John Fryer - Tireless fighter for social and economic change

"Not enough can be said about the legacy of social and economic action that John has left the National Union and the labour movement," said Brown. "He will be sadly missed. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends."

Ottawa (03 Nov. 2020) — "It is with great sadness that we have to say goodbye to our colleague and friend John Fryer," said Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). "He spent the majority of his life fighting for the rights of workers and being at the forefront of advocating for social change."

Fryer worked for the AFL-CIO and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) before launching a 21-year career in public sector unionism, first as a General Secretary of the B.C. Government Employees' Union (1969–83) and then as President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (1981–90).

Mr. Fryer was awarded the Order of Canada and was given the Gérard Dion award for outstanding contributions to Canadian labour-management relations.

 

photo of John Fryer

 

photo of John Fryer
Norman T. Richard, BCGEU President and John Fryer, BCGEU Secretary General at the inaugural convention in 1966.  John Fryer (at podium) flanked by government employees' union representatives from other provinces pledged $3 million to the BCGEU strike fund. The move was in support of the campaign and strike against Bill 3, the contentious Public Sector Restraint Act, which would fire government employees and strip numerous clauses from their collective agreement. (1983)

Fryer's leadership helped usher in social unionism

We are on the threshold of an exciting new beginning, one that will give us the collective strength and resolve to protect the interests of provincial employees across the country. Our new beginning also means we will regularly and vigorously confront the many difficult and complex problems our members face everyday.  In short:  we intend to act in the future as Canada's fastest-growing union. — Fryer introducing the NUPGE Task Force report in April 1981.

Under Fryer's leadership, the National Union moved away from concentrating on relatively narrow internal issues to a much greater emphasis on broader labour and social issues. For example, over the next couple of years, NUPGE found itself acting on such issues as unemployment insurance for adoptive parents, a federal bill on interest rates, support for US air traffic controllers, a submission to a Parliamentary task force on employment opportunities, support for coal miners in Cape Breton and a protest against the selling of CANDU reactors to Argentina.

In October 1981, NUPGE held a national conference on pensions. One month later, NUPGE members from across the country took the National Union's "Spirit of '35" train to Ottawa to participate in the CLC's November 21 Day of Protest against high interest rates. The train — and NUPGE's participation in the demonstration — got extensive media coverage across the country:  

In 1982, Fryer was reelected as President to continue the union's growth and its expanding agenda of working for social change. That Convention also marked the premiere of Good Monday Morning, a film commissioned by NUPGE and produced by Laura Sky on the issue of women and technological change. Over the next 2 years, NUPGE continued to expand its activities, publishing booklets and research reports, presenting briefs to government task forces and committees, participating actively in the national and international labour movements, and supporting the activities of its Components unions by

  • becoming more involved in the peace movement and environmental concern; 
  • speaking out on such issues as South Africa, indexed pensions and unemployment insurance;
  • expanding its influence in the Canadian Labour Congress and Public Services International being actively involved in support activities for other unions for the first-ever joint study and conference on the impact of government cutbacks.

Derek Fudge, former Director of Policy for NUPGE, who was hired by Fryer in 1981 said, "John was a brilliant and complex labour leader and totally full of energy. He had a big personality and was never afraid to say what he thought, even if it was detrimental to his political career. I believe a lot of his success came from a special combination of his intelligence and his rough and tumble British working class roots.

I think we have to reaffirm our commitment to what J.S. Woodsworth said about the social democratic movement in this country: what we desire for ourselves, we wish for all. — NUPGE's Fifth Biennial Convention, May 1, 1984

That NUPGE's "outreach" activities have been successful is reflected in its increased public profile and membership growth through organizing the unorganized and by independent organized groups deciding to join the National Union. In 1985–1986 alone, NUPGE gained nearly 20,000 members, bringing its total membership over the quarter-million mark. 

The growth of the National Union, the fight for full collective bargaining rights, the impact of the Charter, and NUPGE's role within the labour movement continued to be major issues as NUPGE entered its second decade. Fudge commented that Fryer "came to NUPGE when it was a loose federation of mostly provincial employees' associations, and during the decade he served as President he played a lead role in building NUPGE into one of the largest and most dynamic unions in Canada today."

International solidarity essential to workers' rights

It was also under Fryer's tenure that the National Union expanded its participation in the international labour movement, especially through Public Services International (PSI).

In September 1985, the International Labour Organization (ILO) sent its first-ever study and information mission to Canada to investigate NUPGE complaints against the governments of Newfoundland, Alberta and Ontario. The complaints dealt with restrictions on the bargaining rights of provincial employees in the 3 provinces, and the 3-member study mission spent 2 weeks in Canada investigating the situation.

On Nov. 14, the ILO's governing body handed down its verdict, condemning the 3 governments for imposing legislation which unduly restricted workers' bargaining rights as defined by international labour relations standards. Fryer, who was in Geneva when the report was released, hailed it as "a victory for public sector workers and their right to full and free collective bargaining."

Other highlights of NUPGE's achievements under Fryer:

Fall 1985 — NUPGE was one of the first unions to be involved in the South Africa anti-apartheid movement. NUPGE Component membership employed in public liquor stores in 7provinces initiated and led a successful boycott of South African liquor products.

September 1986 — The National Executive Board agrees to have NUPGE be a co-plaintiff in the Nuclear Weapons Action, a project sponsored by the World Federalists of Canada to have nuclear weapons declared illegal under international law.

January 1989 — At the invitation of the Trade Union International of Public and Allied Employees (an international federation of public sector unions primarily from Eastern Bloc countries of Europe), NUPGE sent a study mission to Soviet Union, Hungary, East Germany and Poland to educate public sector unions about Canada’s independent trade union movement and the collective bargaining system in Canada. This was the first Canadian trade union visit to Eastern Europe since the major political and economic changes had taken place that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year.

June 1989 — NUPGE organized the first ever International Trade Union Summit in Vancouver with leaders of public sector unions from Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Participants adopted a comprehensive7-point program to help to protect union members and the public from the transfer of public services to the private sector.

On the frontline of change in Canada

The National Union, with Fryer as President, never shied away from big issues. The National Union was the first union to take a position on the Meech Lake Accord. The National Executive Board voted to oppose the Meech Lake Accord on the Canadian Constitution on the grounds that it would put too much authority in the hands of provincial governments and severely limit the federal government’s ability to undertake new social initiatives.

In June 1990, for the second time in its short history, NUPGE showed leadership in Canada’s constitutional debate. Delegates adopted a NUPGE Policy Statement in Recognition of Quebec’s Need to Protect its Language and Culture.

John Shields, who died in 2017, who was the BCGEU’s second president, wrote this in 1990 about Fryer’s contribution: “As general secretary, he transformed the B.C. Government Employees’ Association from a staff society to the largest labour union in British Columbia. As national president of NUPGE, his leadership has helped shape the character of many of Canada’s public service unions. The footprints of John Fryer are the footprints of a pioneer.”

"Not enough can be said about the legacy of social and economic action that John has left the National Union and the labour movement," said Brown. "He will be sadly missed. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends."

 


NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE