When the United Food and Commercial Workers union held a solidarity barbecue last Friday for a group of Edmonton poultry plant workers it hopes will soon join its ranks, Doug O’Halloran wasn’t there.
It’s almost unheard of for Mr. O’Halloran, leader of UFCW 401 for three decades, not to be at an event of this sort. After all, it was an effort to help Maple Leaf Foods Inc. employees leave the so-called Christian Labour Association of Canada, which has a reputation as an employer-friendly bargaining agent, and if Mr. O’Halloran believed in anything it was the benefit for working people of being represented by a real union.
With 32,000 members, UFCW 401 is nowadays the largest private-sector union in Alberta, representing workers in some of the toughest jobs in the province, across a broad range of industries. For as long as I can remember, Mr. O’Halloran has been the face and voice of UFCW in Alberta. To say he is a fighter and a pillar of the labour union movement in this province understates his commitment and influence considerably.
So you had to know something was wrong on Friday for Mr. O’Halloran not to be there in the motorized wheelchair he has used the past few years cheering those brave working people on as they marched off the plant’s property on their lunch break in defiance of their employer and CLAC reps eyeing them as they left.
The sad news came Friday afternoon when one of the last of Canada’s old style union leaders — tough, plain spoken and deeply committed to the working people he represented — signed off with dignity and courage in a remarkable statement on social media.
“Brothers and Sisters, I have always been a fighter and, as many of you know, I beat kidney cancer in 2016,” Mr. O’Halloran wrote. “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,” Mr. O’Halloran continued. “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.”
“I always thought that my end would come on some picket line, fighting a just fight,” Mr. O’Halloran said, and many of us have worried that the same fate might befall him, because he never shied away from an uphill battle.
UFCW 401 took on some of the toughest fights in Alberta labour history during Mr. O’Halloran’s leadership, including the province-wide Safeway strike in 1997, the Shaw Conference Centre strike in 2002, and the Lakeside Packers strike in 2005.
During the bitter Lakeside Packers dispute for a first collective agreement, Mr. O’Halloran’s truck was run off a highway by goons supporting the employer. The first time I can recall seeing the man in action, though, he was flipping burgers with a smile on his face for the Shaw Conference strikers.
Author Jason Foster, in his book Defying Expectations, the Case of UFCW Local 401, described the scene when he joined the picket line at the meat-packing plant in Brooks in 1997:
“Amidst the sea of African and Asian newcomers, I spotted a handful of UFCW staffers familiar to me. But even those I didn’t know I immediately identified as union staff, not because of the colour of their skin (the line that day included a few workers from Newfoundland), but because they seemed so different in every way from the people for whom they were working. The staffers were a mélange of young, energetic grocery store workers and grizzled union vets with years of experience in the labour relations trenches. Neither group seemed to have anything in common with the men and women milling around them.
“Then the local president, Doug O’Halloran, drove up to the line. The energy in the crowd rose. O’Halloran, a larger-than-life former meat packer, carried himself with an air of authority tinged with modesty. After some informal greetings, he addressed the crowd. They listened, rapt, cheering and applauding everything he said. I was surprised at the enthusiasm, energy, and, yes, love they expressed for him.”
Mr. O’Halloran ended his post Friday with these blunt words: “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. In Solidarity, Doug.”