The making of a labour activist: James W. Orr, Saint John, New Brunswick, 1936-2009

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University of New Brunswick


James W. Orr (1936-2009) was one of a number of rank-and-file labour militants in the city of Saint John, New Brunswick who bore witness to, and had some hand in, a number of upheavals in the local labour movement. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in west Saint John, he came of age at the time of the momentous Canadian Seamen’s Union strike of 1949, which had a permanent impact on his outlook. Leaving school at sixteen to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway, he then joined the navy before going on to become a lifelong union man on the docks. As a member of Local 1764, International Longshoremen’s Association, he helped lead the 1974 strike against the Maritime Employers’ Association. He was one of the organizers of the 1976 Saint John General Strike on 14 October against the federal government’s wage controls. Orr was also a key organizer of the 1979 NO CANDU campaign that closed the port in support of civil rights for workers in Argentina. Within the ILA, he helped open union membership for non-union workers on the docks, an effort that cost him his position as a union officer; however, the influx of new blood rejuvenated the ILA and reoriented it in the direction of social unionism. Local 273 went on to replace the archaic shape-up system with a dispatch system while also struggling against the bureaucracy of the international union and for the autonomy of Canadian locals. The object of this study is to rescue Jimmy, or “the Bear” as he was affectionately called, from what the influential social historian E.J. Hobsbawm describes as “the anonymity of the local militant.” This study relies heavily upon oral history, including two interviews completed before Orr’s death, and his personal papers deposited at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.