A militant labour movement has been part of British Columbia’s identity going back to earliest times. The region’s resource-based, frontier economy produced a toughened brand of worker, the result of onerous conditions, low pay and hard, hard work. Confrontations, when they took place, were often rough. For years the BC labour movement was the most combative in the land, full of radicals and talk of general strikes. There was rarely a time when the drive to increase profits at the expense of workers went unchallenged.

As with most movements, the influence of unions has ebbed and flowed. It has suffered painful divisions and enjoyed inspiring periods of solidarity. Unions have endured fierce, often violent opposition: firings, jailings, and red-baiting, not to mention intimidation by vigilantes, militias, cops, courts and hostile governments determined to keep them in their place. Some activists sacrificed their lives. Yet against all odds, unions remain a vital force in today’s world.

The scenes depicted in these pages are but snapshots—hopefully representative ones—from 150-plus years of working-class struggle in workplaces everywhere in BC. Collectively these examples represent a remarkable saga of workers and unions that stands with any in the province’s history. The figures who people these stories are among the heroes of British Columbia—not merely the trade union leaders, but the millions of workers, their names forgotten, who confronted those who would deny their right to take collective action in pursuit of better lives. While we celebrate builders of industrial empires like Robert and James Dunsmuir—their name writ large on streets and in the province’s chronicles—those who dared challenge their single-minded pursuit of wealth at the expense of workers are remembered minimally, if at all.

Workers organizing to improve their lot started early. In 1850, eight years before the province of British Columbia was formed, Scots miners imported to work in the Hudson’s Bay Company coal mine at Fort Rupert went on strike to protest the employer’s violation of their contracts. It was a sign of things to come. More than sixty years later, several thousand coal miners spent two years on strike fighting just for the company to recognize their union. Only when they had spent their last penny did they finally surrender to the multiple forces arrayed against them. Despite many more early defeats, softened by a few satisfying victories, the BC labour movement kept on growing.

Indigenous lumber handlers, along with some Chileans and Hawaiians, gather near the Moodyville Sawmill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet in 1889. The man with the laundry bag is William Nahanee; he worked many years on the docks, serving as president of the groundbreaking Bows and Arrows union local formed in 1906. Fifth from the left is Joe Capilano, later a prominent chief of the Squamish. Charles S. Bailey photo, City of Vancouver Archives, Mi P 2.

In its formative years labour often reflected the same racial divisions that prevailed in general society, but organization proceeded regardless. Nikkei1 (Japanese) fishermen, not always in solidarity with other fishermen, regularly banded together to press for higher prices. So too did Indigenous2 fishermen, who eventually formed their own permanent organization, the Native Brotherhood, to take on the fish companies. And on Burrard Inlet’s north shore, Indigenous longshoremen formed a legendary union local proudly known as the “Bows and Arrows.” Nikkei lumber workers had their own union in the forest industry well into the 1930s. South Asians3 were also prominent in the forest industry, bolstering strong locals on the sawmilling side of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA). One of the union’s prime organizers in the great sign-up campaigns of the 1940s was firebrand Darshan Singh Sangha. The IWA also hired Joe Miyazawa and Roy Mah to bridge the gap between its predominantly white membership and Nikkei and Chinese4 workers, who had already shown their union solidarity during a difficult strike by the IWA at Blubber Bay.

The province’s women have been part of union struggles since Vancouver telephone operators formed a union in the early 1900s. Their willingness to fight for their rights was demonstrated many times, leading to such historic events as the drive of the tiny Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC) to organize bank workers and actions like the 1981 strike by underpaid daycare and social services workers at the Ray-Cam co-operative centre in East Vancouver. Partly as a result of the relative shrinkage of private-sector unions and the rise of unions in the public sector, women now form a majority of BC’s trade union membership.

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century the need for collective action has remained great, as shown in battles by BC teachers in their long and ultimately successful struggle to recapture previously negotiated classroom working conditions, and limestone quarriers who fought off company demands to end their seniority rights near the same Blubber Bay site on Texada Island where previous quarry workers had taken a stand seventy-seven years earlier.

Often overlooked by the headlines of strikes and pitched battles is the important social role BC unions have played. Over the years many unions have quietly established credit unions to serve workers denied access to loans and other services by the big banks. They have partnered for years with the United Way to help ensure a better social safety net for those in need, run summer camps for union kids and those who are disadvantaged, apprenticed prospective skilled workers and fought for the unemployed. They have pushed hard for employee-assistance programs to deal with alcohol and drug problems. They have built co-op housing, extended help to oppressed workers in other countries and donated money and volunteers to myriad causes.

Some reactionary forces in today’s world would have us believe unions have gone out of style and outlived their usefulness. Yet it is recognized that the greatest threat facing western societies today, British Columbia prominent among them, is the widening gulf between rich and poor. As this book definitively shows, no force in society has proven more effective at promoting fairer distribution of the fruits of all peoples’ labours than unions—which makes them more relevant in today’s world, not less. It is our hope that On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement will improve awareness of the contribution that unions have made and continue to make to our province, one so aptly expressed in their aspirational principle of more than a hundred years’ standing: “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.”

Let the story begin.


1. Nikkei refers throughout to people of Japanese ancestry living outside Japan.

2. The terms Indigenous people, Aboriginal people and First Nations are used interchangeably in this text.

3. South Asian as used throughout describes immigrants from India, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab region.

4. Chinese is used throughout to indicate immigrants of Chinese descent before the Citizenship Act of 1947 made them Canadian citizens.