The Greatest Canadian Shit-Disturber
My family came from Eastern Europe, part of the large immigration in the early 1900s – poor, largely peasant Jews escaping the pogroms of the Tsarist Russian Empire. I was born in 1944 in the so-called Jewish ghetto in downtown Montréal. My early years were spent in the St. Urbain Street neighbourhood immortalized in Mordecai Richler’s biting and hilarious novels.
My first identity was that of a Jew in conflict with the surrounding society. The French kids called us dirty Jews and threw rocks and snowballs at us; we retaliated in kind. I went to a Jewish primary school near Boulevard St. Laurent (“The Main”). Later, when we moved, I attended an English Protestant school. Québec schools were then organized along religious lines. My inauguration into the Protestant school was a shock. I was terrified by its coldness and discipline. I vomited all over my teacher on the first day of class. I thought English Montréal was run by a militarist, authoritarian caste who hated the downtrodden Jews.
My father had to leave school early to support his large family. He ran a number of one-man businesses, none of which did well. He always talked of the next “big deal” that would make us financially secure. That deal never came for the simple reason that he was a member of the Communist Party during the repressive provincial regime of Premier Maurice Duplessis. He was on a blacklist for government and other contracts.
A Communist Milieu in Montreal
My father organized for Fred Rose, the first Communist Member of Parliament, elected in 1944 in the working-class riding of Cartier where we lived. He ran for office himself. Self-educated, he lectured at party schools. Many family friends were union activists in the needle trades or party officials. Our house was raided by the police during the notorious Padlock Law era.
My father left the party in 1956 as a result of the Russian invasion of Hungary and the revelations about the crimes of Stalin. Like thousands of others, he was disillusioned with the experience of the Soviet Union. He wanted the Canadian party to be an independent socialist one, and left when that was rejected. From then onward, he discouraged me from political activity, saying he didn’t want me to ruin my life like he had.
He was a bundle of contradictions – talked about building a better world free of exploitation and racism, yet he was scornful of Québec’s majority French population, ridiculing its language and culture. He was authoritarian, with terrible attitudes towards women – cruel to my mother, a vivacious and outgoing woman whom he incessantly put down. I loved and hated my father at the same time. We became estranged from one another as he resented my growing independence and support for my mother.
We gradually moved upward out of the St. Urbain neighbourhood. As a youth I was a rebel, a cocky smartass, always getting into trouble. I thumbed my nose at all authority. I was once suspended from high school for sassing a teacher. I ended up a hero: in the school assembly where academic and sports awards were handed out, I was applauded every time I came on stage for an award. The principal got up and thundered away at the students for having such a ne’er-do-well as a model. He banned me from running for student council president. My mother kept telling me I would do well if I only learned to keep my big mouth shut.
In 1961 I went to McGill University, becoming active in the movement for nuclear disarmament. We saw ourselves as a new generation of the Left, freed from the stifling constraints of Cold War ideologies. I got a scholarship to Oxford University in England. It was an exhilarating time for me. I was able to study European Marxism and learn from the British Labour movement – its rich history, its intellectuals, its trade-union militants. I was elected president of the Oxford Labour Club.
I returned as a lecturer in political science at McGill. I got caught up in the culture and activism of the “New Left.” This was the late 1960s – we grew our hair long, dressed in flowery clothes, smoked dope and made love. We listened to Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin.
Contradictions of the New Left
We were part of a world-wide youth movement seeking to turn the old order on its head. We protested the war in Vietnam, demanded democratic structures in the university, supported the struggles of the American blacks. We felt ourselves part of a wave of liberation that encompassed the anti-Soviet revolt in Czechoslovakia, the uprisings at universities like Columbia and Berkeley in the United States, guerrilla war in Bolivia. I became one of the movement’s leaders at McGill. In the fall of 1967 we had a mass protest against the administration’s repression of free speech. I was beaten and arrested by the police who had been called on campus. I was charged with assaulting the police but was later acquitted in court. The next year I assisted a student strike that occupied my own department to get equal participation in decision-making.
I became progressively disturbed by what I saw as the elitist tendencies in the student New Left, many of whom viewed themselves as more enlightened and liberated than the rest of society. In a theory popular at the time (Herbert Marcuse), everyone was manipulated by the media and “co-opted” by the ruling class. The class struggle was supposedly over. Workers in America and Europe – seen as affluent, attached to consumer goods, politically conservative, tied to repressive social mores – were integrated into the society. The youth revolt was a radical breakaway by those who had the intelligence and life-style to avoid being brainwashed.
To me, this was a lot of nonsense, a product of traditional middle-class prejudices and stereotypes. My thesis at Oxford had examined public-opinion studies in England and North America. It showed the presence of a class-consciousness amongst workers, who had their own distinct attitudes, perceptions and values.
The New Left was contradictory. One of its most dynamic elements was the focus on “participatory democracy,” a phrase originally developed by anti-poverty organizers in the American urban ghettos. The New Left promoted the idea of people directly controlling the institutions that ran their lives. It opposed hierarchy and authoritarianism of all types. This democratic impulse was a healthy counterpart to the old left, both Stalinist and social democratic. It co-existed, however, with an elitist disdain for ordinary people, with a self-definition as radical outsiders, an enlightened middle-class minority. Though espousing “power to the people,” many elements of the New Left were smug and self-superior, anti-populist and anti-democratic.
Québec: Capital Speaks English; Labour, French
Everything changed for me when I got actively involved in Québec politics. It was a time of big nationalist and labour mobilizations: Québec’s Quiet Revolution was becoming more noisy and more radical. Union organizing and militancy was growing by leaps and bounds. I had been a passive participant in activities organized by the left-leaning independentist groups. I was at the famous June 24, 1968 demonstration in Montréal on St. Jean Baptiste Day. According to later mythology, this was when the brave Prime Minister Trudeau stood up to the rioting hordes. That was pretty easy for him, seated behind a phalanx of hundreds of police on horses and riot gear charging the crowd, swinging their nightsticks to pound the living daylights out of the demonstrators.
The Left in Québec stood for independence and socialism. To me, it seemed only natural that the Québécois had a right to their own country, free from the domination of others, just as did the Algerians or the Poles. Culture and economics were intertwined in Québec, because language and class divisions overlapped – as the saying went, capital speaks English, labour speaks French. At the time, English was the privileged language of work and commerce, despite the fact that francophones comprised 80 per cent of Quebec’s population. The fight to protect the French language was vital to their cultural survival in North America.
In the fall of 1968, tens of thousands took to the streets protesting the lack of university places for francophone students. At the same time, violent struggles erupted in Montréal’s north end as community groups fought for French-language education in their underfunded schools. A few months later, I met with a number of Québec groups who came up with the idea of focusing on McGill University.
McGill was a bastion of privilege that proudly insulated itself from the Québec majority. Its Board of Governors was a Who’s Who of the anglophone financial establishment that ran the province. It trained the managers and bankers who would make their money off the cheap labour of the Québécois. The university was a rich institution that received the lion’s share of government grants, but would not teach in French – all the while there were no university places for 10,000 francophone post-secondary graduates. Francophone graduates needed a higher admission mark than English students at a comparable level, and McGill charged more money for admission than other universities.
If Québec taxpayers’ money was subsidizing higher education, the argument went, it should make university education accessible to the francophone majority. The Québec government had paid over $3 million for the new McLennan Library at McGill, which had one of the best collections of books on Québec – yet McGill closed it to the public while allowing corporations access for a fee.
“Operation McGill” started in January, 1969. Its slogans were “McGill aux Québécois,” “McGill Francais,” even “McGill aux Travailleurs” (McGill to the Workers). It quickly mushroomed into a major public issue, building up to a planned demonstration in March. In the middle of this, McGill University fired me for protest activities including Operation McGill. I became an overnight celebrity.
I ended up a spokesperson along with Michel Chartrand, the fiery president of the Montréal labour council of the CSN (Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux, or Confederation of National Trade Unions), and Raymond Lemieux, head of the French unilingualist movement. We toured the province speaking to cheering, overflowing auditoriums. I got an education about the pent up anger against centuries of injustice that was fueling the liberation movement in Québec. At Montreal’s labour council, enthused delegates seized thousands of copies of our newspaper to hand out the next day in factories and construction sites. The CSN assigned two staff lawyers, Robert Burns and Jacques Desmarais, to represent me at the McGill termination hearings. Burns later became Minister of Justice in the first Parti Québécois government in 1976.
While popular in French Québec, Operation McGill was hated and vilified in English Montréal. A major media offensive whipped up a hysteria against the French barbarians at the gates. Many of the organizers, myself included, were arrested without cause, later released, our papers confiscated. We had to go underground the last week to stay out of jail. Justice Minister John Turner warned he might call in the Canadian army. The demonstration was nevertheless a huge success, bringing 15,000 into the streets – up to that time, the biggest demonstration the nationalist movement had organized.
On the McGill campus, however, the left movement was divided about the campaign, which was understandably unpopular with students. Radicals who applauded the revolutions in Vietnam and Cuba would not support the mushrooming revolution in their own back yard.
An Activist in the Front de libération populaire
By that time I had moved into the francophone, working-class east end of Montréal and become an activist with the Front de libération populaire (FLP). The group had chapters in poor communities, high schools and labour unions. It organized mass demonstrations, many of which ended up fighting the police.
In the fall of 1969, we participated in the large mobilizations against Bill 63, legislation that did not go far enough to protect the French language. The protests involved hundreds of thousands all over the province. High-school students went on strike for several weeks. The eight- and nine-year-old kids on my street greeted me with the raised fist: a tornado of protest energy was sweeping through Québec.
We forged international links: for example, a solidarity committee with the American Black Panthers. Their leaders stayed at my apartment when they came to Montréal. I greeted Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the 1968 worker-student uprising in France. Former prime minister Diefenbaker denounced me in the House of Commons. Amidst all this heady tumult, sharp divisions emerged in the Quebec Left. Many went the route of armed struggle. We preferred building an open mass movement based on labour. Our chapters included rank-and-file workers active in the CSN. The other factions we called “cowboys” who had no respect for ordinary people, whom they believed they had to “wake up” with violent shock tactics. We believed revolutionary social change would be the product of self-empowerment, of workers acting on their own behalf. We said the others wanted to substitute themselves for the people.
Under (False) Arrest
Involved in the October, 1970 kidnappings, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) included many activists I had earlier worked with and respected, including Paul Rose. When the kidnappings came, I was arrested along with hundreds who similarly had nothing to do with the FLQ. I was taken at 4 a.m. as I was listening to Prime Minister Trudeau announce the War Measures Act on the radio. The Act imposed a state of siege, canceling civil liberties and bringing in the army to occupy the province. I was put into a paddy wagon, driven to the provincial prison, marched between soldiers with rifles and held incommunicado.
The police knew damn well that very few of those imprisoned had any association with the FLQ. Many were not even questioned until weeks after their arrest. The Trudeau government was frightened by the growing mass movements in Québec; it wanted to administer a shock treatment of its own.
When the police interrogated me, they never asked a single question about the FLQ. However, they said they would hunt down and kill agitators like me if we ever got released. One of the top officials took a bullet out of his pocket, telling me that one was for me. (A few months later, one of the main organizers of Operation McGill, Francois Bachand, was assassinated in Paris under mysterious circumstances.)
I was held for three weeks before being released without charges. The War Measures Act was still in force; you could be arrested and put away for nothing. Like many others, I went underground for a while.
I decided to go to Hamilton, where I was not known. There was more to that decision, however. I had become uncomfortable with my newly acquired status as a public personality. I was hardly part of the majority culture in Québec, yet was thrust into a leadership position. I believed that leadership had to come from the ranks and had to be earned. I had much to learn and wanted to start anew. My public prominence interfered in my ability to do that in the Québec context.
Learning from the Women’s Movement
This rethinking, which included self-criticism, was partly a product of my encounter with feminism. I had met the new women’s liberation movement at a conference in 1967, when I had just returned from England. In one of the smartest decisions I ever made, I shut up and listened. (My mother would have been proud of me). I was in many ways a traditional male. The feminists I met were speaking a lot of fundamental truths that served to open my eyes – about male domination, about sexism and chauvinism, about the abuse of women, about egotism and competitiveness and many other things. From that day on, I strove to learn and change. This was a very painful process for me as it has been for other men. It was always three steps forward and two steps back. It never ended. I owe a lot to the women who spent the time struggling with me over these matters, including Myrna Wood, a pioneer of the new women’s liberation movement who was my partner for many years.
The lessons were both political and personal. The male ego leads men to dominate and abuse others, both male and female. I had been an aggressive and cocky person, but I now began to see how that contradicted what I was fighting for. Socialism was the liberation of ordinary workers from the shackles that kept them down. It was something that had to be accomplished by their own efforts and struggles. This “socialism from below” was contrary to self-superior styles of leadership that disrespected workers and did not treat them as equals. The male ego led to bullying and manipulative ways of dealing with them. I started to learn the value of humility.
A Westinghouse Assembly-Line Worker
In 1973 I was hired as an assembler at the Westinghouse factory in Hamilton, where I stayed for the next eleven years. I badly needed money; I was also eager to learn more about labour. The company was on a hiring spree and had no time to check the backgrounds of new employees.
I first worked in the appliance division, a hell-hole hated by everyone. The jobs were mind-numbing – the repetitive assembly of fridges, dishwashers, dryers and stoves. You did the same motions over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times a shift. The very organization of the place was an assault on your integrity as a person. The lines were always speeded up as the company tried to squeeze more out of you. Relations with bosses were openly hostile. Old timers advised the young ones to get out as soon as they could.
I became a union rep two years later after a near-fatal accident in the motor division to which I had been transferred. A worker was almost killed when an overhead crane dropped a load on him. The shop was in an uproar over unsafe procedures. I spoke up about it; I went to a union meeting to ask for action. The department workers instantly ousted their do-nothing shop steward and elected me with a mandate to raise hell for safer conditions.
I did that for the next nine years, especially in the transformer division, where I became shop steward and union health-and-safety rep (and later the local union’s health-and-safety chair). Early on, I was assigned to work on transformers dripping insulating oil. The material – called Inerteen – got all over our faces, mouths, eyes, clothes and ears. I was not told about the Inerteen, but later learned it was a trade name for cancer-causing PCBs. I did an investigation after it was phased out, documenting how workers had been swimming in that stuff for over 20 years. The company never told anyone it was unsafe – one manager was well known for opening the manhole covers of transformer tanks, breathing in the hot Inerteen fumes and then proclaiming it was the best thing to clear your lungs.
The place was full of hazards including leaded paint, asbestos, unsafe scaffolds, flammable solvents, defective overhead cranes and many others. Cost-conscious, the company would fix none of them unless forced to, even when there were accidents and violations of government regulations. We developed a large group of stewards, safety reps and other workers who were persistent and able to bring to bear the collective power of the shop floor. Through work refusals, group petitions, complaints to government inspectors, production slow-downs and other methods of direct action or guerrilla warfare, we forced safer and healthier conditions. Cranes were repaired, asbestos was removed, new scaffolding equipment was purchased and safer procedures were enforced for working inside transformer tanks.
I came to appreciate the immense power the rank-and-file could wield. When workers were not afraid to take on big things, and acted together, nothing could stop them. It was an explosive potential capable of changing the power relations in the workplace. For this reason, shop-floor activism on health and safety was upsetting to top government, company and union officials – but very effective in preventing workplace death and disease.
The Terry Ryan Incident
In 1979 an explosion blinded a young worker at our plant – Terry Ryan, recently hired. His face had to be surgically reconstructed; he lost his senses of taste and smell, as well as his sight. Westinghouse and the Ontario Ministry of Labour worked overtime to cover up how that had happened. I issued a detailed report showing how the company had conspired to use the flammable solvent Toluol in ways it knew to be unsafe, all the while carefully insulating itself from responsibility. The Ministry then reversed itself and laid charges in provincial court. At the trial, however, it plea-bargained a deal allowing Westinghouse to get away with a mere $5,000 fine. People were outraged: blinding a worker had been treated as a minor cost of doing business.
I wrote this up in Canadian Dimension. In 1988 the National Film Board of Canada did a docu-drama on the case: “See No Evil.”
By the early 1980s I was working with other groups in Ontario to publicly expose unsafe conditions and the lack of government enforcement. We were on a committee that advised Eli Martel, the NDP’s health-and-safety critic in the legislature. Activists included Jim Brophy from Windsor, John Donaldson, president of the Toronto Ironworkers local, and many others. Martel effectively raised these situations in the Legislature and the media, embarrassing the government and forcing government crackdowns.
Sharing the Shop Floor
During this time a number of women from another Westinghouse plant that was being closed were slated to come into our all-male division. Many workers asked me, as shop steward, to lead a walk-out to stop this. This was a personal watershed for me. I had to go beyond lip service to women’s equality by engaging my co-workers, many of whom were resolute sexists. The battle was waged hot and heavy but eventually most of the men supported the integration of women as equals in the shop. They trained them on the jobs and worked co-operatively with them. When pushed, their class consciousness triumphed over sexist self-superiority. It became clear that equal treatment for all workers, including seniority rules, regardless of gender, was our only real protection against the bosses. Men and women in the shop stood together against management.
This issue was intensely emotional and persisted over the years with many ups-and-downs, especially when the recession led to big lay-offs. I learned more about the destructive effects of male chauvinism – of how it made men work dangerously in order to prove their manhood, of how it undermined solidarity in the shop. Many men compensated for being stepped on at work by becoming the boss at home, by lording it over women and children. I came to understand that, when men supported the liberation of women, we were fighting for our own liberation as well. I wrote up this experience in Canadian Dimension in an article that was widely republished.
Taking on Ontario’s Department of Labour
The safety struggle at Westinghouse dramatically escalated in 1982 on account of toxic exposures to leaded paint and welding fumes in our plant. Workers were getting sick with bleeding noses, rasping lungs, headaches, nausea. The Ministry inspectors came in but covered up situations clearly dangerous to health. Repeated testing showed levels of airborne lead dust up to 20 times the safe standard, yet the government refused to enforce its newly enacted Lead Regulation. Martel raised this scandal in the legislature; the Toronto Star published ongoing exposes by its enterprising labour reporter John Deverell. In the midst of this, the company made moves towards firing me. The Ministry area manager then charged into the plant, threatening me if I continued to publicly release information about lead contamination.
I replied with charges against the Ministry and the company at the Ontario Labour Relations Board. I was represented by two phenomenal labour lawyers – Jim Hayes and David Bloom. After lengthy hearings, the Board agreed that we were right about the many health-and-safety hazards at Westinghouse; and further, that these were eventually cleaned up only because of our persistent efforts. Yet it cleared Ministry officials of intimidation and wrongdoing because they were only trying to enforce co-operation between the company and the safety committee. The implication of the decision was that the interests of labour peace overrode safe working conditions. One fascinating thing from these hearings was an admission by lower-down officials that many of their dubious orders and tests were signed by them but authored by the most senior levels of the Ministry, such as the Deputy Minister of Labour. Two years later, the safety inspectors’ union issued a damning report stating that top government officials were systematically sabotaging the workplace health-and-safety regulations. This expose was organized by Bob DeMatteo, the militant safety director of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).
Taking on the United Electrical Workers Union
The labour board case became a major public issue because it was seen as a test for better enforcement of the safety legislation. It attracted the almost unanimous backing of organized labour in the province. The Ontario Federation of Labour arranged a fundraising appeal to pay the legal costs. The one union that ought to have supported it, however, did not – my own union, the United Electrical Workers (UE), despite a petition by a majority of the plant workers. The UE was controlled by a tight-knit group of older men associated with the Communist Party. They talked tough, but rarely matched their words with action. The leadership used the union as a public platform for its political crusades; it did not want to endanger that base by engaging in costly wars with the companies. It preferred to issue ringing press releases and fight capitalism at labour conventions, rather than on the shop floor where it really mattered.
The UE was a top-down organization in classic “socialism-from-above” style. The leadership was authoritarian in dealing with the workers it represented. It lectured and talked down to them at meetings, often humiliating those who voiced contrary opinions. The officials believed they had nothing to learn from ordinary workers. The UE brass continually told members that they were not competent to handle things: let the union office deal with it, trust us and go back to work. It was terrified of shop-floor workers taking things into their own hands. All this helped maintain the leadership’s monopoly of power, but made for a weaker union as it disempowered the rank and file.
I had run afoul of the UE officialdom during a bitter strike in 1978 when I organized mobile squads that shut down warehouses that arranged the transport of goods to scab-run plants. The leadership was frightened of this. It preferred the legalistic approach of token picket lines at the plant gates. Our “warehouse squad,” on the other hand, aroused tremendous enthusiasm and increased participation from the members. It hurt Westinghouse very badly. After the strike, I was elected to the union executive in a rank-and-file rebellion against the old guard.
The UE local president had early on urged me to bury my PCB investigation. As he put it, we don’t want to blacken the good name of Westinghouse, as that would hurt sales and therefore jobs. The union office once wrote to the company that it was satisfied with its corrective actions on the overhead cranes we had been complaining about. The next day our people refused to work with those cranes – forcing the company to fix them, and to deal with us, and not the union office, in the future. The leadership became markedly hostile when I pushed for prosecuting the company over the explosion that blinded Terry Ryan. It wanted no part of that. During the contract negotiations in 1981, the company asked and got the union, led by its national president, to agree to a “better relationship,” which included cracking down on the shop-floor safety struggles. They put a new clause into the collective agreement – kept secret from the membership at the ratification meeting – mandating a rotation out of office of all the union’s health-and-safety representatives including myself. It did this with no other union position or in any other collective agreement.
Our campaign against the lead pollution ended with a big victory. In January, 1983, Westinghouse was forced to remove all the leaded paint. Just before that, we had a meeting with Conservative Minister of Labour Russ Ramsey, his senior officials and two NDP members of the legislature. At one point, the Minister gave in, stating that he had received bad advice from his top bureaucrats. He then turned to me, picked up a letter from his file, saying that when all is said and done, someone will have to explain this to him: a letter on UE letterhead, signed by top union officials, telling him they were satisfied with the Ministry’s action in resolving the health-and-safety issues at Westinghouse. Everyone hit the roof. During all those months when we had been campaigning to rid the factory of excessive lead levels, the union big shots had been dealing with the government and company behind our backs, telling them not to worry about health issues at the plant. Because of our persistence, however, the authorities were forced to respond to us and not to the union officials. Precedent-setting orders were soon issued that enforced the province’s Lead Regulation and got rid of the leaded paint at Westinghouse.
After the labour-board case, however, things became more difficult for me on the job. I was subjected to especially intense harassment by management. Due to the recession and lay-offs, our shop-floor power was shrinking: workers who had refused to do unsafe jobs now fought with one another to get those jobs in order to stay employed.
The Ontario Workers Health Centre
In October, 1984, I quit Westinghouse to become the director of the occupational health clinic set up by Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers of America. The 10,000-member local represented Stelco workers in Hamilton. Its president, Cec Taylor, was a militant trade unionist and Canadian nationalist. The clinic had two progressive doctors who were occupational health specialists – John Chong and Ted Haines. A year later we expanded to become an Ontario-wide clinic sponsored by a variety of unions, called the Ontario Workers Health Centre. Other doctors were taken on, including Abe Reinhartz, an innovative young physician.
The Centre provided independent medical assessments for workplace injuries and diseases. It also acted as an advocate for plant clean-ups in association with local unions or individual workers. We found asbestos diseases in a Windsor chemical plant where prior tests by government and company doctors had found none. On behalf of the machinists’ union, we tested workers at American Can and found significant nerve damage from n-hexane. We saw hundreds of General Motors assembly workers in the Toronto CAW (Canadian Auto Workers) hall for repetitive-strain injuries. We assessed steelworkers for exposure to coal-tar pitch, PCBs and noise. We set up clinics for miners in Sudbury, for ironworkers in Toronto, for telephone operators and office workers in Hamilton and Toronto, for aircraft workers in Fort Erie, for asbestos-exposed workers in Windsor, for steelworkers at a Toronto can factory, for sewage-plant workers in Hamilton and Toronto, and many others.
We were able to document a “body count” of my co-workers at Westinghouse who had died from cancer-causing PCB’s. We found the same thing at the Ferranti-Packard transformer plant nearby in St. Catharines. We could not keep up with the huge demand. In June, 1987, both the National Council of the CAW and the National Convention of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) passed resolutions recommending that their locals use our services. These were the largest private- and public-sector unions in the country.
The Centre took on women’s issues. We diagnosed reproductive hazards including the case of Saskia Post, a mother in Brampton who gave birth to a deformed baby as a result of breathing in toxic plastic fumes at work during early pregnancy. We worked with Bonita Clark, a power-house operator at Stelco subjected to sexual harassment over a seven-year period. She filed charges at the human-rights commission and labour-relations board, stating the harassment was a health-and-safety hazard. She was represented by Mary Cornish, a leading feminist lawyer. Bonita got a big settlement that compelled Stelco to provide in-plant washrooms for women and a sexual-harassment policy. Bonita also got some benefits for herself that allowed her to go on with her life. She went back to school, eventually getting a law degree.
One of the Centre’s big campaigns was over asbestos in schools. I worked with Gerry McDonnell, Jackie Robinson, Dave Ward and others from CUPE Local 1344 to document deteriorating asbestos in Hamilton schools. As a result of ongoing work refusals and a community campaign, asbestos was removed or repaired at many facilities.
In 1990, the campaign burst into Toronto, where it became a major public issue, continually on television and on the front pages of newspapers. I worked with parent associations and teacher unions to shut down school after school where we found asbestos falling into classrooms. There were mass meetings in school auditoriums. We exposed the phony testing by school or government authorities that covered up the hazard. In some cases, parents brought samples of asbestos dust on their children’s clothing from schools the authorities had just pronounced safe. Our Centre documented loose asbestos in a Toronto high school whose caretaker, Gojko Toljagic, died from an asbestos disease. I filed and won a compensation board appeal that recognized his death was work-related. His son, Mark Toljagic, participated in the campaign. In April, 1990, the Toronto Catholic school board banned me from inspecting schools. It had to lift the ban when the parents wouldn’t let the schools re-open until I pronounced them safe.
The Centre upset many big interests. We documented health damage from toxic factories and hazardous offices; we gave a voice to their victims. We laid charges against company doctors who had recorded these diseases but never told the workers. We trained workers and unions to fight for safer workplaces. Many of them won significant clean-ups that cost the employers a lot of money. We were publicly critical of the government for failing to enforce its own health-and-safety regulations.
Occasionally we ran afoul of union officials more interested in protecting their good relations with the company than protecting their members’ health. In 1987, for example, we helped the plant-level union leadership in Stelco’s Number 2 Rod Mill successfully fight for Ministry of Labour orders to control excessive exposure to lead. The union’s health-and-safety chairman, however, opposed them all the way. He aggressively backed Stelco against his own members, even denouncing the newly mandated lead-control program in the Hamilton and Toronto newspapers.
Direct Action at DeHavilland and McDonnell Douglas
All these issues exploded in 1986 and 1987, when we were called in to help CAW locals at the big aircraft plants north of Toronto. At the DeHavilland factory, workers in the paint and plastics shops had been complaining for years about breathing difficulties, burning eyes, loss of skin pigment, headaches, dizziness and other symptoms they believed were due to toxic exposures. The Ministry of Labour had often been in the plant and recorded DeHavilland’s non-compliance with regulations on hazardous substances like isocyanates. The problem was that it never enforced these orders, so DeHavilland simply ignored them. Frustrated, CAW Local 112 called us in. We set up a clinic in the union hall for the paint and plastics workers. I reviewed the safety legislation with the local executive members.
Our medical testing later found that over half the workers suffered from significant lung diseases, swollen eyes, nerve damage, skin rashes and blotches – all linked to exposures on the job. We got the company medical records and found out that it knew about these, but had withheld the results from the workers.
In August, 1986, the union distributed my report that summarized our findings – whereupon 600 workers in these departments conducted a mass work refusal, using their legislated right to refuse unsafe work. Led by local President John Bettes, Plant Chairperson Gerry Dias, Peter Falconi and many others, they were not going to be put off yet again. Bettes was a raging bull those days, tearing apart the company officials and government inspectors who had been complicit in the poisoning of his members. The mass work refusal kept up for a week, after which the company caved in, agreeing to an estimated $15-million clean-up, including the removal of many toxic materials, a revamped ventilation system and education for workers about the substances they worked with. The local union later negotiated an arrangement for our clinic to examine workers inside the plant.
The direct action at DeHavilland achieved more in one week than did years of begging and pleading. It told workers throughout the province that they did not have to put up with this crap anymore. We were soon called into the McDonnell Douglas aircraft plant, where conditions were similar. Nick DeCarlo, CAW Local 1967 president, was a soft-spoken but very determined person. We examined over 1,000 workers in the union hall, finding health disorders including lung diseases from asbestos and neurological damage like memory loss from solvents and aluminum. Over 400 workers had high aluminum levels in their blood or urine; many had associated memory loss. One of the most dangerous substances was a Chromium 6 compound known to be cancer-causing – something the company’s fact sheet somehow deleted.
We held regular meetings in the union hall, where we explained these findings and discussed what to do. We put out information leaflets. The Ministry inspectors came in and documented 230 violations of the safety legislation, including a ventilation system that was “a mess” because it recirculated toxins back into the plant. Once again, however, the government waffled on enforcement. The workers were not prepared to wait. On November 18, 1987, over 2,000 employees refused to work for health-and-safety reasons, paralysing the plant. Work stoppages continued for another five weeks.
The McDonnell Douglas rebellion was on a larger scale and involved a tougher fight. Each day of the refusal cost the company an estimated $300,000. It retaliated by announcing the layoff of 238 workers, scaring everyone with the prospect of losing their jobs. Eventually agreements were negotiated for major clean-ups and payment of our Centre for health examinations.
The McDonnell Douglas mass action sent shock waves throughout the province. It was the biggest health-and-safety strike in Canadian history. It succeeded because it bypassed all the clogged channels the authorities had constructed. It set an example for workers elsewhere.
At that time I attended a meeting of labour reps with Bob Rae, then NDP opposition leader. Rae said that top government people were very alarmed over the uprisings in the aircraft plants. Such actions threatened the stable labour-relations system that had developed after World War II. Unions ceded to management the right to control working conditions and signed collective agreements that banned strikes during the term of the contract. In return for this labour peace, unions got recognition, the automatic dues check-off, pay increases, a grievance procedure. Their senior leaders were granted a minor consulting role to industry and government. The aircraft plant actions, however, had effectively restored the workers’ right to strike over working conditions during the term of the contract. The legislation even required them to be paid while the refusals lasted.
Ontario’s top labour leaders recoiled at this development. Most had a vested interest in the system that sold and enforced labour peace. They did not want their workers taking things into their own hands. Though more progressive than others, the CAW national office was conflicted over the actions at De Havilland and McDonnell Douglas. It was surprised by them and eager to get everyone back to work quickly. It had testy relations with the local union leaderships. At McDonnell Douglas, it made an early agreement with the company to end the work refusals that had to be renegotiated when the workers and local union refused to go along.
How Business-Government-Union Action Destroyed Ontario’s Rank-and-File Health and Safety Movement
Senior government, company and labour leaders now worked together to put a lid on the health-and-safety insurgencies. They wanted to limit the power of rank-and-file workers to act independently. New legislation created a class of “certified” workplace-safety reps subject to approval by a joint employer-labour body and to removal by a government adjudicator.
They also moved to deny workers’ access to independent resources. The government poured tens of millions of dollars into alternate institutions that had company and government officials directing them along with union leaders. Whereas our clinic was completely independent, the new clinics had major corporate violators like DeHavilland and Stelco on their boards of directors, along with government. Their services were open to employers as well as workers. The same thing was done for other agencies like health-and-safety education. They taught workers to co-operate with employers. The premise was that health and safety should be “non-adversarial” because workers and employers had common interests.
The problem is that you cannot learn how to combat the boss at a health-and-safety educational when the boss is in the room, or even teaching the course. Whatever positive work some of these facilities may have done, they have not helped organize rank-and-file upsurges like those at DeHavilland and McDonnell Douglas.
Nor did these new “bipartite” or “tripartite” arrangements lead to improved health and safety. Government enforcement worsened. No surprise: the power to change things comes from a mobilized rank and file. It does not come from top management and labour leaders holding hands with one another. Many in labour opposed these changes, including the two CAW aircraft locals and OPSEU.
The business-government-labour steamroller destroyed the rank-and-file health-and-safety movement in Ontario. Our Centre came under a lot of hostile pressure, as powerful interests worked to isolate us. We were seen as an obstacle to the stable and controlled relations that top union and employer officials wanted to maintain with each other – often in opposition to their own locals. We had always made do on a shoestring budget. It now became harder to make financial ends meet. Staff were let go. I often did not get a paycheque. We had to close the Centre in 1990.
Fired by Greenpeace
I was hired by Greenpeace in September, 1990. I focused on safety hazards at nuclear power plants and dioxin contamination in our daily food. I joined with others to form the Green Work Alliance, a coalition of labour and environmental groups. It campaigned to re-open closed plants that would hire laid-off workers to produce environmental goods (“Green Jobs Not Pink Slips”). In 1993, Greenpeace decided it did not want an environmentalism linked with social justice and labour. It got rid of me and many other campaigners, especially after we organized a staff union.
Out of work and without an income, I became an expert at dodging creditors. I began to act as an advocate for injured workers improperly denied benefits. The business started in my home basement, but I was soon flooded with clients – individual workers, as well as union locals, like the machinists, bricklayers and public employees. I hired staff and moved into new offices in Hamilton. In 1997, I won a precedent-setting compensation appeal for a construction electrician who had neurological disease from aluminum dust – one of the big issues at the aircraft plants. The compensation board responded by enacting a policy banning further entitlement for aluminum disease! I have won victories for hundreds of others with kidney and asbestos diseases, and with back, neck and other injuries who were refused benefits or retraining by the mean-spirited compensation board. The process has also helped many of them regain the self-respect and dignity the system had taken from them.
People sometimes ask me why I did not return to teaching university. The truth is that I have changed a lot in the years since starting at Westinghouse. I have become a very different person and could not now go back.
When I was helping Bonita Clark with her case on sexual harassment, I learned how much harder it is for a woman to stand up and sustain these battles. Bonita became my hero. We fell in love and got married. We are trying to live happily ever after. Life has slowed down a bit: I go on regular vacations, spend hours listening to my favourite blues artists, attend a fitness centre and read the novels I never got around to read before. I go out to dinner and relax with my clients, who are also my friends.
Looking back at it all, I am optimistic, despite the setbacks. What this history tells me is that the bigwigs cannot keep workers bottled up forever, that their self-activity will always burst through the straightjackets put on them, and that, as long as workers are stepped on and forced into unsafe workplaces, they will find their own ways to overcome.
Life goes on, the struggle continues.