history in the province, the difficult situation that unions now find themselves in, and the challenges of the future. While there are no hard copies of the book available for sale, it can be downloaded at no charge from this address: www.cswu1611.org/book/

Warrior writes that “this is an unabashedly pro-union history, for which I make no apologies.” (p. 255) This is the strength of the book. Drawing on interviews with workers, former workers, and union officials, a well as a union newsletter, the book takes us into a working-class and union culture that is little known to outsiders, giving readers a sense of how jobs are actually performed, insights into the hopes and fears of workers, and an understanding of the purpose of the union as it operates in the day-to-day realities of the working world. Wonderful pictures enhance the presentation.

The union has members in a wide variety of industries, including road building, paving, commercial construction, curb and gutter, precast concrete, parking and security, and the health sector. Large numbers of unionized construction labourers were involved in major projects such as the Kitimat Smelter-Kemano Dam project of the 1950s, the Peace River dam in the 1960s, the Coquihalla Highway in the 1980s, and the Canada Line in the first decade of the 21st century, all of which are described in the book, but the union also had and has members working at much smaller sites.

Workers and the union have many enemies, notes Warrior. Employers engage in all sorts of tactics to undermine union efforts. The Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB), later WorkSafe BC, and the Unemployment Insurance Commission, now known as EI, “far too often treat the injured and the unemployed as scroungers looking to game the system.” (p. 147) Says Warrior, “the WCB is perhaps the government agency most despised by the labour movement, more than even the Labour Relations Board.” (p. 148) Then there is the challenge of “rat unions or pseudo-unions,” that are “employer-friendly” but still “treated as legitimate unions by the Labour Code and the courts.” (p. 187) Warrior also chronicles the legislative assault on organized labour from the time of WAC Bennett’s Social Credit government in the 1960s through the Gordon Campbell Liberal government after 2001. Notably, the book investigates these issues from the perspective of workers and the union, discussing specific struggles in a variety of places to show the impact on the lives of working people as well as their response.

Building the Power is a fine, well-written portrait of a union. For some readers, referencing and an index will be missed. Some too might note the lack of focus on race, gender, Indigenous peoples, and the environment. Internal union politics are hardly mentioned. But importantly, the oft-neglected issue of class is given its due here, and the book makes the case for its on-going relevance in the province’s history. 
 

Building the Power: The Labourers’ Union in British Columbia
M.C. Warrior
Surrey: Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union, LiUNA Local 1611, 2016. 266 pp.

BC Studies no. 198 Summer 2018