Retired CLC Secretary-Treasurer – Leaves Legacy in Canada and Throughout the World
For many in our society, going to work and returning home safe and healthy is a given. For Dick Martin and countless other health, safety and environmental activists this is another myth to be dispelled at all costs. If we are ever to secure the kind of workplaces and communities workers and their families deserve, then the truth of occupational injury and illness and death must be confronted.
Fifteen years ago Martin, the Canadian Labour Congress’ (CLC) then-newly elected executive vice-president helped take an important step towards educating workers and the public about the tragedies many workers and their families endure. On April 28, 1984, the anniversary of Canada’s first comprehensive workers’ compensation legislation (Ontario, 1914), Martin and the CLC established a national day of mourning for workers who suffer occupational injury, illness and death.
Propelled by the Day’s powerful message and sheer hard work on the part of Martin and others who believed passionately in it, what was Canada’s Day of Mourning is now recognized in more than 80 countries.
Speaking at a Day of Mourning ceremony held in Toronto last spring, Bob White, then-president of the CLC, acknowledged Martin’s contribution. He prefaced his remarks with the observation that this was to be the century’s last Day of Mourning. Recalling the words of politicians 100 years ago, but with an obvious twist, he reminded those gathered that this century belonged to Canada largely because of working people. “As we built this country no other group of people gave more of their lives than workers. ... Dick Martin helped pioneer our National Day of Mourning to recognize their suffering and has thus gone some way toward preventing future suffering.”
A strong proponent of grassroots activism, Martin points to its important role on this day. “It is working people and other activists in communities across Canada and around the world who take a moment wherever they are — on the shop floor, in a park, in a union hall or school — to remember and recommit.”
Although significant, the Day of Mourning is not the sole legacy of this tireless leader. Electing to retire as the CLC’s secretary-treasurer, Martin was recognized during last May’s Congress convention. In paying tribute to Martin, many spoke of missed planes, extended home renovation projects and lost suitcases. Amidst this humour, they also spoke of his commitment to securing justice for working men and women and promoting action to protect their environments, inside and outside the workplace.
Rob Hilliard, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour and former co-worker, can attest to this commitment. Off work with a workplace injury, Hilliard recalls phoning Martin, then-president of United Steelworkers of America (USWA), Local 6616, to request his help. Hilliard was entitled to compensation, but had yet to receive any. “Calls were immediately made and cheques were shortly in the mail,” says Hilliard. “Mine was not a unique experience. Dick is a caring leader who has always put workers first.”
Martin’s activism is rooted in his early experiences as a nickel miner in Thompson, Manitoba. “I’ll always remember the first day going underground,” recalls Martin. “The conditions were appalling. Still, I had to support my family.” Having been exposed to these dangerous working conditions and seeing co-workers injured and killed was enough to get him involved in his local union. Martin’s leadership skills quickly became apparent to many.
“Dick’s commitment, enthusiasm and character as a human being is what attracts others to the causes he promotes,” says Dave Bennett, national health and safety representative, CLC. One such cause was his pioneering work promoting environmental activism in the labour movement. He was responsible for the creation of the USWA, Local 6616 environment committee, believed to be one of the first of its kind in Canada.
Referring to issues like the environment, Bob White told CLC convention delegates last May, “Dick has always been on the right side of issues, taking them on even when they weren’t popular.”
Elected president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) in 1978, Martin spearheaded many initiatives including one that ultimately saw the introduction of Manitoba’s first comprehensive health and safety legislation. He also played a leading role, along with Lisa Donner, in the birth of the MFL’s Occupational Health Centre.
As the CLC officer responsible for health and safety, Martin helped lead the effort to legislate a national right to know standard — the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. “It’s an accomplishment any time we can get positive legislation on the books,” explains Martin. “But getting federal and
provincial governments along with labour and
management to agree to this legislation was quite a feat.”
In April, 1997, Martin was elected president of the 43 million member Inter-American Regional Labour Organization (IARLO). Martin believes in the importance of this and other international labour and social justice organizations. “Labour and environmental issues are becoming more and more global,” he explains. “Global warming is just one example. This and other environmental catastrophes must be addressed on a world-wide scale.”
He will complete his work with IARLO when his term runs out in 2001. But according to Martin, his work as a health, safety and environmental activist will continue. He recently accepted the position of honourary chairperson, Environmental-Labour Alliance in British Columbia. Mae Burrows and other activists are excited about his involvement. “Dick is a politician and a strategic thinker who has an incredible knack for finding common ground,” explains Burrows, a member of United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU)/Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). “He is so well-grounded. He well understands the connection between a healthy environment and healthy workplaces.”
Martin, a father of three, sums up his efforts in terms with which we can all identify. “We must become more concerned about unhealthy and unsafe workplaces and communities. We must work towards a better legacy for our children and grandchildren. We must remain active and demand change. We owe it to ourselves and future generations.”