The Work : GOOD PAY, GOOD WORK, GOOD UNION
Group Photo of Ladies of the IODE in front of St. Christopher's church, Mesachie Lake, BC
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The IWA motto Good Pay, Good Work, Good Union rings true today as it did in the early 1900's. Unions were instrumental in the fight for safe working conditions and fair wages in the Cowichan logging camps and continue to fight on behalf of the men and women that work in the forestry industry today.
For loggers, safety in the forests was life or death; they worked long hours and the nearest hospital, usually in Duncan, was far from the camps. For an injured man this was miles of bumpy and pitted roads before receiving help. Prior to government legislation and union support, the camps were hazardous places for the men often lacking even a first aid kit. One logger recalled a supervisor finishing his lunch before arranging transportation for an injured man. Another recalled an injured logger being hefted into a flatcar and taken log-like to the hospital.
Injuries were common and the entire camp would stop when the misery whistle blew six blasts, indicating an injury. Hats would come off when the whistle blew seven times and the camp had to bury one of their own. A falling snag or a widow maker could easily and indiscriminately take out a buckwheater or an old timer.
Early camp conditions were also often horrendous. Men, as many as 40, could be crammed into unlit, poorly heated bunkhouses with no area to dry their wet clothes. Loggers wives recall men returning from the camps covered, head to toe, in bed bug bites.
Wages were also very low and with room and board, a couple of drinks with the boys and maintaining work clothing there was very little left over after draw day. In Camp 6 in 1933, a logger might make $2.50 a day in wage with board rates running $1.00 or $1.50 a day. Transportation across the Lake back home to the family would cost $6.00 return.
Poor working conditions, low wages and alarming accident rates made the logging industry ripe for a union. In 1918, a small and short-lived strike starting in the Geneo Bay Lumber Company in the Cowichan hit the coastal forest industry. The camp owners, in retaliation for these early union skirmishes, created the BC Loggers Association in 1919. In the same year, they set up the Loggers Employment Agency in Vancouver. The camps required all loggers to register with the agency, who would then assign the men to camps across the province. The agency kept a black list of loggers who were suspected of being active in the union and by 1922, 1500 names were on this list. Black listed loggers were barred from working in the camps though some got around this by changing their names.
Poster in response to 1934 strike
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In 1934, the first significant union struggle erupted in the BC logging industry with a general strike. In 1936, a second large-scale strike starting in the V.L. & M. Camp 10 spread quickly across the Cowichan. Both strikes ended quickly with minor wage increases, but not the union recognition that organizers hoped for.
Strike organizers, realizing that to sustain the strike they needed to find housing for the bachelor loggers that had been tossed out of the striking camp, set up a picket camp. They purchased bunkhouses from an abandoned mill, dismantled and then reassembled them on land owned by one of the strike organizers. The camp became union headquarters and later was converted into an area used for dances and parties.
During the strikes, community support was strong for the loggers. Gordon's Store in Lake Cowichan continued to offer striking loggers and their family food and supplies on credit and a Ladies auxiliary had been formed by wives of the loggers to support the strikes. The auxiliary raised money through social events and fed and clothed the striking men.
In 1937, the Cowichan area joined the fledgling International Woodworkers of America (IWA) and during the war years support for the union grew quickly. In 1946, a BC wide strike crippled the industry with 37,000 wood workers joining the protest. The strike lasted 37 days and cemented the unions' position in the industry.
Today, IWA Local 1-80, the union that covers Duncan and Cowichan woodworkers still acts as an important part of the community. The union, which recently became a division of the United Steelworkers of America, in addition to continuing to protect the rights of the forest workers, organized the logger sports during annual sports day. It also offers scholarships for children of the union members and organizes summer picnics to bring its members together.