The life of a union man: Tales from Down East

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Though I was born in Toronto, I have spent much of my life in the Maritimes and have retired to Prince Edward Island. Now when Canadians elsewhere think of Prince Edward Island, they most likely think of Anne of Green Gables, potatoes, or the meeting of the Fathers of Confederation. But behind those bucolic images resided working women and men. I have always been a union man and have worked with a variety of labour organizations from my IBEW local on Prince Edward Island to the Canadian Labour Congress.

Contract negotiations

In 1971, my IBEW local had its first strike. It was a bitter one that lasted six months, with the major issue being the establishment of a union shop. Phil Fleming, who eventually rose to become Canadian head of IBEW, devised a plan to wire the tobacco kilns that were then being introduced to P.E.I. to diversify farming. He offered farmers the opportunity to wire their kilns at cost plus a donation to the strike fund. At the same time, the Atlantic Wiremen's Council of IBEW was established. Phil informed the contractors that we were sending all the electricians out of the province until they settled. This threat, along with the loss of business with tobacco kilns, enabled IBEW members to negotiate an excellent contract.

Wages and politics

From the beginning I took an interest in politics. Back in the '60s there was no comprehensive minimum wage in P.E.I. There was nominally a one-dollar minimum, but with so many exclusions that you would have to be carried off by an eagle at high noon to qualify. In 1965, Walter Shaw, then premier of P.E.I., was campaigning for re-election. In attempt to get the votes of workers, he campaigned on the promise that if elected, he would see that they got $1.25. Only problem for the workers to whom he spoke was that they were already getting $1.50. Not surprisingly, he lost the election.

Fighting to keep jobs in the province

Workers often faced companies not only shutting down and thereby eliminating their jobs, but then trying to sell the plant equipment abroad. Since this meant the jobs could never come back, we fought to stop this.

My favourite story along these lines was a rope plant in Cape Breton where a financial organization had sold an expensive piece of equipment to a firm in the U.S. I got a call from some employees, who were then unorganized, to see if something could be done to buy some time. A crane was on its way to lift the equipment out of the building and if we could stall the move before they could remove the machine, there might be a glimmer of hope. They had no union to fight for them but as a CLC rep, I was there to help all workers.

I called some of my friends in the area, including the building trades workers. They could not gather until after 4:30 p.m. when their shift ended. So I called an Anglican church minister with whom I had done some work in the area. At this point it was about 2 p.m. The crane was due at 3 p.m. When I arrived about 2:30 p.m. at the plant, I was met by about 30 elderly women who had been at a church tea. The minister had asked them to come and help block the driveway!

The next people on the scene were some of my union friends who quickly advised me that they didn't want any more calls from me because it was "them and I" that were going to have to lie down in front of the crane because we couldn't ask these lovely elderly ladies to do that. Thanks to our efforts, calls were made and the U.S. firm agreed to sell the machine to a company locally with a loan from the province. All worked out well. That company is now certified with Unifor.

Employment insurance

Unemployment insurance has always been a big issue down East as much of our work is seasonal. What people, especially politicians, living in central Canada never quite grasp, are the realities for seasonal workers -- for example, a fisherman when not catching fish is repairing nets, boats and other gear.

One time some unorganized workers were turned down for employment insurance because the EI Commission determined that they would benefit from a settlement unionized workers would receive once the striking workers had settled their agreement. Someone in their wisdom suggested to the affected workers that they contact me to handle an appeal for them. Thinking there might be 10-20 people, I agreed but it turned out there were over 100 affected workers. The appeal went as far as the Umpire for the Commission, who we were able to convince that the casual employees would lose money through fewer hours being available for them to work once a settlement was reached. As a result, these workers were awarded back payment amounting to thousands of dollars each.

In the 1997 election, EI cutbacks were the issue in Atlantic Canada. We held many rallies. The one that stands out for me was the one in Centre 200 in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where Bob White addressed a packed audience of thousands. That rally led to the defeat of a number of MPs in the next federal election as Alexa McDonough led the NDP back to official party status. Among those MPs elected, none did a better job on the issue of employment insurance than Yvon Godin, a former Steelworker, who is stepping down as MP this year.

The struggle continues

When I think back on my decades in the labour movement, I think Anthony Scoggins, Director of International Programs for Oxfam, got it right when, in response to the Westray mine disaster, he wrote:

"[W]e should grieve that working men and women throughout this country are forced time and again to put their lives on the line just to put bread on the table and an extra dollar in the employer's pocket. We should grieve for the fact that labour unions, the only organizations that resolutely defend the rights of workers in this country are persistently scorned by the media, vilified by business and harassed by the law. How many times have we been told that there was a need for unions in the early days but not any longer? Yeah right. What about pensions? What about inequality? What about all the other social issues?"

Everett Baker is president of PEI Federation of Union Retirees.

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.

Photo: Dennis Jarvis/flickr

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