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A Labour Giant Is Laid to Rest

The old guard came to lionize Jack Nichol, the fishermen's fighter when 'we still had natural resource industries.'

By Charles Campbell 25 Nov 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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UFAWU skippers: Jack Nichol (right) with Homer Stevens.

The sky was charcoal grey and threatened rain last Friday afternoon, as men in polyester shirts and black bomber jackets streamed from all directions toward the Maritime Labour Hall. Inside the old hall, there was barely a Blackberry or an iPhone in sight -- just brownies and carrot cake and aluminum urns of black coffee, and the camaraderie of friends who hadn't seen each other in way too long.

Jack Nichol brought them together, just as he'd done a thousand times before. Only this time would be the last.

Gordie Larkin opened the event with "Hobo's Lullabye", then sang "The Preacher and the Slave", Joe Hill's lampoon of an old Salvation Army hymn: "You will eat bye and bye, in that glorious land in the sky (way up high). Work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die."

Jack Nichol died on November 6 at the age of 83, and entered the pantheon of B.C.'s greatest labour leaders. The longtime fixture with the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union was remembered as a master orator, beloved father, fierce believer in social equity, deadly contract negotiator, advisor to governments, Order of Canada recipient, and fastidious nail-clipper. "He was immaculate in his appearance," said longtime colleague and friend Dennis Brown. "He didn't do it out of vanity, he did it out of respect for the working class, because he knew that he was representing them."

Another union colleague, George Hewison, told the crowd of 350 that the guy with a Grade 10 education "was smarter than any lawyer we ever had."

"I always thought I was part of a movement that was a family," said BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, who spent nearly two decades working with the UFAWU. "And Jack was the dad of that family."

Only the legendary Homer Stevens, whom Nichol succeeded as the union's leader in 1977, mattered as much as Jack to those who worked in the fishing industry.

An outsider and a radical

Perhaps John Henry Nichol, born April 26, 1926 in Hanover, Ontario, accomplished what he did because he was always an outsider who understood what he was up against. He came to East Vancouver from Ontario as the youngest of 13 kids. As a teenager he served with the navy at the HMCS Discovery in Stanley Park, but the Second World War was over before he got to fight. After a stint working in a Yukon machine shop, he came home and went to work on at the Canadian Fishing Company plant on the docks down at the foot of Gore Street.

Brown's warm-hearted eulogy noted that at about that time a girl behind the candy counter of an eastside movie theatre caught Jack Nichol's eye, and through nearly 60 years and seven children, Rose Nichol was Jack's anchor.

At work, Nichol was a congenial guy who worked hard and paid attention, but he didn’t say much. Brown said that when Nichol was first elected to a position with the UFAWU, stalwart organizers like Mickey Beagle were a little surprised. The union, however, offered no shortage of mentors in public speaking, and Nichol soon became among the very best. He earned his leadership bona fides during a strike in remote Namu on the mainland's central coast in 1963, during his first month as a full-time staff member at the union. It was an auspicious beginning.

In 1967, after the union ignored a court order that trawl fishermen and shore workers drop their picket lines at the Prince Rupert Fisherman's Co-op, Nichol and Hewison were arrested. Hewison recalled that they spent the night in the basement of the police station, singing union songs and trying to explain contempt of court to the people in the drunk tank. After the two made bail, Nichol went straight back to the picket line and was rearrested, marking the union's resolve in what became a watershed dispute.

Men, women and paycheques

Over the years, Nichol helped to organize as far afield as Shediac, New Brunswick and St. John's Newfoundland, and negotiated contracts for workers in all sectors of the industry. One of his greatest accomplishments came in 1973, when he achieved pay equity for shore workers in BC fish plants.

Helen O'Shaughnessy was a shore-worker and organizer in those days, and she spoke with reverence about Jack and the magnitude of that settlement, explaining that at the time men made about 20 cents more than $3, while women about 20 cents less. The challenge for the union was to ensure that men in the union didn't feel that pay equity was being achieved at the expense of their own wages. When the deal was done, Shaughnessy recalled, the union won an 80-cent raise in the first year, a 70-cent raise in the second year, and an extra 44 cents for women.

Just as Nichol was, as a shore worker, an underdog in the fishing industry, the fisherman's union was an outsider in the labour movement. Unlike the International Woodworkers Association, the UFAWU offered a safe harbour for communists, and in the 1953 the union was suspended by the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada. Jack Nichol was pivotal in bringing his union back into the greater fold. In 1972, the union was readmitted to the Canadian Labour Congress, and Nichol was eventually elected to the executive of the BC Fed.

'When the world was still sane'

When longtime IWA leader Jack Munro spoke at Nichol's memorial, he didn't mention communism, or the differences between loggers and fishermen on environmental protection, or any of the other issues that set their two unions apart, but he did relate a story about being drawn out of a Murray Goldman store and into a passing fishermen's protest after the store refused to sell suits on credit to a couple of dead-broke striking loggers. Early the next morning, he said, he was still in their company and decided that despite what he'd been told these fishermen weren't so bad after all.

Munro waved his hand at the huge late 1940s mural that presides over the auditorium, depicting mining, logging, fishing, and a utopian cityscape. (The mural was painted by Fraser Wilson, an editorial cartoonist at the Vancouver Sun and member number 1 of the Vancouver Newspaper Guild until he was fired for comments made about management at the Province during a 1947 strike at that paper.) "This mural says a hell of a lot," Munro remarked. "We're the people who produced the income to build and run our province. When the world was still sane, people understood that."

Jack Nichol understood that. "The world is a better place because of people like Jack Nichol, who fought for a fair share, back when we still had natural resource industries," Munro said. "He was dignified, and he stood straight. It's an important day for us to be able to come and show our respect."

'Jack taught me a lot'

Even fisheries business leaders came to show their respect. Don Millerd of Brown's Bay Packing recalled that in the early 1990s a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade ruling against B.C. fishing industry practices had the typical balkanizing effect -- the union wanted protectionism, the companies wanted wage rollbacks and the government appointed a task force. Millerd and Nichol found themselves as co-chairs of that task force. Millerd said he felt Nichol was neither political nor ideological; he was a guy who knew that without a healthy resource you can't have healthy companies, and without healthy companies you can't bargain hard on behalf of your membership. "He cared deeply for the lives of the people he represented," Millerd said. "You learn more from someone who is different than from someone who is similar. Jack taught me a lot."

Richmond city councillor Harold Steves, who started work in the Steveston canneries when he was 15 ("just in time for the strike of '52"), also recalled Nichol taking him to an unexpected place. Steves, who deserves as much credit as anyone for the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve when he was an NDP MLA in the early 1970s, was not so happy when a new NDP labour code failed to provide workers' compensation benefits for fisherman. Steves voted against his own government on the code. "It was Jack who gave me the fortitude to do it."

"He had principles," Jim Sinclair recalled, explaining that when Nichol stood on a fish dock he stood in the world. He remembers Nichol telling him that when you sign up new members, you don’t sell them with the benefits. "You make them join because they believe in it."

Sinclair also said that Nichol was a practical man who understood that when you sit at a bargaining table you need to know what the membership wants, what the bargaining committee wants, what the guy across the table wants, and what you want. "He knew what a deal was, and he knew how to make it."

Nichol retired from the UFAWU in 1993. Before and since, the industry he loved has taken more than its share of body blows. The canneries of Steveston are now museum pieces that offer window dressing for real estate development. Salmon stocks have been devastated -- by changing oceans, by salmon farming, and by logging and mining and overfishing. George Hewison lamented the state of the fishery. "In Campbell River, there are six seine boats left in the harbour, but the people are still there."

Nichol kept fighting for their interests. In 2002, he was one of two named plaintiffs, along with young activist Lyndsay Poaps, in BC Citizens for Public Power suit that sought to prevent the provincial government and BC Hydro from privatizing public hydro resources. Dennis Brown said that even as Alzheimer disease wracked his memory in the last years of his life, he still fought to express his concern that some politicians, union leaders and fisheries workers are losing touch with our most important values.

Small attention

Nichol set a standard that deserves to be honoured. But three weeks after his death, if you look for a record of his story you'd be hard pressed to find it. The B.C. media didn't note his passing. Even the website of the Canadian Auto Workers union, which the UFAWU joined under Nichol's leadership in 1996, offers no mention of him. The only substantial online tribute came from Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs, who for 12 years edited the UFAWU's newspaper, The Fisherman.

After the memorial service, those who really do remember milled about, chatted with Jack's family, and perused the many photographs of Nichol -- at the CKNW Orphan's Fund herring sale on the New Westminster docks, on a tour of Soviet fish plants with a photo of Vladimir Lenin in the background, speaking to a group of disconsolate Canfisco workers crowding the roof of a shack during a wildcat strike in 1978.

In time, friends of Jack Nichol slowly filtered out into the late afternoon light. Towering Jack Munro sat on the hood of a Toyota Echo smoking a cigarette. The car didn't look big enough to contain him.

People walked down Triumph Street and up toward Pandora, past garment manufacturers and film sets, past Big K Brand Clothing and a Paramount tractor trailer. "We all know that our time comes, and we think about the people that come before us," Hewison had told them. Sometimes we do, because it matters for us to show our respect, and to remember how we got here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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