The British Columbia Government Service and Employees Union got its start right here in Prince George.
It was in 1969, at a convention of the BC Government Employees’ Association in Prince George, that the BCGEU was established and launched a campaign for bargaining rights. By 1974, the BCGEU was certified as the exclusive bargaining agent for all provincial government employees.
That part of Prince George’s history is now commemorated on a plaque outside the new BCGEU offices on Quebec Street.
“(In 1969) right here in Prince George, a brand new union was born,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith.
The convention, she said was a bit of a raucous affair as the delegates debated, for more than two hours, whether to call themselves a union or an association.
“John Fryer, who was the secretary, summed up the debate this way, ‘if you walk like duck and you talk like a duck, call yourself a duck,’” Smith told about 40 people gathered for the plaque unveiling Tuesday afternoon.
It was a close vote, 62-51, but delegates voted to be a union rather than an association.
“Once that resolution passed, the delegates fully embraced the idea the becoming a full trade union and trying to actually achieve bargaining rights, which we didn’t have in the province of British Columbia,” Smith said.
The public sector remains the BCGEU’s largest bargaining unit with about 26,000 members, she said, however the union, overall, represents 72,000 workers throughout the province in every economic sector. That was the reasoning behind adding ‘service’ to the union’s name.
The union has 2,500 members in the Prince George area.
“We’re a modern and forward-looking union,” she said. “But never to forget our history and our roots.”
The plaques are part of the BC Labour Heritage Centre’s Remembering Working People: Plaques Around the Province project which aims to recognize events, actions, episodes, movements, or experiences that played a significant role in the history of the labour movement and working people in all regions of British Columbia.
Also on hand to help with the plaque unveiling was Aaron Ekman, treasurer for the B.C. Federation of Labour and BC Labour Heritage Centre board member.
Ekman said the B.C. Labour Heritage Centre is working on several projects highlighting the history of the labour movement in British Columbia, including plaque placements, videos, and a book, coming out in 2017.
“Turns out there a whole lot of labour history in B.C.,” said Ekman.
The bronze plaques have been cast in a unionized foundry in Richmond, which has operated since 1928. Ekman said they have identified about 150 locations around the province where they want to erect plaques.
“They honour not just the organizations, but the individuals who played a significant roles in their community to advance the rights of workers and union,” Ekman said.