In Memoriam: Leslie Dickirson, 1922-2014

One of the benefits of researching the recent past is that I get to meet some of the people in the events that I write about. Through the course of my research, I’ve met dozens of people who were (and often are still) involved in the lesbian, gay, and labour movements. Meeting people, either in person, over the phone or on skype, is always a pleasure and one of my favourite of my research. However, sometimes there are also people that you would love to meet and discuss but, for whatever reason, never have the opportunity to meet. Les Dickirson was one of those people.

I’ve never met Les, but he figures pretty prominently in my research. He was the chair of UAW local 195’s human rights committee in the 1970s, and pushed his local to include sexual orientation protection in their collective agreement as early as 1974. He was ahead of his time in that regard.

Leslie Dickirson (centre)receiving the 2007 Charles E. Brooks Labour Service Community Award (source: The Guardian, December 2007)

Leslie Dickirson (centre)receiving the 2007 Charles E. Brooks Labour Service Community Award (source: The Guardian, December 2007)

Local 195 was (and is) a composite local, made up of several different workplaces (Units), each with their own contract. In the 1970s, when Les and UAW 195’s Human Rights Committee recommended that sexual orientation protection be included in its contracts, it had about 60 or so different units. This meant convincing 60 separate Units to fight for the same amendment at a time when same-sex sexuality was not only widely misunderstood, but often loathed. Getting each of them to include “sexual orientation” in their no discrimination clauses would be a tough sell, especially considering that a number of them didn’t even have anti-discrimination language in the first place. Still, Les and his co-workers were able to make progress, not only in getting a number of the local’s Units to include sexual orientation protection, but also in creating a friendlier and less homophobic workplace culture and union. In a letter written to a friend in 1980, he wrote about the progress that they were making in these regards. He wrote: “I’m glad that the subject is now one that we can talk and laugh about in such an open manner. It wasn’t that easy a few years ago when I first introduced the subject.”

I did try to get in touch with him to see if he would participate in an interview. Another person I interviewed gave me Les’ contact information (with Les’ permission, of course), so I gave him a call. I was told that he had been in and out of the hospital, so I didn’t get my hopes up. When I called, there was no answer. I got the machine and left a message. Unfortunately I never heard back from Les, so I missed out the chance to speak to him. It’s a shame that his voice won’t be as present in my research as I would have liked, but I guess that his ultimate legacy lies in the results that came out of the work that he did in both his local and in his community.

Leslie Dickirson. 1922-2014

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The Canadian Auto Workers, Social Unionism and the Abortion Debate

CAW pro-choice protest

CAW pro-choice protest (photo credit: CBC)

While there have been a number of labour related subjects in the news today, from the Elliot Lake tragedy to the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ White Paper policy on unions, one article in particular caught my interest. It was about the recent efforts of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) to organize a number of demonstrations in support of continued access to safe, legal and accessible abortion. That this has turned out to be a controversial campaign did not come as a surprise, but I was interested in some of the comments made by a number of the readers of the article. Aside from being surprised at the small number of comments, especially on the issue of abortion (14 comments as of the time of my writing this), I couldn’t help but notice the surprise in some of the comments that the CAW would show an interest in, let alone take a position on, the question of abortion.

While adopting a pro-choice position on such a controversial issue might be considered by some to be a risky decision given the current anti-labour climate, the fact that the CAW did so should come as no surprise. This isn’t the first time that the CAW has publicly taken a position on a controversial issue indirectly related to the workplace. For example, the CAW/UAW has a history of supporting the rights of queer workers that goes back to the mid-1970s. In 1974, the Human Rights Committee of Local 195 of the UAW, located in Windsor, sent a memo directing its bargaining teams to negotiate for the inclusion of a non-discrimination clause that protected workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While this was not achieved until a later date, their decision to address gay and lesbian civil rights in the workplace marked the beginning of a trend that would see a number of locals across the country recognize the importance of fighting for the rights of their gay and lesbian members. More recently, in 2004, Local 222 of the CAW in Oshawa spoke publicly in support of Marc Hall, a Catholic high school student who was denied the right to bring his partner to his prom. In this case, the aid provided by the CAW helped bring Hall’s fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where he was ultimately successful.

While the relationship between abortion rights, or even the right of a gay high school student to bring his boyfriend to prom, and the everyday bread and butter issues affecting CAW members might not always be clear, the CAW’s adoption of the social unionism model has led it to embrace the view that workplace issues do not begin and end at the factory gates. Our private lives affect our working lives just as much as our wages affect our ability to support ourselves and our communities. Denying working-class women access to safe and legal abortion and family planning services affects working-class communities. As a result, this makes the abortion debate a union issue.

As one of the readers, Old Gregg, put it: “It seems obvious to me that CAW would weigh in on this debate. Women’s safety is workers’ safety.”