Workers Health & Safety Centre


By Irene Harris

Wally Majesky There is so much I want to say about Wally, but, as I was making the list, I could hear him saying something he said to me many times: "So what's the bottom line?" We'd laugh when he said it. He meant it was time to stop worrying about the reasons for action, and time to lay out the action plans. Like feminist Nelly McClung said: "Never retreat, never explain, never apologize. Get the thing done and let them howl."

So, here's the bottom line about Wally Majesky's more than 30 years of commitment to working people. He opened doors for thousands of activists, and pulled their talents and energy into the broader labour movement - just like he did through the support he gave to the founders of our labour magazine, Our Times. And he made sure we all had laughs and fun along the way, and made time for our families.

I first met Wally in 1974, through municipal politics. At that time, the likes of John Sewell, Dan Heap, Dorothy Thomas, and other left-wing councillors, were working with Wally, Jim Gill, and other Toronto labour council folks in the building of a city-wide movement to deal with the needs of workers and their families.

For community activists and union people who didn't know him, this Wally Majesky from the labour council was quite amazing to behold at organizing meetings. He was a big bear of a man who was an electrician. This immediately made him more skilled than anyone in the room, something he wasn't too shy to remind us of when anyone went too overboard. He also knew more than most of us about the history of Toronto, having lived lots of it with his life partner, Neddie.

Wally was quick with an analysis of any issue, and he knew which side he was on. He always felt we needed to join forces under the NDP umbrella. Wally was very outspoken. You always knew where he stood.

I learned lots from Wally. When he hired me, I would have been classified, in today's terms, as a "youth." I rode my bicycle from downtown Toronto to the Ontario Federation of Labour building at Don Mills and Eglinton, where the Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto and York Region was (and is) housed. I wore sandals and loved the debates that took place each morning at coffee time. Wally, Terry Meagher, Louis Lenkinski, Pat Sullivan and others would highlight issues of the day, and then debate what the labour movement should be doing in response. Wally never lost that passion. All through the years, including the last time I saw him, I could count on Wally to give me advice.

Wally worked for the Toronto labour council before serving as its president from 1980 to 1984. He took a strong labour council and made it stronger.

There was a recession in the '80s, which meant thousands of people were out of work, and we agreed we needed an unemployment help centre. Wally said to me: "Let's make it three so that our members don't have far to travel." And the council did set up three centres. When unions reported that non-English speaking members needed to know more English in order to assert their rights, Wally pulled a team together that started English classes in the workplace. One of the organizers was Lynn Spink. Two union reps who got classes started right away in their locals' workplaces were Leo Gerrard, then a Steelworker rep on Cecil Street, and the late André Beckerman, who, at that time, was with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

When the United Way got off track in the late '70s, funding elite agencies and giving corporations the credit for workers' donations, Wally was quick to help labour and community leaders who saw the problem. Another labour council team took on the task of changing this, and Wally was sent in to woo adversaries and play tug-of-war. In the end, we had our own labour community services agency funded by the United Way; a revised and revived union counsellor program, and much more. The Labour Education Centre, co-op housing (through the Labour Council Development Foundation), and Our Times were also part of Wally's legacy. Wally - a construction worker who could pound the table with his velvet-gloved fist until the needs of workers were seen, understood, and acted on - also earned the respect of corporate leaders.

Under Wally's leadership, local leaders grew in strength and experience, and up to 100 delegates would turn out for the monthly labour council meetings. I say "under his leadership" with respect and as a compliment, since Wally never saw himself as a one-man-band. He had this special, not-common-enough ability to pull teams of people together to tackle a problem. He was open to tenacious, prolonged, passionate debates about issues and their root causes. And he forced us to turn the debates into solutions. He saw the big picture and worked for political and legislative change. But he also always kept his eye on the need to help union members with their immediate problems.

A word about the NDP. Wally always told me that talk is easy, but that you had to get out there and build riding associations, and canvass, canvass, canvass. I canvassed with him once, to learn how it was done. I could hear him all the way down at the end of the street, debating at each door. His riding of Scarborough West elected Stephen Lewis, Richard Johnston and Ann Swarbrick.

There is so much more to tell about Wally, including his lifelong commitment to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and his work as secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour from 1984 to 1986. But, back to the bottom line.

Wally has left behind hundreds of activists he mentored and trained; years of his advice, friendship, brotherhood and know-how, and; a wonderful family. We will miss him and remember him as a generous man with a heart as big as a house. Thanks, Wally, and go in peace.

Irene Harris is executive vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Labour. This article is based on the eulogy she gave at Wally Majesky's funeral in Toronto. He died on August 10, 2002, of cancer.

This article was first published in Our Times, 2003, May/June, Vol.22, No.2.