Unifor 523 and 199 merge
Bob Tymczyszyn/postmedia network Rick Alakas, left, and Greg Brady are union representatives for two Unifor locals in Niagara that are merging.
At one time, Unifor Local 523 had well over 2,000 members working at several large Welland industries.
But after decades of factory closures in the city, things have changed dramatically.
“Look what they had,” said Greg Brady, president of Unifor Local 199, referring to factories that included John Deere and Energex.
“It sad, now,” he added, referring to the crumbled remains of many of Welland’s old industries.
“It looks like downtown Syria, there.”
At last count, Local 523’s membership was only about 250 members working at five employers in the city, including ASW Steel, Canada Forge, Welland Forge, Welland city parks workers and Vesuvius.
Former 523 president Rick Alakas said the union’s decline “very much reflected what has been happening in the City of Welland.”
“It was nobody’s fault that we lost Welland Pipe, Energex has been idled, John Deere has left, Union Carbide closed,” he said. “It came to a point where we had to make some tough decisions.”
Alakas began meeting with members of the union’s executive in mid-2015 to discuss a possible merger.
Although it was “an emotional transition,” he said it had to be done in the best interest of the remaining membership.
Teaming up with Local 199 seemed like an obvious choice.
“The fit was quite easy because the synergies were good,” Alakas said.
“If you look at what Local 199 offers, certainly Welland could no longer do that.”
Although the merger officially took place at the start of the year, Brady said, “Local 523 is not dead.”
“It’s just merged with 199,” he said. “It’s stronger. It’s in good shape.”
The newly merged local now represents about 2,500 members at a diverse collection of about 30 employers, including workers at manufacturing facilities including General Motors, vehicle dealerships and security, health care and public sector workers.
“We’re doing well. We go from Grimsby to Welland now,” Brady said.
For the most part, the companies Local 199 represents are relatively stable.
Although there’s a small reduction at General Motors where retirements are cutting membership, Brady said those workers will eventually be replaced once automotive production ramps up again, likely in the spring.
The bolstered membership has given Unifor the strength it needs to focus on continued growth.
Although organizing workplaces “is one of the hardest jobs out there,” Brady said the union is “going to be active in doing it.”
Following the merger, Alakas was given a temporary staff assignment with Unifor working to organize workplaces, and Brady hopes to team up with his old friend to expand membership for Local 199.
“Absolutely, I wouldn’t want to work with anybody else,” Brady said. “We have to have Rick, because he’s local and he knows the area.”
The new GE plant in Welland, set to open in 2018, is one workplace the union has set its sights on.
“To think that we’re not going to be active when that drive gets off the ground is an absolute understatement,” Brady said.
Meanwhile, potential privatization of the casinos in Niagara Falls has made workers there a priority too, he added.
Brady also plans to focus on expanding the union’s representation of health-care workers.
“Unifor is getting big into the health-care business now,” Brady said. “I’ve been out there knocking on doors trying to get some organizing done for the health care. They are very welcoming to it because, let’s face it, they have a very demanding job and they have seen cuts like you wouldn’t believe. They’re basically standing up and saying enough is enough.”
Brady suspects additional Unifor mergers could happen in the future.
“There are little satellites all over, and I don’t know how many are actually in the area because some of them only have like eight members or 10 members,” Brady said.
“There’s always strength in numbers.”