Gerry Michaud 1937- 2023
On November 25, 2023 we received the sad news of Gerry Michaud’s passing. Although many of our active members never had the pleasure of working with Gerry Michaud, his career was winding down long before many of our current members started at GM. There can be no doubt that Gerry was a strong union activist and advocate for all our members and the community in which we live. Gerry represented the members in several capacities including, Shop Steward, Editor of the 199 News, President of Local 199 from 1979 to 1987, as well as the Director of the Family Education Centre in Port Elgin. In every position he held Gerry worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the members he represented and left a legacy that we have all benefit from.
When the local union was working on our 75th anniversary, Gerry reached out to share his wealth of knowledge about the union and our members. Gerry was most generous with his time and quick to offer good advice to those that would listen. Following is an interview with Gerry Michaud from 2012 which offers some insight into what influenced Gerry and made him tick.
The last question we asked Gerry Michaud was if he had any words of wisdom he would like to share with those that follow? and this is how he responded.
“Age does not make one wise, the only advice I would offer is to do the best job you can, for every member who asks for your help, do the right thing even it isn’t easy, and live every day of your life as though it was going to be front page news the following day!” Gerry Michaud, 2012.
The complete interview and a link to images of Gerry Michaud are below.
On behalf of the Local Union, the Executive Board, our staff, our members, both retired and active, we offer our deepest condolences to the Michaud family and all of Gerry’s friends.
Jordan Lennox. President Unifor Local 199
Gerry Michaud – A Valuable History Lesson
An Interview with Gerry Michaud By Peter Scott, (published 2012)
Gerry Michaud, President CAW Local 199 (1979-1987)
Gerry Michaud – A Valuable History Lesson
An Interview with Gerry Michaud
What Kind of Childhood did you have?
I had a great childhood. We were poor but I never knew it. My dad was lucky to work right through the depression and war years. Because he was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear he was not considered for the military. My mom was sickly all her life due to a damaged heart valve, the result of rheumatic fever as a child. She was not deemed strong enough to marry nor have children as it would kill her. Yet she did marry and I have two brothers, six and nine years younger than I. When the Union negotiated a drug plan my father had some disposable income for the first time in his married life. By the time I was twelve my father had scraped together $900 for a cottage on leased land at Jones Beach. I grew up swimming in the Lake and the Welland Ship Canal, playing sandlot soft ball and later football in high school. When I was 14 my dad sold the cottage and we moved to Thorold. I was a King’s scout and was lucky enough to be selected as one of 32 Canadian Boy Scouts to travel to England and attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. (We became Queen Scouts then). I attended Notre Dame High School in Welland and went to grade 13 at Thorold High long enough to play football before I started work at the Ontario Paper Co.
When did you get involved with the union?
As a Paper Maker I did not aspire to union office but I did attend every union meeting in order to pay my dues (no check off at the Ontario Paper then) and was a vocal participant. When I started at General Motors I was in the foundry. In those days there were two caucuses; the Unity Caucus and the Walter Reuther Administration Caucus. The Unity was led by Gord Lambert and the Reuther Caucus was almost defunct. It had only two members in office. Eric Cooper as Financial Secretary – Treasurer and Eddie Child as a committee person in the Engine Plant. There was a third Al MacLean who was a committeeperson in the Foundry, but he defected to the Unity Slate in order to get his grievances settled. He resigned after getting a physical beating while traveling to Port Elgin by bus with the members of his new caucus. In those days I thought Communists had three heads and so when Eugene D’Antonio, who I had been in Boy Scouts with, asked me if I liked the way the union was being run I said no. Orchestrated by Lorne Franklin from the Engine Plant, Eugene, myself and about eight others walked into a meeting of the Reuther Caucus, ran for office and took it over. Following Walter Reuther’s death we changed the name to the Blue Slate Caucus which reflected the colour of the paper we printed our leaflets on.
What was your first Elected Position?
In 1971 I was elected as afternoon shift committeeperson in the foundry, representing the molding lines, melt department, tow motor drivers on the ramp, the pattern shop and the core room. Dale Martin was my first alternate. Dale was a good friend. He had run on the Unity Slate but lost to our candidate who turned around and resigned after his first grievance call as he could not handle the pressure. I had Washuta appoint Dale who then joined the Blue Slate and was a terrific alternate. Carlos McCoy from the Unity Slate represented the Cleaning room. We put aside our differences and worked together to make sure the foundry workers had good representation on the afternoon shift. In my opinion Carlos was a good committee person.
What were the working conditions like when you first started?
I quit my job at W.S. Tyler’s to work at General Motors. In 1965 the difference of $20 a week was a lot of money to a father who was the sole support of his wife and four children. I went from a steady day job and a clean working atmosphere to the foundry on Three Line. Objects at the extreme end of the line were somewhat hazy due to the dirt and dust. I worked at the clamp job and later on shakeout. I took the opportunity to take my wife on a tour of the foundry. When we came to the shake out job and told her that was what I did she was horrified. The dust was so bad that after eight hours on the job my own mother would not have recognized me behind the dirt and grime that ate into the pores of my skin and eyes. In those days we had 10 minutes an hour of “environmental relief”. Thanks to the solidarity we had with one another we were successful in turning that into half an hour on and half an hour off within a period of a couple of years. I learned not only the value of a well run work stoppage but also how to conduct one which paid off a few years later when I was a committee person.
What was it Like For Minorities and women in the Plant?
There were only a few minorities in the plant when I was there. They were obviously discriminated against. An example was Everett “Pudge” Dawson, a black man working in the foundry who had a grade 13 education at time when most of the superintendents in the foundry didn’t even have grade 10. Pudge was never considered for a management position. The company’s loss was the union’s gain. Pudge represented us at the International UAW Foundry Council as well as a on number of committees and was the editor of the local union paper for a number of years. Leroy Bell was another example of a good man being ignored. Again it was a blessing for the union to have such a capable person as a union activist. There were no women in the foundry. They had been laid off out of line of seniority years before just because they were women. One of the things that John Clout was successful in obtaining at the bargaining table was the restoration of their pension credits for the entire period that they were unfairly on lay off. When women first came back into the foundry there were problems with some of the jobs that were just too heavy for them. At a bargaining committee meeting, because there had been complaints that the women were getting “cushy” jobs, a number of committeemen took the position that if they couldn’t so the job they should be let go. “If they want equal rights they should have be willing to do equal work”! I stood up and said I agreed. However if we had a man that was around 130 pounds that wasn’t strong enough to do the job, he should be let go too. My ruse worked and the complainers looked bad and backed off. We then agreed that if the job was too heavy to be done safely then we should negotiate hoists and other aids. It wasn’t long before the hoists were on the line in the cleaning room which was where most of the problems were. The women became accepted and the complaints died out.
Who was the president when you started in the plant?
When I started in the plant Jim Connell was president. Jim was in office 12 years, he was and still is the longest serving president in our history and deservedly so.
Who were the leaders that you looked up to?
Gord Lambert, Jim Connell and Eric Cooper, Denis McDermot and Bob White were leaders I really respected. While I was in a different camp from Gord and Jim we were never bitter with one another and there was mutual respect and admiration. I remember being terrified when as a rookie committee person I got a call to represent Gord after he was back on the job after being defeated as Plant Chair, a position he had held for 18 years. He just had a simple question and was a real gentleman. We sat down and discussed a number of issues. I think Gord was feeling me out to see how I felt about things. Other than the fact that he was a member of the Communist Party of Canada and I was a New Democrat, we saw eye to eye on most things. He was certainly a barn burner of a public speaker!
I gained a lot of respect for Jim Connell when, even though we were in different camps, he had me go to the St. Catharines Standard Print Shop to put together a list of dentists who would cooperate with us by charging our members the 1976 fee schedule instead of the current one. Even though the document was under my name, Jim felt it was too important to do as an ordinary leaflet and I always respected him for that.
I watched Denis McDermot closely. Not only was he the most articulate speaker I had heard to the time, (Victor Reuther was the only one that in my opinion was better), but I learned a lot about how to run an effective meeting by watching him.
Bob White, despite the hard times I sometimes gave him, was my hero and in my opinion, the best thing that ever happened to the labour movement in Canada.
After I became President I was lucky to work with two great International & later National Reps, Bill Marshall and later Jim Porter They had very different styles but they were both very effective and I learned a lot from both of them. Jim was my favourite. He would always go the extra mile for workers and we became life long friends.
We walk across bridges built by those who passed before us, what does this mean to you?
The gains, both contractual and political, made by working men and women didn’t come in one fell swoop. The one page first agreement between the UAW and General Motors is a far cry from the several thick volumes that contain the Master & Local Agreements and benefit plans that contain the rights we all enjoy today. The long, difficult strikes our predecessors were forced to wage meant that we didn’t have to. The longest strike I was ever part of was the 1970 strike against General Motors that lasted 13 weeks. This is a far cry from the 6 months strike in 1955. The longest strikes at General Motors in modern times has been only 2 weeks and one of those was only because General Motors got the wrong message from the American leadership of the UAW. Whether it is favourable labour legislation or good contracts, each one is another brick in the foundation of gains for workers.
Today we often hear comments about The “good old days” unions were stronger and more militant and “Gerry Michaud would not put up with that” care to comment.
I’ve heard about the “good old days” but this is the first time I have heard that “Gerry Michaud would not put up with that”. It is difficult and often unfair to make these kinds of comparisons. Unions could not have survived had the members been less militant. The benefits we enjoy today are not the result of blind militancy, but rather intelligent militancy. You have to know when to fight and how to stay alive to fight another day. I don’t think it is fair to say what Gerry Michaud would have done if I had been under the same pressures that union leadership is under today.
Doug Orr has said that things are much different today than they used to be.
I really can’t comment on that one. The problems have always been the same, layoffs, fear of layoffs or plant closure, greedy corporations and right wing governments who see big business as their friends and workers as pawns. We have always had to fight for what is rightfully ours. General Motors spends three months negotiating a contract in Canada and three years figuring out ways to chisel and renege on what was negotiated. That is as true today as it was in the past. Our membership has more formal education than most of us had in the past; they have certainly had to struggle to hang on to what they have, but things haven’t changed that much. Remember PPH’s. Times for workers are always challenging and always will be as long as profit is the sole motivation for employers and re election funds the prime concern of governments wanting to be re- elected.
What makes a good trade unionist and effective leader?
These are two very different questions. A good trade unionist is not necessarily an effective leader nor is an effective leader necessarily a good trade unionist. There are many advantages to holding office in a large local such as ours. In the past I used to struggle with people’s motivation for holding office as some of them were there for personal gain rather than an honest desire to serve the membership and their community. I finally came to the realization that it was not my place to question the motives of those who held office but rather part of my job was to make sure that they did theirs.
I guess my answer would be that in my view a good trade unionist is one who sincerely works at trying make a difference in bettering the lives of working people and an effective trade union leader is one who can inspire that attitude in others.
What was the most difficult decision you had to make?
When I was first elected president the members lounge was losing over a thousand dollars a week of membership’s money. The decision to close it and the process of convincing the executive board and the membership was probably the most difficult decision I had to make. I am proud of the fact that despite malicious opposition from certain plant politicians we were able to conduct a secret ballot that saw an over 95% vote in favour of closing it down; and most important, we kept our employees on full pay and benefits until we found them good paying jobs in the various units of the local union. To ensure that those who strived to cause unrest didn’t stack a meeting some day and vote to reopen the lounge I proposed that it be turned into a Retired Workers Centre. No one would have the political will to kick out the retirees to reopen the lounge. The happy ending was that those people came to recognize the necessity of the closure and became without exception friends and political allies and the retirees had a well deserved center for their activities.
A second decision was one made in my capacity of Chairman of the Blue Slate Caucus I decided that it was important enough to risk splitting my caucus by extending the hand of friendship to the newly elected Chairman of the G.M. Bargaining Unit, John Clout. That decision did cause a split in the caucus but I never regretted it. John and I working together were able to get more benefits for the members than we ever would have apart.
Back in 1965 when the Auto Pact was signed were you happy or concerned about the trade deal? I first started in the plant in September of 1965. In the summer of 1966 I was laid off six weeks for model change. Two weeks before I was to return I received a notice of indefinite layoff. Obviously at the time I didn’t think the Auto Trade Pact benefited me. The worst part was that there was never a mail out from the local union advising those of us who were laid off of our seniority rights, especially the reinstatement provisions following a return to work, nor were we advised of our rights to collect special benefits from Unemployment Insurance, (TAB), during a layoff resulting from the Auto Pact. I swore that if I were ever in a position to do so I would ensure that workers would always be aware of their rights at times of layoff.
What was your role in the 1985 split away from the UAW
Prior to 1985 the members of the master bargaining committee crisscrossed Canada & the United States dogging the heels of UAW President Doug Fraser and Vice President Owen Beiber who headed up the G.M. section of our union. At every location our job was to convince our American counterparts to resist opening up the collective agreement early in order to give concessions. Phil Bennett who was the Chair of the master committee was a reluctant public speaker and asked me to speak in his place to put forward the Canadian point of view. While we were successful in convincing them on two separate votes, Fraser kept at it until “they got it right”.
Following that Brother White invited me to a caucus meeting of the International UAW Administration. I spoke at that meeting in an attempt to convince the caucus to open up the floor for a meaningful discussion on “take aways” and the opening up of agreements for the purpose of giving concessions to the big three. I was totally disgusted at the attitude of the American leadership and I advised Bob White that I never ever wanted to be part of the International Caucus again. From that point in time I lobbied for a Canadian Union.
Following 1984 negotiations I got a motion passed at Canadian Council to the effect that we investigate forming a Canadian Union. Brother White came back with a recommendation to form a metal workers federation. It never got off the ground and after he failed in an attempt to get the International Union to give the Canadian section of the union more autonomy, Bob recommenced to Council that we form a Canadian Union. Like others I spoke in favour of the recommendation and did everything I could to encourage the leadership of local 199 to support it. Following the negotiation of the split we distributed several leaflets in the plants and then took the issue to the General Membership with the recommendation to support the formation of a Canadian UAW. The recommendation was passed overwhelmingly.
Following the meeting, Brother Bill Orr who had never supported a Canadian Union, demanded a special meeting to discuss and vote again on the issue by means of a secret ballot. There was never a demand for this sort of meeting from any other source, but Bill was a very popular Financial Secretary and had a lot of support within the membership. I was forced to hold a special meeting for the purpose of making the decision to split or not once again. The meeting was well attended and the only two speakers were Bill and I. For one of the few times in my life I put a speech down on paper rather than speaking off the top of my head. The future of the union in Canada was at stake and Oshawa plant politicians were watching closely. If we were to vote to stay with the UAW then they had ammunition to do the same. If St. Catharines and Oshawa had stayed with the UAW there would be no CAW today. Bill Orr and I were the only two speakers and the vote was very close. If I recall correctly it was around 53% in favour of forming a Canadian Union. To close for comfort as far as I was concerned. In fairness to Bill he was not part of the bargaining process and didn’t see what we saw in Detroit and in Toronto and so his heart was still ruled by our old relationship with the UAW, which in its day was a great boon to workers here.
At our first Constitutional Convention I had the honour of being elected as a Trustee on the first National Executive Board of the CAW. At that convention I was also privileged to chair the Constitutional Committee, an onerous task as we had to write out the new constitution that would govern our union for decades to come.
Public opinion is that Unions should stay out of politics, can you respond to this opinion.
Unions who take the position that they should stay out of politics don’t deserve to represent their members. If nothing else, the Conservative Harris government showed clearly how much and how quickly we can lose gains through the legislative process. Unions and their political allies made many legislative gains in Employment Standards, Workers Compensation, Employment Insurance, Universal Pensions, Medicare, Human Rights and a lot of other areas. Many of these gains have been lost or weakened by the same process. It is only through intelligent and militant political action that we can hope to keep greedy corporations and moneyed interest from destroying not only the gains that workers make at the bargaining table but from destroying the very vehicle that gives workers the right to bargain collectively.
Affects of FTA and NAFTA agreements on our industry. Preceding the negotiations of the first FTA, our union lobbied every municipal government in Ontario for their support in our stand against Free Trade. In the Niagara Region I made an appeal to each municipality on behalf of our union and we were 100%successful in obtaining their support. Of course there were individual members of some councils who did not support us but the majority prevailed. Unfortunately every thing we said would happen under Free trade did happen. Companies no longer had to have a plant in Canada in order go have access to the Canadian market and so rationalized their industries by closing plants in Canada and moving the jobs to the U.S. The jobs that replaced these good paying jobs that made it possible for a worker to raise his/her family were minimum wages jobs. A new word came into the use, “McJobs”. We lost the Auto Pact and the workers in the auto industry today are about half of what they were before Free Trade.
My opinion of the auto industry today. A far cry from what it was. Not only have we lost jobs, but the big three have also lost a large share of the market. The sad part is that it was General, Motors, Ford and Chrysler who brought the loss of market share about because of their greed in refusing to invest heavily in quality and engineering. Finally they were forced to because the quality products manufactured by the Japanese were selling so well. Their greed also put off the building of smaller, fuel efficient vehicles as long as they could maximize profits by making big gas guzzling profit makers. Again, after they lost business to those who did, they never got it back. Until such time as the Canadian Government has the guts to legislate Canadian content and environmental rules as well, we will continue to lose jobs to other jurisdictions.
What are the Challenges for the future?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I say again we have to be involved with politics. Canadian governments have to legislate for the benefits of their citizens not the corporations. Today corporations are using a well thought out strategy to increase their power over governments and workers both. We are still a good market for the world to do business with, but unless we elect governments who will have the balls to govern rather than beg for reelection funding from the rich, things will get a lot worse for workers and their families. We need more workers in government and fewer lawyers and business people. Our biggest challenge is to educate our members, our families, neighbours and the community at large of the methods being used to lull people into a sense of helplessness and acceptance of the way things are. We need to challenge people, to fight apathy and all its ills.
What 199 Presidents have you known?
I have known George Bennett, Bill Race, John Ideson, Jim Connell, John Washuta, John Clout, Ron Davis, Gabe McNally, Wayne Gates and Ron McIntosh.
George sold out and became a foreman in the G.M. Core Room, Bill Race was chair of the Retired Workers Chapter when I knew him. He a small man with a big heart and a good trade unionist. John Ideson was an extremely intelligent individual, but essentially a loner. He was not what would be called a team player today. He was however known as “Mr. Labour” in his time as president of both the local and the St. Catharines and District Labour Council. When we took over the bargaining committee in 1971, Washuta appointed Brother Ideson as the S.U.B. rep and it was in that capacity that I got to know him. Jim Connell was president when I started work at GM. He was an excellent negotiator and truly had the best interests of the membership at heart. I learned a lot from Jim. He had a keen sense of humor and we became good friends after he was elected as chair of the Retired Workers Chapter. John Washuta was elected chairman of the G.M. unit in 1971 and President of the local in 1976. I helped John get elected in 71 by writing a lot of his leaflets and some of his chairman’s columns in the 199 News after he was elected. I did not support him for president. John was one of the hardest workers I ever met, but during his term of office as president he neglected his duties to the G.M. unit and felt his roll was to manage the union hall lounge and banquet facilities despite the fact that we had a Hall Manager to perform this function. John was also a city alderman and a very good one. However I did not like what he had done to denigrate the office of President and so I ran against him and defeated him and Sandy O’Dell on the first ballot.
When I made the decision to accept the directorship of the CAW Family Education Centre (another very hard decision), I held discussions with Ron Davis and John Clout as to who would succeed me. John and I had worked very closely and when I asked Ron who people would see as the leader once I left, Ron admitted that it would be John. I then asked Ron if he would consider running again as vice president and support John for the presidency in the coming election. To his credit Ron agreed to this. John was a credit to the union and despite our differences at times, he always took the path that was best for the people he represented and I felt he deserved to be president. He was elected to the National Union Executive Board, was appointed to staff and retired in St. Catharines. His death was premature. Lung cancer is a terrible thing and I miss John and our friendly rivalry.
Ron Davis and I go back to 1971 when he was elected as Back Shift Committee person and I as afternoon shift committee person. Ron went on to become the foundry shop committee person and the first full time vice president of the local union. He was the best vice president anyone could ever ask for. As president he was the first president in our history to retire while still in office. That shows you how competitive the politics were in our local union.
Gabe MacNally was a committee person and shop committee person prior to becoming president. Gabe was on of those who left the caucus when John Clout came on board. After Brother Bill Orr went on staff I told Gabe that it would be a good idea for him to come back as things were moving and I thought him too good a man to be sitting on the sidelines. Gabe came back and thanks to his abilities became president of the local and from there was promoted to the staff of the National Union. At the time I write this he has told me that he intends to retire next year. (Gabe McNally died July 15th 2008)
Wayne Gates used to play softball with my son Michael. He was a good athlete and for years served as back shift committee person at the Ontario St. Plant. Wayne was always cocky and told me once he thought he could do my job. I guess he was right because he did, defeating Ron McIntosh, which I am sure did not endear him to Ron. I thought Wayne did a good job in representing the local in the community and also at the bargaining table. Wayne has remained active following his defeat to his old nemesis Brother Ron McIntosh. (Since the article was originally written Wayne was re elected president of Local 199, was elected to the Niagara Falls City Council twice and is currently serving his second term as MPP for Niagara Falls.)
Ron McIntosh is another old caucus brother of mine who has served this union well, not only as president, but in a number of other capacities including benefit rep. While I am no longer in St. Catharines, I do keep abreast of things and from all reports Ron is a good president and I know from past experience he is an excellent trade unionist. I don’t know how many more presidents of my local union it will be my pleasure to know, but I am proud to have known so many of my predecessors and successors. (Ron was defeated by Wayne Gates and retired in January 2009)
Who was the most influential person in your life?
That’s easy, my mother. She taught me early in life that people were to be accepted as you found them regardless of what other people thought and that things like race, colour or religion didn’t matter. I was blessed in being raised as free of prejudice as was possible in those days. In later years I had to learn to be a feminist and to also recognize that homosexuality wasn’t a matter of choice anymore than is heterosexuality. All of the traits I possess that can be considered good were either instilled in me or encouraged by my mother. She was really something. I could easily write a book about her.
What is your most satisfying accomplishment?
The sharing with Marlene in the raising of four fine children who grew up to be responsible, caring adults. As a member of local 199 it was having a role in forming the Canadian Auto Workers and being a member of the first CAW Executive Board.
Do you have any regrets?
I have no regrets concerning any decision I have made in my life. Based on the experience I have gained over the years, some decisions might be made differently, but the ones I made were always to the best of my ability at the time.
How do I wish to be remembered?
I am conceited enough to hope that I would be remembered, but pragmatic enough to know that in a few short years I will be only a name and a face in a faded photo. If I am remembered at all, I would feel good if it were for having played a role in improving the lives of workers, their families and the community in which we live.
Last question, Do you have any words of wisdom for those that follow?
“Age does not make one wise, the only advice I would offer is to do the best job you can, for every member who asks for your help, do the right thing even it isn’t easy, and to live every day of your life as though it was going to be front page news the following day.”