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Alberta union leader Doug O'Halloran never shied from tough fights for his members

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Doug O'Halloran, 1952-2019. Image: Dave Cournoyer

Doug O'Halloran, a pillar of the labour movement in Alberta and one of Canada's last old-style union leaders, died peacefully yesterday. O'Halloran, who was 66, succumbed to cancer after a long illness.

"It is fitting that he chose to leave us on Thanksgiving, a day for celebrating the two things he valued most: family and community," said his wife, Rita O'Halloran, daughter Kara O'Halloran, and son Chris O'Halloran in a family statement on social media. "He lived his final months as he lived his whole life, with determination, courage, and love."

For the past 30 years the president of Local 401 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the largest private-sector union in Alberta, O'Halloran was tough, plain spoken and deeply committed to the working people he represented. He never shied away from an uphill fight if that's what it took to win a fair collective agreement for the more than 32,000 retail grocery, packing plant, food processing and other workers the union he led represented.

And UFCW 401 took on some of the toughest fights in Alberta labour history during O'Halloran's long leadership, including the province-wide Safeway strike in 1997, the Shaw Conference Centre strike in 2002, and the bitter Lakeside Packers strike in 2005. During that dispute for a first collective agreement, O'Halloran's truck was run off a Southern Alberta highway near Brooks by goons supporting the employer.

In mid-August, O'Halloran retired as UFCW 401 president and signed off with dignity and courage in a remarkable public statement on social media, in which he told UFCW members, "Brothers and Sisters, I have always been a fighter and, as many of you know, I beat kidney cancer in 2016. However, earlier this year the cancer returned and this time I will not win."

"Serving as your President for the past 30 years has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. During that time, I was constantly amazed by the membership and staff's tenacity and commitment to making life better for our membership and all Albertans. As a Local we have grown and made significant contributions to the labour movement in Alberta."

He ended his message: "Unfortunately, my time is going to end much sooner than I would like and I will spend my remaining time with my wife, children, and grandchildren. … I challenge you all to keep making the changes, and fighting the fights, that make the world better."

A statement today from UFCW 401 president Thomas Hesse and secretary treasurer Richelle Stewart said, "it is hard to express how saddened we are by the loss of our great brother, Douglas."

"As Douglas would have it, we will mourn, but we will not be weak," the statement continued. "Our union is as strong as the members Douglas spent his life serving. Let us remember Douglas by building our solidarity as workers."

Former Alberta premier Rachel Notley said, "hundreds of thousands of Alberta families enjoy a higher standard of living because of Doug's commitment and tenacity. Doug was hard-working, tough, and plain-spoken. He was always alongside workers on the shop floor and the picket line, even when it put him in real personal danger."

"Doug was my friend," Notley, now the leader of the NDP opposition in the Alberta legislature, said in the statement that was one of many appearing on social media in the first moments after O'Halloran's death was announced. "I will always be grateful for his advice, support, humour and inspiration."

Details of a celebration of life will be published soon.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Dave Cournoyer

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