August 2011

North of 49°
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to
British Columbia's Labour History

[Editor's Note: Excerpted from the 38th Convention (in Vancouver Sept. 19-23) program, this special North of 49° article spotlights the unique history of British Columbia.]

British Columbia has a well-earned reputation as home to one of Canada's most active and energized labour movements, with a union tradition as old as the province itself. And from the very beginning, the IBEW has played a key part of it.

Yesteryear's legacy and the modern-day work of the IBEW continues today: from electrifying this expansive Pacific Coast province—a 1,500-mile span from the border of Washington State northward to the Yukon Territory—to guaranteeing decent working conditions and building B.C.'s middle class.

British Columbia's origins as a frontier society based on the extraction of natural resources made its early workers' struggles particularly challenging. The unsettled nature of the work force combined with the difficult and dangerous labour involved in mining and logging meant that workers early on had to take militant action to build solidarity to protect their rights.

Rapid economic growth at the turn of the 20th century gave rise to B.C.'s electrical industry. And just as in the U.S., linemen in Canada suffered from dangerous working conditions, low wages and often abusive employers.

The first West Coast local in Canada was chartered in 1901 with the founding of Local 213 in Vancouver. The southern port city would become the most important and largest in the province, and a hub of the labour movement.

Its goal, as one anonymous Local 213 member wrote to the IBEW Journal in 1926, was to "obtain higher wages and improved conditions of employment, to aid the sick and needy, and [to provide] mutual protection."

One of its first organizing targets was the B.C. Telephone Co. After organizing its linemen, the local went after the operators, one of the Canadian labour movement's earliest efforts to organize women. Local 213 successfully struck the company in 1902, winning the eight-hour day.

By 1907, the local signed its first agreement with the B.C. Electric Company (now B.C. Hydro), establishing a more than century-long association between the utility and the IBEW.

The IBEW would expand to Victoria in 1902—another major southern port city and the capital of province, located off the coast of the B.C. mainland—with the chartering of Local 230. It also represented linemen at B.C. Electric, as well as shipyard electricians at the Victoria port.

The first two decades of the 20th century were a difficult time for organized labour in British Columbia, as employers remained hostile to unions. Despite the anti-labour climate, the IBEW scored some important victories, including the eight-hour day, competitive wage scale and a union shop.

World War I caused major labour shortages, which, combined with frustration over stagnant wages and growing inflation, led to a massive postwar strike wave across Canada. The movement's center was in the western provinces, which also served as home to more radical currents in the labour movement.

The militancy of the postwar period faded fast however, and an aggressive counterattack by employers gravely weakened the labour movement in the 1920s.

The Great Depression and World War II

The Great Depression wreaked havoc across Canada. Locals 213 and 230 lost nearly two-thirds of their inside wiremen between 1930 and 1939. Most linemen at B.C. Electric managed to hang on to their jobs, but saw their work week drop to an average of only three days by the middle of the decade.

The province would not fully recover until Canada's entry into World War II in 1939. The shipyards of Vancouver and Victoria came alive with the production of ships and armaments, providing near full employment for members of the IBEW.

The postwar boom pushed most electrical workers into the ranks of the middle class for the first time, as IBEW membership expanded across British Columbia, bringing with it higher wages and better benefits.

"We feel that wage increases give purchasing power to the people who need it most. That increases the demand for goods and creates employment which is badly needed today," wrote Local 213's press secretary to the IBEW Journal in 1950.

Economic growth meant the development of cities and towns outside of the Vancouver-Victoria area. In 1947, Kamloops Local 993 and Nelson Local 1003—located north and east of Vancouver, respectively—were the first locals to be chartered outside of B.C.'s two largest cities.

Public control over B.C.'s rich natural resources soon became a major political issue, and pressure from both organized labour and consumers led the government to nationalize B.C. Electric in 1961, which became the B.C. Hydro and Power Authority.

British Columbia's combination of rugged landscape formations and ample precipitation means powerful river flows, creating tremendous potential hydroelectric power, a force B.C. Hydro would harness following the construction of a series of dams. A second Vancouver local, 258, was chartered in 1967 to represent the thousands of workers at B.C. Hydro. Today it represents workers in many jurisdictions throughout the province.

The expansion of the B.C.'s population northward brought new growth as locals were chartered to represent electrical workers who lived and worked in the province Interior's region, which extends from the southern end of the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver to Prince George, known as B.C.'s northern capital.

B.C.'s wild frontier roots are still on display for IBEW members working in the Interior. As a 1992 article from the IBEW Journal tells it, "IBEW workers from Local 258 are accustomed to the numbing cold that comes with hazardous winter maintenance of their numerous hydroelectric cables and transmission lines. They risk their lives in frigid weather to chip ice from the massive transmission cables to keep the power flowing."

The province's strategic location as Canada's gateway to the Pacific has kept its economy going strong through the ups and downs of the economic cycle—making the IBEW a vital part of British Columbia's prosperity.

Members of Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 258 clean up downed trees and power lines after a windstorm on Vancouver Island. [Photo by IBEW member Tim Somerville appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of The Hotline, Local 258's member magazine.]

A note to our
Canadian members

Because Canada Post locked out the members of Canadian Union of Postal Workers as the July issue was being printed and prepared for mailing, the IBEW, in solidarity, did not mail the July issue to our Canadian members. Click here to view the July issue online.