On My Life, My Unions, My Understanding of Socialist Engagement, and Ministry

A friend in ministry had some thoughts about the current provincial election in BC. So did I. We were sharing them on social media, until my need to be expansive overtook me. So I’ve posted here. For anyone to look at, if they choose.

Hello my friend,

I hope this is useful for you. It has been for me. My ‘editor’ (Laurel) shares my context, and I have little idea of yours (other than that which we share) and, therefore, have no idea if this will translate, or be of service. It’s too long, I know, and I could edit for publication, or sermonizing, but I am trying to communicate something of my understanding, rather than writing to convince or intrigue, and I have a sermon to write too, so I’m leaving it as it is.  A ramble through my life, Canadian political and labour history (as I have experienced it), and some thoughts about where this goes as it informs my ministry. Thank you for instigating.

My life:

I come from a long line of working people, farmers, coal miners, labourers, skilled trades, the odd engineer and teacher and not a few activists. My folk were part of the army of settlers who came here for the land and were part of the army of soldiers who fought and died for empire and against fascism. My ancestors gave their lives in combat for ideals, and in deep dark holes in the ground, mucking coal and other valuables for the folk that our country gave right of ownership to.

I grew up in industry towns, (Kitimat and Flin Flon), and was steeped in the lore of Company versus Union at our dinner table. My dad (a staunch union member and organizer) would talk about Cadomin and the Coal Branch in Alberta, the company towns where his father and his mother’s family earned a living. His dad was a Legion manager, who was gassed at Vimy, and didn’t really have the lungs for other work. I’m told he could sing “Old Rugged Cross” and play a mean Nova Scotia fiddle. Dad’s mom’s dad and her brothers worked underground in places where you can still see the monuments to men killed when methane blew the bottom out of the mine. Those monuments are everywhere, if you have time to look. They’re still making them, less frequent here than in other countries, but you don’t have to go to Central America and Gold Corp to learn about the willingness of mine operators to risk and sometimes sacrifice life for profit. You can find it here too. And not just at Mount Polley.

Flin Flon was a company town. Managers lived in one section, the rest of us in others. Miners and smelter workers tended to vote labour, managers and their families always voted conservative or liberal. (Ask me about the time 7 votes went NDP in the company polling station and the hell that was reaped by managers afterwards.) Conservatives and Liberals usually won the election and made laws that favoured mine owners. In Flin Flon, where the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border bisected the town and the mine, workers would drag their injured fellows into Saskatchewan because the compensation rates were better. When I worked there Saskatchewan had health and safety legislation that compelled my employer to allow me to warm up when the temperature hit forty below. Saskatchewan had a Socialist government. Manitoba did not.

Men lived by mining and smelting and died by mining and smelting, they still do. One of my first experiences with death happened when a high school friend was killed underground. He was 18. I believe the accident was preventable, as 99% are. I knew many men who suffered from industrial disease and attended union meetings where those same men refused to allow the union to bring in health and safety experts to prove their jobs were killing them. They were afraid the company would shut the smelter down. I have waited for death with men succumbing to asbestosis and have one in my congregation who will be taken by it far too soon. It is a disease, that, like silicosis, black lung, and work related cancers, employers and workers knew about but did little to prevent. Employers because of cost, workers because of jobs. There’s a kind of fatalism in industry, but not in everyone, some men and women organized themselves into unions.

I have met and learned from men and women who fought hard for rights for working people, better wages and working conditions, the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to be treated as human beings, worthy of respect and love. Those men and women were blacklisted (refused work), jailed, beaten and sometimes killed outright because they dared to speak up for others. While my own experience was less personally dangerous, I have had friends killed on the job despite the best efforts of their coworkers to ensure a safer work place, and I have, myself, been treated in emergency rooms on a few occasions because of workplace accidents or exposures, and have been suspended for refusing unsafe work.

My understanding of unions and politics

In our country workers aimed at political change through their unions and through activist political movements. A lot of the movements were headed by Christian ministers. Methodists, Baptists and Catholics. Men (and women) who believed in the Social Gospel, whose faith compelled them into action. Even when it meant going against the hierarchies of their churches.

In the early 1960s one of the main political movements – a socialist party known as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation – formally merged with unionized working people. Members of unions, through the Canadian Federation of Labour, and members of the CCF met in Winnipeg to form a common front political party we now know as the NDP. All parties committed to do everything they could to bring about a better world for ordinary Canadians. The CCF brought activist Christians (among others) while labour brought activists of other stripes. Working together they convinced many Canadians that a better world was possible and supportable.

Labour committed its resources to the fight against the power of capital which (then and now), funded political parties and extra-political organizations (including much of the news media) that were committed to perpetuating the powers of capital, especially when those powers were opposed by Indigenous people, citizens’ groups and workers. Our country’s history is filled with examples of governments using the power and majesty of the law to override the protests and concerns of ordinary people in the face of corporate demands for compliance.

The same struggles play out today. The fossil fuel industry, for instance, has been actively resisted by local landowners, Indigenous people, workers and other folk, but continues to have the support of government through the judicious application of pro-oil propaganda via media and ‘think tanks’, direct funding to governing parties, and by threatening working people with an end to their ability to support their families. A threat they’d never get away with if we’d ever elected a truly socialist government. However, fossil fuel power brokers are only one head of the hydra.

Because labour has always understood this struggle to be one of life and death (see my personal history, or consider asking our church partners in other countries how they feel about Canadian Corporate rule) and because battles won on picket lines are often lost in legislation, many unions are willing to commit large resources to the political effort to bring corporate power to heel.

In Canada, many unions chose to support the NDP to further their struggle. Not all, some stayed with the Communist Party, while others try to influence the Capitalist parties. Their resources, while meagre compared to those flooding in from corporate coffers, at least help bring their concerns to the fore in electoral politics and help to shape the goals and objectives of the parties they support. Almost every Canadian social benefit program can be traced to the successful efforts of social activists and the trade union movement.

Specific on the Steelworkers

In the United States the union movement is proportionately smaller than in Canada and, decimated by the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s and ‘60s, the ‘right to work’ ideologies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the trade agreements of the ‘90s and ‘00s has tried to bring its influence to bear by supporting the Democratic Party and lobbying the Republicans. They’ve had some success in the former, but, for the most part, have had to watch in despair as governments of both stripes pave the way to job losses in steel mills and manufacturing by making free trade all about the right of capital to abuse workers and the environment in other countries while pressuring American workers to work for less and to return to working conditions only recently overcome through strikes and legislative changes.

When the BC Liberal Leader accused the international president of the Steelworkers (a Canadian, incidentally) of supporting Donald Trump that president (Leo Gerard) issued a written statement naming this accusation and other similar statements as lies (http://www.usw.ca/news/media-centre/articles/2017/open-letter-to-bc-steelworkers-from-president-gerard). I am certain the reason the Liberal leader hasn’t threatened to sue him, or demanded a retraction, is because he is telling the truth. Besides, a key principle in political campaigning (as perfected by Donald Trump and the BC Liberal leader) revolves around using alternate facts (I still call them lies) to promote one’s case and defame one’s rivals. It has happened here frequently and is well documented in this case, among others: (http://www.metronews.ca/news/vancouver/2017/04/06/ombudsman-to-release-report-into-firings-of-eight-b-c-health-workers.html)

I know the United Steelworkers is not a perfect union. I don’t know of one that is, (or a political party or a church, for that matter) but I was a member of that union when I worked at the smelter in Flin Flon, and at the mine/mill and smelter in Kamloops. I was (willingly and thankfully) trained to be an activist (along with many others) and I was loaned to political campaigns and community organizations as a campaign worker. We (the members of the union) hoped our efforts would one day elect governments willing to listen to and act for ordinary people.

The Steelworkers helped prove workplace cancer was happening at a smelter in Arvida, Quebec by bringing American scientists in from the University of Pittsburgh to take hair samples from workers whose arsenic exposure was killing them (arsenic traces end up in human hair and nails). Canadian doctors and scientist would not or could not. The same union provided me with representation when I was sent home for refusing unsafe work, and made sure I kept my job when the company I worked for wanted me gone. They and other unions have brought European standards (generally far stronger than Canadian or American standards) for exposure to workplace toxins to Canada and have done a great deal more to support all Canadian workers and their families in the face of corporate insistence that they be shut out of the conversation about workplace health and safety. Their voices have informed the policies of the NDP and encouraged their partners in political action to stand strongly for ordinary families, unionized, or not.

I believe we have all benefited from that partnership and I am sad to see that pro-labour political parties have acceded to the corporate insistence that unions be shut out of the political process. Corporations will continue to fund their special interests, will continue to own the media, and will continue to purchase influence in government by offering ‘investment’ or threatening to cut it off. We, in the meantime, will be denied the wisdom, resources and tenacity of one of the few effective forces laying down evidence and experience in opposition to a corporate, monetized expression of worth and value. Hell, we can’t even get our own church pension plan to stand up for us. Without unions who will be left?

Intersection of labour and politics in the NDP government of 1991-2001

I also have a history with the Pulp Paper and Woodworkers of Canada as a Union Environment chair at Celgar pulp, and am personally familiar with how much the NDP’s environmental regulations in the forest industry and beyond were shaped by union members and environmental activists who demanded and got laws that protected the environment and gave workers the right to refuse to perform acts that would harm the environment. Laws wiped out as soon as the Liberals took office.

I was a cabinet assistant with the NDP government as well as a resource worker. As such I know agreements were achieved between environmental activists, forest companies, union members and ordinary folk who shared a vision of sustainable communities and an environment held in trust for our children. There were thousands of hours of conversations and intensely difficult negotiations. Ask someone about the CORE process under the NDP government of Mike Harcourt, the consensus built and the roots of antipathies that drive us apart to this day.

I have been an anti-poverty activist for decades. I directed an unemployment action centre in Kamloops in the 1980s and I know what existed before, during and after the NDP took power. More could have been done, but income supplements, childcare subsidies, dental programs, healthcare coverages and other direct benefits were received by low wage workers under the NDP government in BC. Those were wiped out by the Liberal government that also rolled back the minimum wage in the province while erasing the language in Social Services legislation that said a Guaranteed Annual Income for Need was a right in BC.

As an Executive Assistant to the Minister of Energy and Mines, I learned about the institution of a process at BC Hydro that made Hydro account for all environmental and social losses created by the ‘clean energy’ system known as a dam. As a former resident of the West Kootenay I know something of the history of devastation experienced along the Columbia river corridor by the damming of the river and the BC NDP government’s effort to ameliorate some of that havoc through the institution of the Columbia Basin Trust. A social justice fund and local control mechanism I hear the Liberal candidate in your area wants his government to take back to Victoria.

Health support centres were beginning towards the end of our mandate, especially in rural areas. Staffed by a range of preventative care practitioners (Dieticians, Kinesiologists, Physios, Massage Therapists, Clinical Counsellors, Nurse Practitioners and Physicians) they worked together to improve individual and community health. I know mental health outreach workers were also put in place across the province after deinstitutionalization, and I learned a little about the province’s attempts to help health care centres in the Kootenays specialize in a range of approaches so that each community had a piece of the response to the needs of folk in the area. All of that is either gone now or available as a user pay service only.

Sermonizing Summary

I could go on, my friend, I always do. Hopefully I’ve given you some indication of where I’m rooted and why. For me this has always been about life and death and resurrection. I know the environmental degradation our world is suffering is the latest symptom of a power system run amok with far too little oversight and precious little control. It has been part of my lived experience, part of the deaths of too many around me. But in those struggles and deaths and endings I learned something about new life and new ways to be in relationship with the folk around me. I learned most of that in the practice of being a faithful worshiping community composed of many different perspectives, experiences and voices aligned for a common purpose.

I believe we are called to listen for the still small voice of God that speaks to us between the thunderclaps and earthquakes of our time. As well, I believe, there is great merit in listening deeply to the hopes, dreams and fears of those we name as ‘other’. Listen to their stories as they define them, and find ways to help them listen to ours. Above all we must do so in love, suspecting the other is as well motivated and genuine in intent as are we.

If we do not people will continue to die in our name, in our systems and in our time. If we do not the climate will continue to change and our children will find a harsher and more difficult world waiting. I don’t know why we insist on slamming our allies. I know you’ve experienced that, and I can assure you that others probably feel that they are experiencing it in you. I know they have in me.

As ministers, I believe we hold the possibility of offering up the truth of the Gospel and our own experience as a place of common ground that might help our communities build a better world. To commit ourselves wholly, completely and utterly to the creation of a thriving and all-embracing community that walks in the Way of abundant Love. I have seen, participated in and helped perpetuate a lot of division in my life. I believe the way forward is through building on existing alliances and creating new ones so that we might come together in the sure and certain knowledge that we are called to be expressive love.

Thanks for listening, and taking the time to read this through. I appreciate your faithful dedication to the Creator’s call to love and fierce, uncompromising protection, and look forward to our continued journey on the path to light, together.



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About Keith Simmonds

Born and raised in the middle north (Kitimat BC and Flin Flon MB), I've worked 30 years in Mining/Smelting and the Pulp industry, while engaging in political action, community organizing, and union activism on the side. In and Out of Spiritual Being, my faith journey is through a Christian context, although I honour, uphold and am fascinated by other paths to the mountain. I began my training in diaconal ministry with the United Church of Canada in 2004, and began serving as a minister in Rossland, Trail, Beaver Valley and Salmo BC in 2009. My family and I moved to Duncan BC in August of 2013, where I serve as part of the ministry team. My partner, Laurel Walton, and I have five children between us. Liam attends Cow High, Jonah lives and works in Duncan, Brenna resides in Courtenay, Amy and her partner, Craig are in Vancouver, and Wade is in Calgary. My parents and siblings live in Kamloops, BC.

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