February is Black History Month, and it’s a good time to reflect on how Black Canadians have contributed to the labour movement and to the electrical trade. In an era of more incidents of overt racism, it can help people of all colours to gain strength and hope by reflecting on the struggles and achievements of the past.
Labour unions are about fairness, and few groups have had to struggle for equality in the same way as people of Black heritage.
“Labour unions have enhanced us both socially and workwise,” says Janice Gairey, retired Human Rights Director for the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and past President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Canada. “We have been able to enjoy benefits, better salaries, better health and safety conditions, and more equitable employment opportunities.”
Beverley Johnson, retired Human Rights Officer for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), agrees. “I would say that being part of a collective is always better than being on your own. Union members are better paid and are usually in a better position to provide for their families. Usually there is more stability and some rules in the workplace.”
An IBEW Apprentice Shares His Perspective
Theo Davis is a 5th term apprentice from Hamilton’s Local 105.
“Growing up I have always loved electrical systems and electronics, and studied them every year in school,” says Davis. “I’ve always been fascinated by how things work. Now I can earn my living doing all the things I’ve loved to do.”
Davis learned about the IBEW from his father in law, Jack Marrone, also a member of 105 (now retired). “I’ve been in other unions, but none of them had the same feeling of brotherhood. I really like all the social events and community spirit, and how everyone looks out for each other,” he says.
To illustrate, Davis relates a story from his first two weeks on a jobsite. “I was learning from a journeyman, and another worker came up to us and said ‘Do you mind if I borrow your bitch?’. The journeyman said, ‘His name is Theo, and he’s an apprentice, not a bitch. It’s OK if you need a hand, but please call him by his name.’ I immediately felt that this was really something I wanted to be a part of.”
“Personally speaking, I’ve never felt at a disadvantage because of my colour in Local 105. You’re either a skilled electrician or you’re not – that’s how they handle it. I’ve also done some work in Toronto, and everyone there was the same way. You’re judged on skillset.”
Davis feels that the IBEW presents great opportunities for young people. “You can travel in North America and anywhere in the world on your skill. It’s an exciting trade that is constantly evolving as technology advances. I am currently mentoring my younger brother, who also is interested in electronics; it’s great to earn a living using your mind.”
Meet a Groundbreaking Black Electrician
Unfortunately, we don’t have a long list of pioneers in the electrical trade to share – and we don’t know who was the first Black member of IBEW in Ontario, or even the first Black member in Canada. Many locals don’t keep records of social and ethnic backgrounds of members.
But we do know who the first black electrician in Toronto was: John Riley. He grew up in York, and attended Ryerson. In 1953 he started his own electrical business, and obtained his Master Electrician’s license in 1960.
Sadly, he is no longer with us, having passed on at the age of 91. According to his son, his philosophy was “If you’re going to do a job, do it right.”
You can watch an interview with John Riley on City News.
Black Canadians in Ontario Labour
After World War II, returning black veterans found employment in companies with unionized workforces like Massey Ferguson and Stelco. What we can’t confirm is whether or not they were members of the original company unions.
One of the most important unions for Black people in Ontario was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who in 1946 became the first union organized by and for Black Canadians, as they weren’t accepted into the white Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees. Janice Gairey’s father, James Desmond Davis, was a CBCP board member.
While there are many more inspiring leaders than we can mention here (we include a list in the “Further Reading” section below), here are a few key figures in Ontario labour history.
The partnership between workers of colour and unions reaches back into history. In the late 1940s, Bromley Armstrong, a member of the United Auto Workers Local 439 employed at Massey Harris (later Massey Ferguson), wanted to become a welder. Despite passing the welding course, he found that the personnel department kept “losing” his application for the welding position. The president of his Local helped him, and in return Armstrong promised to become more active in his local.
Armstrong would continue to work for the betterment of people of colour within his union and beyond. His famous “Dresden experiment” would expose restaurants and other businesses that were refusing to serve non-whites. He would also become an instrumental figure in the development of anti-racist legislation in Ontario, and earn an honourary doctorate.
Stanley G. Grizzle
Stanley G. Grizzle is almost a living definition of the word ‘trailblazer’. His activism began in the army during WWII, when he challenged the use of soldiers of colour as butlers for white senior officers. A member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he was president of his local for 16 years.
He was the first African Canadian to be appointed Ontario Minister of Labour, and was also Canada’s first Black and trade unionist Citizenship Court judge. He was the first Black candidate for the provincial CCF party (now the NDP). He now has a park named after him in Toronto. You can learn more about Stanley Grizzle in this article or on BlackPast.org.
A First in Leadership
Fred Upshaw, leader of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union from 1990 – 1995, was the first Black leader of a major Canadian trade union. He not only won wage increases and human rights language in OPSEU contracts, he set an example for young people of colour in the unions.
The Ontario Federation of Labour now has 5 VPs to ensure equity on the board, including two representatives for workers of colour, LGBTQ, an aboriginal representative, and a worker with disabilities representative.
The Call to Document History
While the IBEW in the USA has been more proactive about documenting the history of workers of colour in the union, there is much less information about members north of the border.
“We need to formulate a separate Canadian context, and document our own Black history,” says Gairey.
“Unfortunately, right now our locals don’t know how many union members are people of colour, women, GBLTQ,” says Gairey. In most unions, as with the IBEW, stats are not kept.
But it’s never too late to start. For example, the Canadian Labour Congress has already issued a couple of report cards and other unions have embarked on social mapping of their membership and in staffing. While the actual statistics may have been disappointing in terms of diverse representation, at least they have the information and can start taking the next steps forward.
In spite of progress, however, unions should never be complacent. “There are always issues that one has to overcome,” says Beverley Johnson.
“The issue of race is a big one, including the particular kind of racism that Black folks face in this kind of environment, like being able to be heard and to progress in the organization. While there has been so much work done is so many unions over time, the fact that you have diversity does not mean there is no discrimination.”
Every union has different structures and procedures in place, which can work against workers of colour to a greater degree.
As an example, Johnson cites decision making processes. “There are a lot of rules around the meetings at which decisions are made, especially conventions. A lot of racialized workers may not be able to attend them, because of things like shift work, or young children or ageing parents to care for.”
Gairey reflects on the intergenerational connection, and its importance for young workers of colour members. “The young people need our helping hands as mentors and femtors – like the ones I had. I would have stayed as a TA with my school board without the mentoring I received. When I think about where I’ve been and what I’ve done, I wouldn’t change anything.”
“Get involved, know your collective agreement and your union constitution,” urges Bev Johnson. “If you’re involved and attend, you have a chance to learn and to get to a place where the decisions are being made. Know who your local executives are, and the people above them.”
Does Janice Gairey have any advice for young members of colour? “Use your voice with confidence. Participate in your union meetings and educational opportunities. Don’t ever think that you’re not going to learn and succeed. There is a space for you as labour leaders or staff”.
Theo Davis also recommends getting involved, and is active in Local 105’s Events Committee and NextGen committee. “I love how they’re trying to get our online generation to see each other face to face.”
He also has some advice to pass on. “Someone once told me that whenever I go to a meeting, I should sit beside a retiree and start a conversation. Guaranteed you’ll come away with at least one interesting story.”
Special appeal: The Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest black church in Ontario. It is a National Historic Site, but is in need of about $100,000 in repairs. If you’d like to help, please contact the church via their website.
Here are a few more inspiring Black leaders in the Ontario labour movement you may want to read about. The full list is much longer; the names you see here have articles about them online:
- Cal Best – a union founder and leader, he was also Canada’s first Black High Commissioner (see the “Documentary” tab)
- Herman Stewart – was vice president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
- Jack White – first Black elected representative of the Iron Workers Union, and later went on to be an official in CUPE.
- Ucal Powell – Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario (CDCO)
- Muriel Collins – one of the first Black women on the CUPE executive board
- Marie Clarke Walker – Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)
- Photo of Janice Gairey: Haseena Manek
- Video still of John Riley: City TV
- Photo of Theo Davis: courtesy Theo Davis
- Image of Bromley Armstrong: from the Canadian Encyclopedia, originally provided by Bromley Armstrong
- Photo of Stanley G. Grizzle: BlackPast.org
- Photo of Fred Upshaw: OPSEU