'We would have followed him through the walls': Remembering Jack Munro

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Photo: Joshua Berson

A presence -- that's the word almost everyone uses to describe Jack Munro.

The former Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada (IWA) president, who passed away last week at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer, had a big presence -- both physically and figuratively.

He was known for his towering, 6'5" frame and his forceful and obscenity laden presentation style.

When Stephen Hunt, then a young member of the United Steelworkers (USW), first saw him almost 30 years ago at a B.C. Federation of Labour convention he was bowed by Munro’s force of will. "I was convinced at the time that this was the guy to follow," Hunt said. "We would have followed him through the walls if he had asked us too."

Munro’s dedication to the labour movement started at a young age, when he dropped out of high school and worked in the forestry industry as a welder and later a millwright, eventually rising through the ranks of IWA to become president in 1973.

He led the union through several tough collective agreement negotiations, some that saw workers on the picket lines for weeks, if not months.

His dedication to protecting the rights of workers in IWA was always strong, even if it occasionally rubbed other people the wrong way. He made no secret of his dislike for pulp unions, who he believed benefited off the bargaining efforts of the IWA. In a 1992 profile of Munro in The Province, the then president of the Canadian Paperworkers Union told the paper that if he commented on Munro, "it would be entirely negative."

Munro was also criticized for his role in ending the B.C. Solidarity strike that opposed a Social Credit restraint plan. Some at the time felt he had sold out by agreeing to the spoken deal with Premier Bill Bennett. The so-called Kelowna Accord was later reneged.

However, those that disagreed with Munro could still find something to admire.

"You never had to worry about what Jack Munro was thinking," said George Heyman, an NDP MLA for Vancouver-Fairview. "He wore it on his sleeve."

Heyman first became acquainted with Munro when they worked together to establish a labour heritage centre in B.C. The two sometimes clashed over sustainable logging practices and the role unions played in committing to sustainable jobs.

"We were able to communicate very clearly [with each other]. As a result of that I think had a respectful relationship."

When the IWA merged with USW in 2004, Hunt -- who by then was a Director of Western Canada in the union -- called Munro to ask him to become honorary president of SOAR, USW’s organization of active retirees.

"Jack was around but he was at a point where I think he wasn't sure what his role was anymore," said Hunt. "He'd long been very tired; a lot of people may have forgotten him. But one of the first things I did was call him and say, 'look, IWA has joined USW, and that means you're a steel worker now.'" 

"He was happy to do that and did a wonderful job."

While Munro will always be remembered for his tough, no-nonsense demeanor, there were other sides to the man.

Hunt remembers Munro sharing that he used to wait every Christmas for a local charity group to deliver a Christmas tree. "His dad passed away when he was [11], and his mom raised his family and they were poor."

"He told that story, and I remember fondly thinking that I never even thought he was born a kid,"laughed Hunt as he recalled the story. "I always thought he was just big Jack."

Photo: Joshua Berson 

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