Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A labour icon of the west coast fishery passes on

The Tyee rightly points out a major oversight by the province's major media outlets this month, the passing of long time union head Jack Nichol.

Nichol first joined the union movement shortly after the second world war, gaining elected office in 1964 and rising through the ranks to the leadership of UFAWU in 1977, taking over from the legend of the labour movement Homer Stevens.

Through the seventies up until his retirement in 1993 he was the lynch pin for the union movement in British Columbia's fishery, negotiating, badgering and ensuring fair treatment for the workers inside the province's fishing plants and canneries.

Much of what fish plant workers and fishermen achieved in those decades came from the steely resolve of Nichol at the bargaining table, providing for steady pay increases, better working conditions and equality in the plants, many achievements that other unions could only have hoped for at the time.

He was a witness to the boom and bust years of the fishing industry, frequently warning of potential troubles to come unless the resource was properly managed and maintained, a warning that has proven quite correct over the last few decades.

While he will be known for his efforts as a leader from 77 to 93, he perhaps will be best remembered in Prince Rupert for his place on the 1967 picket line at the Fisherman's Co-op, an event which Charles Campbell outlines in his excellent account of Nichol's passing in the Tyee (see article here),

In the article, Campbell recounts Nichol's efforts on the Prince Rupert waterfront in that watershed year 1967 one of great labour turmoil in the city. In that year Nichol and labour colleague George Hewison took to the picket lines at the Co-op, eventually to be thrown into a city jail for contempt of court. (some background on that dispute and its impact on Prince Rupert can be found from this history of the co-op movement)

Released in the morning, they returned to the picket line where once again they would find themselves returned to jail. It was a move that highlighted the union's commitment to its workers at the Co-op (though UFAWU would be decertified at co-op in the wake of the dispute) and while events proved divisive in Prince Rupert, it pushed Nichol to the forefront of the union movement on the waterfront.

It would mark the very public beginning of his long service to the west coast union movement, a frequent fixture in Prince Rupert spreading the word of UFAWU's mission for its membership along the coast.

The tales were long and legendary earlier on November 20th when mourners gathered at Vancouver's Maritime Labour Hall, celebrating the life of the labour leader who passed away on November 6th.

Whether or not one agreed with his tactics and efforts on behalf of his members over the years (and there were many detractors during those times), for a good number of British Columbians he he was at times seemingly the only one that stood on their side. He was truly one of the icons of some very tumultuous times in this province, his passing deserves to be recognized.

The major media in this province may have missed it, or chosen to ignore his passing, but the Tyee makes amends on the oversight.

Campbell's article is a pretty good primer for those looking to learn more about the history of the labour movement in the fishing industry over the last fifty years or so, it outlines a most remarkable life lived in and out of the fish plants of this province.

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