Abbotsford farmworkers tragedy part of new labour history book

Labour beat reporter Rod Mickleburgh tells B.C.’s story of labour struggles

Packed shoulder-to-shoulder on wooden benches, 16 farmworkers were driven east down Highway 1 towards Chilliwack early one rainy March morning 11 years ago. Their ride, a nine-year-old Dodge van, had poorly maintained tires, no seatbelts and was helmed by an unqualified driver.

As the van crossed the Sumas Way overpass, it strayed right. The driver steered left, over-corrected and flipped the van onto the centre median.

Three women – Sarbjit Kaur Sidhu, Amarjit Bal and Sukhvinder Kaur Punia – died. The 14 remaining passengers were all injured.

The tragedy was, in part, the result of reduced farm safety and vehicle inspection standards under the premiership of BC Liberal Gordon Campbell, according to the author of a new book about the history of B.C.’s labour movement.

“What was found was the van they were riding in was basically a horror show of an accident waiting to happen,” said Rod Mickleburgh.

The former labour reporter chronicles the ensuing fight for stronger regulations led by the victims’ families and the B.C Federation of Labour in “On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement.” Mickleburgh said the largely successful drive to improve working conditions for agricultural workers is one of many examples in the book of the labour movement serving non-unionized workers as well as union members.

While the book largely concentrates on more than a century of workers’ struggles to form, strike and negotiate for better pay, conditions and benefits, he said it also has several examples of efforts made to improve workplace health and safety.

“It’s still a constant struggle to make sure that when a worker goes to work, he or she comes back at the end of the day,” Mickleburgh said.

On the Line also includes the story of Grant’s Law – the regulations brought in to protect gas station attendants following the 2005 death of Grant De Patie in Maple Ridge while trying to stop a “gas-and-dash” thief.

Mickleburgh said labour struggles are about more than unions fighting for the interest of their members.

“It’s for society at large and all workers,” he said.

Unions fought for benefits now afforded to most workers, including the eight-hour workday, holiday pay and pensions, he said.

“Not one employer gave up those willingly,” Mickleburgh said. “They had to be fought for and they were resistant every step of the way.”

The book includes stories of First Nations people fighting for fishing and hunting rights stripped by the colonial government and subsequent battles, right up to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation Supreme Court victory to restore contract clauses defining class size and composition limits.

Mickleburgh said the book is about more than labour battles of yesteryear. It also makes the case for the necessity of ongoing strong unions and labour movements today.

“You still hear from people ‘Oh, yeah. Unions were good in the old days but now we don’t need them’ … [But] it’s a constant struggle because employers never cease; they’re always trying to pay their workers less and roll back conditions because it increases their profits and that’s the nature of the system.”

The book, set for release on April 28, was commissioned by the BC Labour Heritage Centre with sponsorship by the Community Savings Credit Union, which was originally formed by members of the International Woodworkers of America union.

– with files from Dan Ferguson


@KelvinGawley
kelvin.gawley@abbynews.com

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