James William Orr, also known as “The Bear”, was one of a number of dedicated rank-and-file labour militants in Saint John who bore witness to, and had some hand in, a number of upheavals in the local labour movement. Through his words and actions, James W. Orr became well known as a largely self-taught, principled trade unionist and a fierce defender of the underdog. Orr was unwilling to compromise his beliefs, for in his own words, “either you have principles, or you don’t.” Even in his twilight years, the imposing “Bear” would growl in his gruff voice about an array of union and community issues that he was passionate about. In what little spare time he allowed himself, Jimmy harboured a love of reading, cooking and baseball.
Born on 16 December 1936, Jimmy was the oldest son of Frederick and Norma Orr. He grew up on Rodney Street on the West Side, within sight and sound of the city’s port. He came from a union family with several relatives, his father included, working for the Canadian Pacific Railway operations at the port. The industrial warfare on the docks during the Canadian Seamen’s Union strike in 1949, which he witnessed firsthand, also deeply affected his understanding of the struggles facing workers.
Orr first started working at a bakery while skipping out on his high school classes. He began his first formal employment at the CPR as a messenger a week before his sixteenth birthday, when his public education was no longer compulsory. The young Orr immediately joined the Sand Point Lodge of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees and was an avid attender of union meetings. He soon attracted attention as a young worker who insisted upon reading all available union documents and always wanted to ask questions.
In 1953, Jimmy Orr joined the Royal Canadian Navy on his seventeenth birthday. He served briefly at sea, but was discharged in 1955 on medical grounds due to tuberculosis of the spine. He was confined to a hospital until 1957. During this time, Jimmy managed to escape from hospital in East Saint John and to smuggle himself into another hospital in Moncton, where, after no small amount of fuss, he received spinal fusion surgery and recovered.
Back at work, Orr was given a desk job at the CPR and took a typing course at the local business college. In 1962, he also started working for the port’s other large union, the International Longshoremen’s Association and ultimately left BRAC for ILA local 1764 in 1965, where he worked as a steamship checker for the rest of his working career.
Jimmy Orr soon became a force for change within the old ILA after standing in for the secretary-treasurer Jim McLaughlin, who had recently suffered a stroke. He held this position from 1970 to 1978 and had a permanent seat on the bargaining committee. During this time, Orr attended the first class of the Atlantic Region Labour Education Centre in 1972. He was also a key figure in negotiations between ILA 1764 and the new Maritime Employers’ Association and presided over the first free-standing strike in the local’s history.
In 1977, Orr and his roommate, longshoreman Fred Nice, became involved with a dissatisfied group of non-union longshoremen who were limited to casual labour and did not have access to ILA 273. After a long campaign that involved the ILA’s international office and the Canadian Labour Relations Board, the Saint John Non-Union Longshoremen’s Protective Association managed to gain union membership for 118 workers, who were scornfully dubbed “The Hundred Brats.” While this effort cost Orr his position as a union officer, the influx of new blood rejuvenated the ILA and reoriented it in the direction of social unionism. In fact, one NULPA member, Pat Riley, went on to become the longstanding Business Agent of ILA 273.
During his formal tenure as a union officer for Local 1764, Orr attended several international conventions and was not afraid to speak his mind. For this, he suffered a beating and left the 1983 convention in Miami in a wheelchair. In later years, Orr became embroiled in the proceedings of recurring trusteeship hearings aimed at the ILA in Saint John by the New York offices, often rambunctiously injecting himself into the debate and “getting them going.” He himself harboured sympathy for more local and Canadian autonomy, if not independence.
Orr, in addition to his formal duties, became known as a reliable man on the front lines of the labour movement. He was heavily involved in the preparation of the 1976 Day of Protest against Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s wage and price controls, sitting on the Saint John and District Labour Council’s committee and standing up to lead one of the marches when complications arose on the day itself. The issue would be central to Orr’s promising, but unsuccessful, campaign as a candidate for the New Democratic Party in the 1978 provincial election. Typically, he accepted the nomination when nobody else was prepared to do so.
Orr was also a key waterfront organizer during the 1979 “No CANDU for Argentina” hot cargo boycott, which put pressure on both the Canadian government and Argentine military junta and resulted in the release of a number of Argentine political prisoners. Jimmy forcefully defended the action as being more than a simple stoppage, pointing out that it had saved lives. He also invited the protesters back to his small apartment, where he wined and dined them, as he often did for fellow activists and visiting workers. Orr later reflected on the boycott, declaring that “all our members, and our members in the future, will be proud of it for the actions we did take on that particular day.” The expatriate Argentinean Enrique Tabak fondly remembers the part that Jimmy played in shutting down the port. The two men, together with another longshoreman, Ronald McLeod, have been immortalized in a painting by Richard Peachey of the event which is now on display at the Frank and Ella Hatheway Labour Exhibit Centre..
Throughout the years, Jimmy Orr became synonymous with the port of Saint John. He once again stepped up and served one term by acclamation as the President of ILA 1764 in order to fill a vacancy in the mid-1990s. While his union career was largely one of filling vacancies and did not lead to much upward mobility in the international union due to his more radical views, Orr was satisfied to play his part in Saint John. He served long stints on the labour council (1970-1998) as well as the Saint John District Waterfront Council (1972-1994). He also served as the labour representative on the Saint John Port and Development Commission, starting in 1982. Notably, he oversaw several missions to Cuba in order to maintain agricultural trade, making friends along the way and treating the Cuban delegates to a feast of New Brunswick moose meat when they visited Saint John. Following his retirement from the ILA in 2001, Orr was appointed a director of the Saint John Port Authority. He also continued to support various charitable causes, such as the Romero House soup kitchen, where he sat on the board of directors, and a handful of environmental groups.
Orr had one daughter, Jamie, who as a child would tell school authorities that the family religion was “union”. He was eventually divorced from his wife Mary Chamberlain and spent the latter portion of his life with his partner, Carol Olive, and acted as “Papa Jimmy” for her three sons.
Jimmy Orr passed away on 28 June 2009 after a long battle with bone cancer. He was celebrated in a touching eulogy by his friend Pat Riley, who remembered him as a “champion” of working people and a gifted, yet selfless, individual who preferred “just to be one of the soldiers.” He now rests at Fernhill Cemetery in Saint John.
This article was written by Ryan Stairs, based on the research for his M.A thesis in Canadian history, “The Making of a Labour Activist: James W. Orr, Saint John, New Brunswick, 1936-2009”, which was completed at the University of New Brunswick in 2014.