Ontario’s labour movement remembers Fred Upshaw, the first black trade unionist to lead a major Canadian union

 

(Toronto) – Fred Upshaw was a trailblazer and a dedicated trade unionist who led the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) from 1990 to 1995, securing wage increases for public employees and winning unit reform and human rights language in OPSEU contracts. He was the first black trade unionist to lead a major Canadian union.

“The work Fred did for his brothers and sisters in the labour movement made lasting positive change for workers of color across this province” said OFL President Chris Buckley. “As the first black president of a major Canadian union, Fred set an example for many younger labour activists and we should all be grateful for his work for greater inclusion and fairness within the labour movement and communities across Ontario.”

Fred Upshaw was born in Halifax in 1935 but moved to Toronto with his mother in 1941. He was the eldest of six children in a single-parent family.

His life as an activist began at Malvern Collegiate High School, where as student council president he led a walkout demanding that students be consulted over uniform changes. Upshaw was a debater and singer in his early years. Following a short stint on the executive of United Auto Workers’ Local 222, Upshaw became a registered nurse and took a job at Whitby Psychiatric Hospital where he was a member, and later president of OPSEU Local 331.

Elected to the OPSEU Executive Board in 1980, Upshaw became First Vice-President/Treasurer in 1984 and President of OPSEU in 1990, serving on the OFL board during his presidency from 1990-1995.

Upshaw’s presidency coincided with the five-year rule of Ontario’s NDP government under Premier Bob Rae. Upshaw led the union during the fightback against Rae’s Social Contract Act. As a key leader of the Public Services Coalition, Upshaw won agreements that minimized the impact of “Rae Days” and prevented layoffs. During Upshaw’s time in office, OPSEU won the right to strike for Ontario Public Service members, joint union-management control over the OPSEU Pension Trust (now OPTrust) and the colleges’ pension plan, and political rights for Crown employees. Always a human rights activist, Upshaw championed employment equity during his term in office.

He was an active member of the OFL board.

“I worked with Fred for many years and I could always rely on him for support in taking recommendations to the board,” said former OFL Human Rights director June Veecock. “This was in the old days when it was quite challenging to put Human Rights and equity on labour’s agenda. Fred was always progressive on th0se issues.”

Upshaw also served on the Worker’s Health and Safety Board, remaining a member until his death.

“Fred Upshaw was a clear and resolute voice on behalf of all workers while serving as OPSEU’s President on the Federations Board of Directors,” said former OFL president Gord Wilson. “Fred provided valuable insight for me and all of us serving with him on the Board. No one could doubt his commitment to improving the lives of working people and their families regardless of origin, race, language, sex or sexual orientation. Workers have lost a staunch ally. He will be sorely missed. Well done brother, well done.”

The OFL extends deepest condolences to his family, friends and his colleagues in the labour movement.

 

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