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David Fairey on the history of the Trade Union Research Bureau

Photo: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

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A special event was held at the Vancouver and District Labour Council last week to commemorate the history and contributions of the Trade Union Research Bureau. After 75 years of professional, high-quality and passionate service to the labour movement (on everything from costing collective agreements to managing pension plan databases to conceiving and executing issue-based political campaigns), TURB has now concluded its operations. David Fairey, who was its last director, will continue to provide consulting services to unions in B.C. and elsewhere from his new office in Burnaby (Labour Consulting Services, david@labourconsultingservices.com). He has prepared a very interesting and important summary of TURB's history, which I present below as a guest blog entry.

TURB was important in my own personal development as a left-wing economist: while I was a student at the University of Calgary in the early 1980s, I became aware of TURB's existence. I sought out and met Emil and David, and stayed in touch with them over the years. I was thrilled to learn that someone could actually make a living as a left/labour economist (even in such a specialized and unique setting), and this knowledge helped influence my own decision to choose economics as my discipline. While I never ended up working for TURB, I give them due credit for my subsequent career developments.

I also want to point out that David Fairey was one of the handful of left economists who first came together in 1998 to found the Progressive Economics Forum, and he served on the PEF Steering Committee for several years thereafter.

So my thanks, both personal and political, go to Emil, David, and all the other great labour economists who made TURB what it was. Here now is David's history:


A Brief History of the Trade Union Research Bureau

by David Fairey

December 31, 2012 marks the end of a unique organization closely associated with the labour and progressive social movements of British Columbia for over 75 years. On that date the doors of Trade Union Research Bureau were permanently closed.

TURB was probably the first, and the longest surviving independent labour research organization in Canada. Although Trade Union Research Bureau was formed in late 1945 through the partnership of its first Director Bert Marcuse, a Statistician, Emil Bjarnason, an Economist, and Eric Bee an Auditor, its origins actually go back to around 1937 when the San Francisco based Pacific Coast Labor Bureau established a branch office on the 14th floor of the Dominion Bank Building at 207 West Hastings Street in Vancouver.

The U.S. Pacific Coast Labor Bureau was established in San Francisco in 1920 by Henry Melnikow, a labour economist who had graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1916 and studied at the Sorbonne in France after serving there in the First World War. By 1941 the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau had branches or representatives in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Portland Oregon, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. In that year it changed its name to the National Labor Bureau, and by 1944 was reported to have served about 600 unions since 1920, had a client list of 500 unions in both the AFL and CIO, and a permanent staff of 75 economists, lawyers, accountants and secretaries.

The first Director of the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau in Vancouver was John Wigdor, he was later joined by Bert Marcuse who took over as Director in 1941. Emil Bjarnason joined the Bureau in 1945 after working as the Chief Statistician for the Mobilization Section of the Department of Labour during the Second World War. In December 1945 the Vancouver Bureau staff of Bert Marcuse, Emil Bjarnason and Eric Bee negotiated the purchase of the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau branch in Vancouver from the National Labor Bureau in the U.S. for $500 on condition that the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau name would no longer be used. The purchase took effect January 1, 1946 and on that date the Vancouver organization was re-named Trade Union Research Bureau. In April 1946 the three Vancouver principals of TURB entered into a partnership agreement to own and operate the Bureau for the purpose of "performing public relations work and providing economic service for trade unions and providing auditing and accounting service for trade unions and co-operatives."

In 1947 Bert Marcuse and Emil Bjarnason were members of the Economic Research Committee of the Canadian Congress of Labour. Bert Marcuse remained as Director of TURB until the late 1940's when he left to work in broadcasting for a brief period of time, returning to TURB around 1951 or 1952. In May 1954 Bert Marcuse left the Bureau again to re-enter university and train for a new career in Social Work.

Emil Bjarnason took over as Director in the late 1940s and stayed with the Bureau in that capacity until he retired in 1989, having been with the Bureau for a total of 44 years. Emil had a BA from the University of British Columbia, a Master's degree from Queen's University (obtained in 1966), and a Doctorate in Economics from Simon Fraser University which he obtained in 1975.

Since its formation TURB provided a wide range of technical, advocacy and administrative services including job analysis, arbitration and conciliation, collective agreement negotiation and collective bargaining research, statistical analysis and surveys, productivity studies, union organizational studies, publicity, education, accounting and auditing, pension and welfare plan design, costing and administration, and from about 1972 to 2004 pioneered computerized member records and data processing.

Over the 75 years of its existence the Bureau underwent several transformations reflecting changes in the West Coast labour and social movements it served, the issues that these movements focused on, and the expertise that several generations of staff brought to the Bureau. And in this time frame TURB extended the scope of its services, connections and partnerships to organizations across the country, from Victoria to Toronto, and from the B.C. maritime and resource extraction industries to the manufacturing, construction, public health, education, government service, public utility and transportation sectors.

After experiencing many lean income years in the 1950s as a result of the turmoil in the labour movement in the early Cold War years and attacks on the left leadership of many of the Canadian Congress of Labour/CIO unions, especially the International Woodworkers of America which in the 1940s accounted for about 40% of the Bureau's work, TURB survived into the 1960s, expanded its clientele and services in the late 1960s and early 1970s to include public sector unions and the first computerization of union membership and financial data, and slowly recovered over the next 30 years until in the late 1980s and early 1990s it had of staff of 10 or 11.

TURB was prominent in many trade union and community struggles, it wrote and published leaflets and information materials on current social and economic problems, it wrote about those struggles and assisted unions in recording their histories, it advocated for better employment standards and labour laws, and it devoted staff time and office resources to many social justice causes: women's rights, tenants rights, Cuban and Nicaraguan solidarity and support, the BC Peace Council, the World Peace Forum, the Canada Asia Pacific Resource Network, the fight to defend and restore democracy in Spain and Chile, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

In the 1970s and 1980s TURB guided many unions through and around wage controls legislation such as the federal Anti Inflation Board and provincial Compensation Stabilization Program. It also contributed greatly to the campaign for pay equity in the 1990s by publishing, together with the Women's Resource Centre, the popular periodical Just Wages, and assisted several public sector unions in negotiating and arbitrating pay equity programs.

Over the years TURB published or co-published numerous booklets, pamphlets, studies, reports and histories, most notably "The Case of the Dwindling Dollar", "The Case of the Tearful Tycoon", "Who Owns BC", "What Price Gold", "The Gold River Story", "The Mackenzie Story", the series "Economic Facts", and "Work and Wages", an account of the life and times of mine workers union leader and On-to-Ottawa Trek leader Arthur "Slim" Evans.

TURB's offices were always in or near buildings occupied by unions. In January 1949 the Bureau moved from the Dominion Bank Building into office space in the Marine Workers Building at 339 West Pender Street. In December 1962 the Bureau moved into office space in the Fisherman's Union Hall at 138 East Cordova Street. In January 1982 TURB opened a second office for research staff in the Rankin & Co. law offices at 195 Alexander Street. And in 1987 TURB was persuaded by the ILWU Local 500 officers to consolidate its two offices into one and become one of the first tenants in the Maritime Labour Centre at 111 Victoria Drive. From its inception TURB's staff were themselves unionized under collective agreements with either the Office and Technical Employees Union, the Canadian Office and Professional Employees, or the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers.

After Emil Bjarnason's retirement in 1989 David Fairey assumed the Directorship position having joined TURB in 1973 after graduating with a Master's degree in Labour Economics from the University of British Columbia. From 1989 onward the TURB partnership was comprised of Susan Lockhart who had been with the Bureau since 1977, Ted Byrne who had been with the Bureau since 1987, and Robert Campbell who had worked in the Bureau's computer department from 1984 to 2004.

From its inception TURB became the de facto research department for a number of B.C.-based unions, such as the International Woodworkers in the 1940s, the Marine Workers and Boilermakers Union, the United Fish and Allied Workers Union, the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers in B.C., initially Locals of and later the Canadian Area office of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada, the Grainworkers Union at Port of Vancouver terminal elevators, and periodically some of the major construction unions such as Carpenters, Electrical Workers and Plumbers Metal Trades Division, several municipal Locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Locals of the International Fire Fighters Association throughout B.C., and the Vancouver and District Labour Council.

A indication of the respect that many unions had for the expertise and integrity of TURB was the trust given to the Bureau to conduct internal organizational reviews for a number of large unions in several provinces, including two large locals of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Ontario, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union, the Hospital Employees Union in B.C., and the United Nurses of Alberta.

In addition to offering diverse services to its labour and social movement clients the Trade Union Research Bureau over many years established partnerships with a number of independent researchers and academic associates, provided free research and information support to volunteer groups, community organizations and solidarity networks, sponsored Labour Research Forums and Public Pensions Forums, and venues for speakers and discussion groups on topical labour relations issues. It also maintained close links with Labour Councils, national labour education and training networks, and labour Studies Programs at local colleges and universities.

Since the opening the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) in 1997 the Trade Union Research Bureau worked closely with the CCPA on a number of research projects focused on labour, employment, economic security, and participatory municipal budgeting, and Director David Fairey has been a CCPA Research Associate and member of the CCPA's Research Advisory Committee.

Regular collaborators with TURB on projects included labour historian Dr. John Price, labour and public policy analyst Dr. John Calvert, labour researcher Anne Burger, accountant and auditor Chris Shelton, and communications freelancer and radio broadcaster Dan Keeton.

Many outstanding and talented activists from the labour and social movements have worked for TURB over the years, including Sidney Zlotnik in the late 1940s, long time secretary Rosaleen Ross, a veteran of the international brigades and blood transfusion teams formed by Dr. Norman Bethune during the Spanish Civil War; labour journalist, historian and educator Ben Swankey in the 1960s; community campaigner Bruce Yorke in the 1960s and 1970s who went on to become a COPE City Councilor; Eunice Parker, a former Coquitlam School Trustee and City Councilor; researcher Chris Allnutt who went on to become the Secretary Business Manager of the Hospital Employees Union and then Project Director for the Rainforest Solutions Project; labour journalist Fred Wilson who went on to become assistant to the national president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union; Paul Bjarnason who went on to become a staff representative for the Office and Professional Employees Union Local 15 and then Canadian Office and Professional Employees Locals 15 and 378; Diana Gibson who went on to become research coordinator for the Parkland Institute in Alberta; Seth Klein who went on to become the B.C. Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Carole Cameron, Diane Jolly and Tania Jarzebiak who went on to join the National staff of the Canadian Union of Public Employees; Pedro Bagon who is an organizer and advocate for migrant workers in the Filipino community; Susan Lockhart who was a researcher and office administrator for 35 years, and Ted Byrne who was a job evaluation consultant and advocate for 25 years.

TURB's close and continuous association with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in BC began at the time of the formation of the ILWU in the early 1940s. For close to 70 years TURB provided collective bargaining research, collective agreement costing, and pension and welfare plan design, costing, administration and technical advisory services for most of its bargaining units and locals. Emil Bjarnason's Doctoral thesis of 1975 examined as to whether the groundbreaking Mechanization and Modernization Agreement of 1963 had been a successful adaptation of collective bargaining to the problem of mechanization and job security in the BC longshoring industry. He found through statistical and productivity analysis that the trade-off of restrictive work rules to maximize work for employment guarantees and certain monetary benefits under the M&M Agreement had been mutually beneficial to both Longshoremen and Employers. Emil also played an important support and advisory role in the successful implementation of joint control of the Waterfront Industry Pension Plan in 1959 after the historic Longshore strike of 1958. And he continued to play a key advisory role for the Union trustees of the plan for the next 20 years until his retirement in 1989.

Photo: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

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