The importance of unions: Founding the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada

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At the recent Convention of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada, delegates heard Ed Broadbent speak on "Equality and the Importance of Unions," and we wanted to find out what their unions had meant to them. This column is the third in a series of columns based on interviews carried out at the convention by Angus Ricker.

As labour organizations go, the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) is still fairly new, having celebrated its 20th anniversary convention in Ottawa in 2013. Among those present at the recent CURC convention were a former president, Dan McNeil, and a key activist in Sudbury, Julien Dionne.

Dan, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in 2014, brought his humour and experience to share with others. He shared with me some of the highlights behind the formation of CURC. As Dan tells it, a group of retirees, including retired Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) president Shirley Carr, met at CLC headquarters in Ottawa. After three years, the combination of energy and funding came together at the founding convention of CURC  in Toronto in 1993.

Prominent backers included CLC President Bob White, the Autoworkers and the Steelworkers. Dan had been an early retiree in 1984 and was a member of SOAR, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees. He has been active not only in his own chapter but also sitting on the International Board of SOAR since 1985. In these roles, he supported the plan for a CLC retirees group and worked with former CLC staffer Larry Wagg and Edith Johnson of Canadian Auto Worker (CAW) to bring it to fruition. All three at one point served as president of CURC.
 
Dan supported the CURC objective to expand to all the provinces and the formation of executives for CURC provincial and local organizations. He also advocated political action for retirees' aims, retiree programs for education and "whatever needs to be done," which included passing on advice to CURC provincial and area councils.
 
Looking back, Dan says there has been a "tremendous leap" in recent years with organization and executives in every province. Much of this growth has been sparked by CURC National Executive and President Pat Kerwin.  

Julien Dionne opened the convention as he has done all recent conventions by singing the national anthem in both French and English. He has been a 10-year president for SOAR in Sudbury as well as a long-time member of Local 6500 of the Steelworkers.

"It's who I owe my education to," is the way he explains his long-standing work in the union and as a retiree. He started at Inco in Sudbury in 1971 and quickly became an active unionist through work on health and safety issues and then teaching.
 
"I was always learning," he says and soon became a union shop steward. Union work sent him any number of places in the United States and even Africa, he says. He found he was in the same room with many professionals and one of his favourite story concerns a lawyer who admired his maroon union tie. Julien recalls asking: "Hey Mac, would you like a tie?" and hearing the reply "Yes, I would."
 
"Well, join the union," was Julien's response.
 
Julien's point is that the union did a good job in educating him through training programs in health and safety, and membership on the executive. He was also able to "see the world" through travel to conferences. 
 
He is especially proud of his work for SOAR in Sudbury with a local chapter of 13,000 members including 8,000 retirees. As inspiration for his work he points to fellow SOAR and CURC member, Dan McNeil, as says: "Dan was the inspiration. I felt obligated to follow on."

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

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