In the summer of 1983, Art Kube emerged from labour’s backrooms to galvanize one of the largest, most broad-based and protracted protest movements in Canadian history. For four months, under his Operation Solidarity banner, unions representing hundreds of thousands of workers and community groups across British Columbia joined forces to fight legislation brought in by Premier Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government that made breathtaking changes to long-standing rights in the province. On a single day, 26 bills were put forward that shut down the B.C. Human Rights Commission, abolished rent reviews, allowed landlords to evict tenants at will, essentially eliminated the Employment Standards Branch, stripped B.C. government employees of their ability to negotiate much more than wages and benefits and gave public-sector employers the right to fire workers without cause. The resulting pushback brought the province to the verge of an all-out general strike.
At the head of it all was Mr. Kube, who died Feb. 10 at the age of 84. Although the wheels of Operation Solidarity fell off at the end, few blamed Mr. Kube. When the escalating strike was called off after a dramatic late-night meeting between Mr. Bennett and forest-union leader Jack Munro at the Premier’s residence in Kelowna, Mr. Kube was home in bed, suffering from pneumonia and emotionally spent from months of pressure. Over the phone to Mr. Munro in Kelowna, Mr. Kube famously advised his colleague to “get the hell out of there” rather than secure an agreement that provided little. His advice was ignored – a decision backed by other union leaders who wanted to end the turmoil.
Nevertheless, the great massing of extraparliamentary opposition through that summer and into the fall made Art Kube a household name. It was a tour de force few expected from the stolid trade unionist. When the avalanche of legislation came down, he had been on the job mere days as interim president of the BC Federation of Labour, replacing the tough, able Jim Kinnaird, who died in office. Regional education director for the Canadian Labour Congress, Mr. Kube was a compromise choice, with a reputation as an effective organizer and behind-the-scenes fixer. However, he was short on charisma, with the clipped accent of his German-Polish heritage, and a stubborn, independent streak that did not always endear him to others, and he had never held elected union office. Now he was faced with a series of attacks on basic social and union rights that had rarely, if ever, been seen in this country.
Still, Mr. Kube was confident. He felt he had been preparing for such a task all his working life. From his arrival in Edmonton as a young working-class immigrant from Europe to his many years with the CLC, Mr. Kube had thrown himself into union work, while broadening his commitment to the community at large. He was part of myriad progressive co-ops, clinics and institutions aimed at the betterment of society and the working class. Mr. Kube was among those who founded the renowned union-sponsored Sault Ste. Marie Community Health Group in the days before universal medicare. In B.C, he engineered a trailblazing partnership between the labour movement and the United Way, serving a term as president and many years on the board. He also set up what is still considered the best union education program in the country and devised a first-of-its-kind labour-RCMP liaison team to increase understanding between union members and police.
At the helm of Operation Solidarity, Mr. Kube proved a surprisingly adept leader and strategist, beginning with his choice of its potent name, reminiscent of Solidarnosc, the powerful union that was challenging the repressive government in his native Poland at the time. Mr. Kube encouraged all unions to join Operation Solidarity, regardless of whether they belonged to the BC Federation of Labour and, most significantly, he used his extensive community contacts to unite all those who opposed the Socreds into a large, diverse, affiliated group known as the Solidarity Coalition, funded by Operation Solidarity. There had never been anything like Mr. Kube’s wide union-community coalition. His shrewd moves gave the movement credibility and enormous grassroots energy.
Record crowds showed up at protests and demonstrations across B.C., there were work-site occupations and in November, when the government didn’t buckle, Operation Solidarity launched its public-sector action plan. With 40,000 government employees already on strike, 33,000 teachers walked out, followed by thousands of other education workers and employees of Crown corporations. Another 100,000 employees, including ferry workers, bus drivers and health-care workers were poised to swell their ranks, when peace was declared. The government did back down on its anti-union bills, but this partial victory was lost in the disappointment over the coalition’s failure to achieve anything on human rights and other social issues. “The difficulty was that the exit strategy wasn’t well formed,” Mr. Kube reflected, years later. “We should have just declared victory and then called it off.”
After those tumultuous few months, Mr. Kube slipped from the headlines, stepping down as Federation president in 1986 and returning to the CLC. He retired in 1993. While Operation Solidarity secured his place in history, it was only a brief chapter in a lifetime devoted to improving the quality of life for people.
Arthur Alexander Kube was born Jan. 9, 1935, in the Polish textile town of Zyrardow, the second of two boys. His father, Wilhelm, was a butcher and his mother, Clara, a seamstress. His first memory was of German Stukas dive-bombing nearby Warsaw. As the Soviet Red Army advanced across Poland in 1944, his mother, a German Pole, managed to escape with her two sons on a harrowing train journey through Poland and war-torn Germany to Vienna. Mr. Kube vividly recalled seeing not a single building standing as they passed slowly through Berlin.
After the war, Mr. Kube’s father, who had stayed in Poland, was sent to Siberia, leaving Art and his brother to be raised in Vienna by their mother, whose support for unions and social democracy had a profound influence on her younger son. Apprenticed as a sheet-metal fabricator, Mr. Kube was hired on a Canadian Pacific passenger liner that journeyed between Bremerhaven, Germany, and Quebec City. On a whim, he wandered into the Canadian city’s immigration office. Mr. Kube loved to tell what happened next. “I asked if I could come to Canada. The guy asked where I was born. I said ‘Poland’. He looked at his sheets and said, ‘Our Polish quota isn’t filled. You’re in.’ ” He was 19.
With barely $20 in his pocket, Mr. Kube headed to Edmonton, where he had a relative. In 1955, he went north for two years to make some money and improve his English by working on the Distant Early Warning system. Back in Edmonton, Mr. Kube began his long involvement in the labour movement, using his language skills to help organize immigrant-heavy industrial plants for the United Steelworkers of America. He was fired numerous times by anti-union bosses.
In 1960, the Steelworkers lured him to Sudbury. He threw himself into their fierce raiding war to take union control of the nickel city from the Communist-led Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. There he met Marie Claire (Mary) Duchêne, a feisty franco-Ontarian who warned him on their first date that she was sticking with Mine, Mill.
The two overcame that initial hiccup to spend the next 56 years together, raising two daughters and a son, plus a daughter from her previous marriage.
Mr. Kube’s talents were soon recognized by the CLC, who scooped him up to organize and negotiate for workers in Northern Ontario. Early on, he demonstrated his flair for going beyond bread-and-butter trade unionism by negotiating the first profit-sharing mining agreement in Canada. He also put his imprint on co-operative and community institutions aimed at softening the harsh edges of capitalism, an unwavering dedication forged in the European social democracy of his youth. He remained a tireless force in retirement, serving as long-time president of the 100,000 member Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of BC and as a seniors advocate for medicare and mature adult health.
“Someone told me that whenever they saw Art coming in, they knew they had to write a cheque,” his wife, Mary, said. Explained Mr. Kube: “Bricks and mortar are not my cup of tea. I prefer money for programs.” In 2015, he was named a member of the Order of Canada. The citation said “he played a pivotal role in [the] struggle to make our country more progressive and equitable.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Kube leaves his daughters, Sandra, Susan and Jennifer; son, Daniel; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.