There will be a memorial on March 4 at Vancouver’s Maritime Labour Centre for Frank Kennedy. B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair and MP Libby Davies will be among those honouring one of the great trade unionists and civic leaders that I have known.
Frank Kennedy’s death leaves a hollow spot in my political soul, because we just don’t seem to be making leaders of his calibre these days. Frank won’t be remembered for lobbying governments or administrating the union while a battle raged outside his door. He took the labour movement head on into the fights that mattered, and he had a unique ability and passion for linking labour with community and social movements.
Frank was a longshoreman and a product of the burly, radical rank and file union movement on the Vancouver waterfront. He learned his politics from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) — the union of Harry Bridges in which every labour fight was part of a larger political struggle, and in which political goals like peace and social justice was also daily business for the union. In the 1960s Frank became the ILWU’s Canadian Area secretary treasurer and was a key player in the union’s struggles for three decades.
It was his role at the Vancouver and District Labour Council where Frank left his most enduring legacy. In 1968 he was chairperson of the VDLC’s Metropolitan Advisory Committee that coordinated the labour movement’s civic politics. Frank convened and chaired the conference that created the Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) which went on to shape progressive politics in Vancouver for 40 years. At various times, Frank was President of COPE, a candidate and a negotiator with the Civic NDP and others over the “labour slate” that elected majorities to Vancouver City Council, School Board and Park Board.
At the beginning of the 80s, Frank was President of the Labour Council. It was a new era, marked by Reaganism, the threat of nuclear war and the expansion of the arms race. In 1981 the VDLC worked with peace movement organizations to found the End the Arms Race Coalition (EAR) and Frank became its President, a position he held for many years. EAR organized Vancouver’s annual peace marches that continued for over a decade — bringing 100,000 and more into the streets several times.
In 1983, the Vancouver Labour Council, under Kennedy’s leadership, was a key source of activism in B.C.. Meetings were scenes of passionate debate, usually resulting in a decision to organize solidarity or take action. The VDLC’s Unemployment Action Centre was a focal point of mobilization and organizing.
By the time the Social Credit government was ready to bring down its infamous budget in July 1983, the VDLC’s Unemployment Committee, chaired by Fishermen’s Union leader George Hewison, had already called a meeting for the day after to respond. Fifty organizations showed up and called the first demonstration in the movement that would become Operation Solidarity and the Solidarity Coalition.
Operation Solidarity and its coalition partners made labour history in B.C. until IWA President Jack Munro and Premier Bill Bennett struck the famous “Kelowna Accord” to bring an end to the movement. In 1984, in the aftermath of Kelowna, the labour movement needed accountability, and Frank Kennedy ran against Art Kube for President of the B.C. Federation of Labour. Frank led on the first ballot, but lost on the second ballot with 617 votes to Art Kube’s 780 votes.
These were events and times that shaped a generation of labour and political activism in British Columbia. They are unthinkable without towering individuals like Frank Kennedy in the trade union movement.
It was in 1995 that Frank, still President of End the Arms Race, and his wife Lou offered up their cherished 35 foot wooden cruiser, The Dove, to lead a peace expedition to meet military commanders at the Canadian naval base at Nanoose Bay, north of Nanaimo. Aboard The Dove was a group of local First Nations leaders, and following behind there was a small group of boats from the “Whiskey Gulf Yacht Club” — fishers and boaters opposed to a large prohibited zone in Georgia Straight known as Whiskey Gulf where weapons testing was carried out.
As they approached, a large zodiac with a steel bow came out of the base towards them, and didn’t slow down. It rammed The Dove, puncturing a sizable hole in the hull just above the water line. Lou captured the whole episode on video. Some wanted Frank to use the incident for publicity and legal actions, but he wasn’t much interested in that. What counted for Frank was what they did for peace that day, and getting The Dove repaired.
We have a new generation of labour leaders emerging today who face very different times and challenges, and who must found, build and lead movements in a new way. We will do well if some of them are made of the same stuff as Frank Kennedy.