In It For Life
We are thankful for these and all the good things of life. We recognize that they are part of our common heritage and come to us through the efforts of our brothers and sisters the world over. What we desire for ourselves we wish for all. To this end may we take our share in the world’s work and the world’s struggles.
— J.S. Woodsworth
For those who know Clarence MacPherson it should come as no surprise he adopted J.S. Woodsworth’s prayer as his personal mission statement over two decades ago.
MacPherson describes his experience of entering the dining hall at the then-United Auto Workers’ (UAW) Port Elgin education centre as awe inspiring for “a young impressionable activist.” On the walls surrounding the hall hung plaques carved with the words of great leaders from his union and others in the social justice movement.
But the words of a clergyman, turned trade unionist, turned founder of Canada’s first democratic socialist party struck the biggest chord. “I was drawn to the labour movement because it is a community,” says MacPherson, “one that upholds the dignity of labour. As a movement we understand we really are our brother’s keeper. When each of us does our part, we can make the world a better place.”
MacPherson remembers first being encouraged to get involved in the union in 1977. He began with training, participating in just about every program offered by the UAW. Shortly thereafter MacPherson was elected shop steward at Ajax’s Chrysler Trim Plant and then local union editor and vice president of UAW Local 1090.
John Gatens, long-time president for the local, recalls MacPherson as one of a half dozen able young members in the local determined to make their mark. At the time though, few were interested in becoming an occupational health and safety activist says Gatens. “Clarence jumped in with both feet. From there the movement grew and he with it.”
Every activist has a defining moment, for MacPherson it came with a massive work refusal in the plant. A press for door parts had caught fire filling the area with toxic fumes. Employer representatives instructed the workers to stay on the job. Instead the workers walked out to safety. Attempting to shift the issue to one of insubordination the employer fired six workers on the spot. Undeterred no one returned to the job until they were satisfied it was okay to do so. Fortunately, MacPherson, Gatens and the plant shop committee negotiated full reinstatement for those who had suffered reprisals.
“This event really helped to galvanize my decision to pursue workplace health and safety. I could see how much it affected the lives of working people. It was an issue for which workers would take a clear stand,” says MacPherson.
In 1979 MacPherson went to work for the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) health and safety training project. On the strength of this project, the OFL convinced the then-Workers’ Compensation Board in 1985 to provide sustained funding. They began with a budget of $1 million and MacPherson as co-director and soon Executive Director.
Buoyed by MacPherson’s leadership there would be many successes for the Workers Centre and all connected with it: designated substance training for the Ministry of Labour inspectorate; quality workplace training in the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System and in six different languages; the Musculoskeletal Injuries Prevention Program adapted to meet the needs of workers in a variety of industry sectors; North America’s first Young Worker Awareness Program; comprehensive Certification training for workplace health and safety representatives; and significant outreach and awareness on central issues like cancer prevention, reproductive health and clean, sustainable jobs that protect worker and community health. With these successes were dramatic increases in resources for the Workers Centre.
“In order to look forward, you have to look backwards,” says Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers of America. He explains the universal truth that past achievements give us the resolve and confidence to tackle new challenges. Although MacPherson is no longer the Workers Centre Executive Director, Gerard is certain he will continue to make a substantive contribution to worker health and safety. In a word, Gerard characterizes MacPherson’s contribution to date as “profound.” He adds, “Clarence has patience. He was building something incrementally, but something that would last. Clarence first and foremost established credibility for the Centre with workers and then with their employers.”
Gord Wilson, former OFL president and present Workers Centre secretary-treasurer remembers relying heavily on MacPherson’s “guidance and stewardship,” especially during labour’s campaign of the late 1980s to extend legislated worker rights, including an equal voice in matters such as management of the province’s health and safety system and standard setting. Wilson observes, MacPherson brought this same stewardship to the Centre itself. “He kept it alive. Somebody has to be the quarterback. Because of Clarence we never lost sight of where we should be.”
“He is a man of vision. He is always way out in front of us. He thinks two, three, four years down the road,” says Lyle Hargrove, director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Health, Safety and Environment Training Fund. “Just as important, he can get people really excited about where we are going.”
Those outside the labour movement also respect MacPherson’s abilities. “He is one of the most honest, best spoken of his peers,” says Brock Horseman, senior vice president of operations for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. “He can cut through to the chase. But his approach is multifaceted and inclusive. With Clarence everyone has value.”
“He stayed at a higher level,” says Don Dickie, chair of Ontario’s Occupational Safety and Health Council. Among other things Dickie credits MacPherson with “resurrecting” Certification training. “Certification, Part 2 would have laid dormant if he hadn’t have been so active.”
Lorne Lebert has been a CAW, Workers Centre-qualified instructor since 1987. He attests to the worth of this training and countless other Workers Centre initiatives. Lebert recently wrote to MacPherson. “It is you, brother, that created our path and motivated thousands of workplace activists throughout the province to get involved in health, safety and the environment. …You are living proof that we can make a difference.”
Like Lebert, OFL president Wayne Samuelson believes MacPherson’s greatest gift has been the creation of a health and safety network. “It has never been about him. It has always been about working people and what they can do,” says Samuelson. “He brings incredible commitment, and skills to move things forward. Through his work, he has touched thousands and thousands of people who have never even met him.”
Fittingly, MacPherson calls this network, like the labour movement, a community. “This is what I, and the Workers Centre have been about. It is gratifying that others see it too. Where once health and safety was the purview of few, the issue is now in the hands of many. We would not have achieved all we have if we had not recognized and nurtured the ties that bind us.”
MacPherson is proud of his record and its milestones, but he is determined to foster more. Currently he is working to help mobilize yet another community — one created by and for families and friends of workers affected by life-altering, occupational tragedies. Theirs will one day be a national organization, supporting those attempting to cope with the aftermath of these tragedies and those seeking to voice their own message for health and safety awareness and accountability. MacPherson also continues as labour’s co-chair on the Friends of the LifeQuilt
Committee, working with others in the labour and health, safety and environment movements to realize a lasting memorial for young workers seriously and fatally injured on the job.
“The threads of life are woven in our mutual care. If ever I didn’t fully appreciate this, I certainly do now,” concludes MacPherson.