Strike at IOCO

Published by BC Labour Heritage Centre on

Worker walkout in 1918 fueled by western labour militancy

Researched and written by Donna Sacuta

View of Ioco refinery, dock and townsite from the water, November 15, 1916. City of Vancouver Archives PAN N135.

On February 18, 1918, two hundred oil refinery workers at Ioco, B.C. — 30 kilometres east of Vancouver — walked out. It was an expression of the labour militancy spreading across western Canada at the time. Provincial constables were immediately dispatched to Ioco for special duty, even though newspapers noted that no disorder had been reported.

In western Canada, labour united to form the “One Big Union” (OBU) in 1918 with a goal to organize industrial workers, irrespective of “nationality, sex or craft.” Oil workers at IOCO “went solidly” for the OBU.

Four years into the Great War, working-class death tolls in Europe were mounting. B.C. unions opposed the conscription of even more workers to fight the “capitalist war”.  The stark contrast between the plight of workers and the industrialists who had become wealthy off wartime production fueled labour’s outrage.

Spontaneous walkout

The Ioco walkout was a spontaneous affair, the refinery workers did not belong to a union. However, once the strike was on, a quick visit to the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council brought Business Agent Victor Midgely and two others to Ioco to sign them up into the International Association of Oil Field, Gas Well, and Refinery Workers of America, Local Union 4, the first in Canada. The other three local unions were in California. The union affiliated to the Labour Council, and enthusiastically joined the OBU.

“We were dissatisfied then because we hadn’t had a raise and all during the War, and then the shipyard workers and all those other fellows was getting more money and we figured that we were entitled. The cost of living was right out of bounds,” recalled Sam Turbitt, one of the refinery workers. “There was no talk about unions or anything else until after we had left the job.” 1

The Ioco strike lasted 12 days. In the end, wages were doubled, but the 8-hour day was not achieved.

Board of Trade trip to Ioco Refinery, c. 1927. City of Vancouver Archives CVA 99-1757.1.

A ‘Betterment Scheme’ or Union Busting?

With the refinery operating again, Imperial Oil set about ridding itself of the union. Less than a year after the strike, they announced a scheme to “democratize its business.” At a showy announcement in downtown Vancouver oil company executives introduced a “betterment scheme” and the establishment of “Joint Industrial Committees” at all of its locations.

Elected worker and company representatives would form the committee to give workers a voice in wages and conditions of work, but the whole thing was chaired by the Employer who had the deciding vote. The scheme established a non-contributory pension plan, free life insurance and sick benefits. A model town of prefabricated housing and social centres would replace bunkhouses.

The plan is “not patronizing philanthropy,” insisted Imperial Oil, but meant to create “harmony and mutual profit.” Labour said it was a scheme to break the union, and it did. By 1921 Local 4 was gone.

“Given it was so enticing, the union just fell apart,” said Turbitt. 2

The utopian community heralded by Imperial Oil instead became a “hotbed for labour militancy.”3  In 1946, Ioco workers unionized again, joining the Oil Workers’ International Union, which through a series of mergers became a founding member of UNIFOR in 2013.



Turbitt, Sam (audio recording, c. 1964), British Columbia Federation of Labour Oral History Project. University of British Columbia Special Collections, Reel 4, Side 1.

“Entire Plant Closed at IOCO.” Vancouver Daily World, February 19, 1918.

“Imperial Oil Men on Strike at IOCO.” British Columbia Federationist, February 22, 1938.

“Democratizes Its Business: Imperial Oil Company Brings Greater Betterment Scheme Into Effect on Behalf of Employees.” Vancouver Daily World, January 9, 1919.

“Pritchard For Mass Meeting.” Vancouver Daily World, September 12, 1919.

Taylor, Graham D. Imperial Standard: Imperial Oil, Exxon, and the Canadian Oil Industry from 1880. 1st ed., University of Calgary Press, 2019.

  1. Audio recording, 1964, [00:02:32][]
  2. Audio recording, [00:09:56][]
  3. Taylor, p. 113[]