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When Lefty Met Margaret

Working class love story inspires major gift to SFU's labour studies department.

By Tom Sandborn 16 May 2011 |

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy news for the Tyee. He welcomes feedback and story tips here.

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Margaret Morgan has pledged near $2 million for scholarship. Photo courtesy of the BC Civil Liberties Association.

"This is a love story," says BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair. "It's about Margaret and Lefty Morgan's love for each other, and their shared love for other working people."

Seven decades after it began, that love story has a new chapter as Margaret, Lefty Morgan's widow, has made a gift of almost $2 million to Simon Fraser University to help the school expand its labour studies program.

It all started in 1940, when a young bicycle courier fell in love with a dispatcher in his twenties in the office of a Vancouver cartage company. Margaret Morgan was a teenager when she got a job as a courier for Ryan's Cartage, and her future husband "Lefty," a decade older, was a dispatcher at the Ryan's office.

Margaret was careful to emphasize in a conversation with The Tyee that, although she had fallen in love with Lefty on first sight, it wasn't a two-way romance then. Lefty was married to someone else, and she was only 14. It was 18 years later that the two married.

Anarcho-syndicalist cowboy

When he met Margaret, Lefty was already the veteran of adventurous years as a cowboy near Kamloops, and further years as an independent, left-wing labour activist and intellectual during the tumults of the Great Depression. He'd already participated in energetic campaigns against government relief camp conditions, employers, poverty and unemployment. He had already survived being beaten by police who attacked a dock worker's picket line during the notorious Battle of Ballantyne Pier in 1935.

He'd even been forced to change his name because of his political work. He had been active enough participating with unemployed men confined to Depression-era "relief camps" during the 30s that he was, like many other activists, blackballed from the camps. Like many other activists, Lefty had to assume an alias to get back into the camps, to continue his agitation for better conditions. That alias, "Richard Ernest Morgan," stuck with him and became, over time, his legal name.

But no one called him Richard.

Even before his involvement in progressive politics, the young man born in White River, Ontario had acquired the nickname "Lefty" -- later so appropriate to his political leanings -- because he was left-handed.

During the 30s, Lefty was a fixture at the White Lunch Restaurant at Pender and Granville, where labour activists often lingered over a nickel cup of coffee all afternoon, and engaged in fierce debates about theory and practice. Even at that early date, Lefty was critical of what he saw as anti-democratic tendencies within the Canadian Communist party. He expressed a lot of interest in the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World ("Wobblies.")

When Margaret met him at Ryan's, Lefty was applying his boundless energy to inventing improved dispatch procedures for the company and to political discussion with the owner, who at one point agreed enough with Lefty's arguments in favor of workers' control that he made Lefty and three other workers co-owners of the firm. Needless to say, the handsome and colourful young dispatcher made a big impression on a 14-year-old girl.

"I guess you could say it was love at first sight," Margaret said. "I knew right away I wanted to marry him. One of the first things he ever said to me was, 'What are you reading these days?'"

The attractive dispatcher was an avid reader himself, and Margaret credits him with getting her to read "something other than Gone with the Wind."

"Lefty was a very educated man, in a non-school way," Margaret remembers, "and very political."

Endowment grew from back pay settlement

The chance meeting at work eventually led to a life-long romance and partnership in activism that was commemorated this year, by a major bequest to promote a labour studies scholarship at Simon Fraser University. The new money will help the university create the Morgan Centre for Labour Studies.

Margaret, Lefty's partner in left activism and trade union journalism -- herself a veteran of decades of campaigns for peace, civil liberties and human rights -- arranged that upon her death, SFU will take possession of a house and property she and Lefty owned in Deep Cove, property bought after her husband won a wrongful dismissal case against his employer, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later BC Rail) in the 1960s. The three year's back pay that Lefty won in that case (the first time in history a worker had successfully represented himself before the Canadian Railway Office of Arbitration, according to Margaret) came to about $13,000, enough for a substantial down payment on the Deep Cove property.

Margaret clearly enjoys the irony of how a modest sum of money won in a labour arbitration has grown huge in the Lower Mainland's overheated real estate market, and will now fund an expanded program in labour studies at SFU, making it possible in the near future for students to graduate with a BA in labour studies.

"Lefty always said you have to think for yourself," Margaret remembers. "I hope students in the program will learn to do that. We're in hard times again, and I expect that over the next 10 years we'll bottom out and start back up. People will need to be educated about what unions can do."

Although the university has not yet issued a formal press release about the gift, which Jonathan Driver, SFU vice president academic, told The Tyee was "substantial," a small celebration of Margaret's gift (and her and Lefty's joint legacy) was held in February of this year at SFU's downtown campus. It featured a live performance by the Solidarity Notes Labour Choir, a pro-union singing group that counts among its members Dr. Norman Epstein, a retired professor of chemical engineering at UBC who was a friend and political co-worker with the Morgans, at one point joining with them in founding the League for Total Disarmament.

The Morgans and Epstein also collaborated as founding members of the BC Civil Liberties Association nearly 50 years ago.

'He was always human'

"Lefty was a warm, easy going guy," Epstein remembers. "He was always in a good mood, and he never wrote people off, even when he disagreed with them politically. He was always human."

SFU's Driver said that, in anticipation of the benefits from Margaret Morgan's will, Simon Fraser will advance $120,000 a year for program expansion in labour studies. He said this will allow the program to double or triple in size, with the first new instructors being hired for the fall of 2011. Once the university senate and board of governors formally approve the change in the program's name, the university will publicly announce the new Morgan Centre for Labour Studies, probably before summer, he said.

Gary Teeple, current director of SFU's labour studies program, said that the program has been a part of SFU offerings since 1974. He said the new funding will allow a labour studies major to be offered within three to four years.

The enhanced labour studies program at SFU joins a handful of other such programs across North America, with ten currently operating in Canada, and 35 U.S.-based programs listed on the website of the United Association for Labour Education. Business programs are far more prevalent, with 117 MBA programs operating in the U.S. and 30 in Canada.

"Margaret's donation means everything to us," SFU's Teeple said. "Our development was stalled. Now we're not stalled anymore. We can offer the BA, do joint programs with B.C. museums, and form a network of curators who will add labour history components to their museums. Lefty was a real working-class intellectual, who published a book of his own and lots of journalism. This gift is a tribute to him and to other working class scholars."

The BC Fed's Sinclair says that the expanded program at SFU will represent a recognition that workers and their voices are important. It won't just be about history. It will be a place where debates about ideas and the future can take place.

"There have always been some progressive academics who supported workers, but this will help institutionalize that respect for workers and our concerns," he said.

Sinclair noted that both Lefty and Margaret lived long lives of social activism. Margaret was an early member of the Canadian branch of Amnesty International, and she and Lefty were founding members not only of the NDP, but also of the BC Civil Liberties Association. Margaret is still active with Amnesty, as well as serving as the president of the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners.

She remembered that she was attracted to the work of Amnesty International to defend dissidents in the Soviet Union, because she figured that the incorrigibly independent Lefty, if he'd lived in Russia, would have ended up in jail himself, paying that price for his life-long defence of democracy.  [Tyee]

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