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OFL president Clifford Pilkey was a principled man, on full display when he launched a diatribe in favour of abortion rights.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

In many ways, Cliff Pilkey was Canada's version of Tom Joad, the dedicated fighter in John Steinbeck's Great Depression story The Grapes of Wrath.

Forced, like Joad, to feast on the hard-bitten truths of the Depression, he never forgot how they tasted and leapt into the fray as a life-long labour activist and politician.

Born into poverty in 1922, Pilkey dropped out of school at 13 to take a job on the "Boy's Line" at General Motors in Oshawa, Ont. He was there in 1937 when Ontario premier Mitchell Hepburn formed his notorious "Sons of Mitches" – a 400-member militia mostly made up of unemployed war veterans and university students – in an attempt to intimidate GM workers who were staging a wildcat strike.

The tactic failed in the end but it helped to inspire Pilkey to take the hunger and desperation he witnessed early in life on to bigger stages.

As past-president of the Ontario Federation of Labour he helped win many of Canada's most progressive labour legislation, including equal pay for work of equal value, expedited arbitration and a ban on professional strikebreaking.

"Cliff Pilkey's visionary and determined leadership inspired a better world," said Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, "his legacy of accomplishment stands tall with the very best labour leadership Canada has ever had."

In 1985, convinced that successful training could only be effective if designed and delivered by workers for workers, free from government or employer influence, Pilkey founded the Workers Health & Safety Centre in Toronto.

He was key in establishing the OFL's Women's Committee and made history by creating six affirmative action seats on the OFL executive board – the first of their kind in North America. In 1986, he established a position for the OFL's first full-time woman officer.

A power-packed campaign against racism he spearheaded as OFL president helped shift public prejudices.

"Racism Hurts Everyone" was emblazoned on billboards, posters, and television ads. He created a full-time OFL human-rights directorship dedicated to anti-racism work, which led to the first racialized person to hold a permanent position with the federation.

Pilkey served as NDP MPP for Oshawa for one term from 1967 until being defeated in 1971. He also served as an alderman in Oshawa.

He was awarded a Centennial Medal of Canada in 1967; the Order of Ontario in 1990; and a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal last summer. Cliff Pilkey died in Ajax, Ont., on Nov. 17 after a lengthy illness. He was 90.

One day, as a kid in Oshawa, Pilkey heard tell of a fire a few blocks from school. He went to check it out at recess with a few pals and discovered it was his own house on fire.

No one was home at the time but his spanking new hockey skates were inside and he couldn't afford to lose them – he paid for them after months of flogging the Toronto Star on street corners and the hockey championship was coming up.

So he broke away from his friends and tore into the house, ran up the stairs and grabbed the skates. He made it out again, and back to school, before the end-of-recess bell rang.

Thus began his life of dodging fires, always hopeful of victory.

"He was the ultimate happy warrior," said former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, another Oshawa politician, who was mentored by Pilkey. "No matter what the struggles were you never saw him down, he was a sort of up-at-'em kind of guy and always at the front of the parade, not at the back."

Pilkey's mother, Jennie Grosbeck, was a chambermaid. His father, William Pilkey, was a blacksmith. No doubt the fire pushed them further into poverty and so their only son was herded onto the GM line before he even learned to shave.

He had worked for a while on the railroad but at 5 foot 4 he was too slight to handle the freight. What Pilkey lacked in stature he made up for in voice: Ask anyone about their first impression of Cliff Pilkey and they'll say he had a bullhorn lodged in his throat that could awaken an entire city. This proved handy for a labour leader.

In 1942, Pilkey joined the army and served on the home front as a driving instructor in Woodstock, Ont. His son Allan was born in Woodstock and his daughter Jackie came along seven years later back in Oshawa. Viola Brooks, his childhood bride, supported him in his political and union work until they separated in 1978, when he became partners with Judy Robins. After the war ended, Pilkey returned to GM on the men's line and grew up in his union, moving from position to position and finally taking on the presidency of the Oshawa and District Labour Council.

Then the mainstream political bug bit and in 1962, he served as Oshawa alderman and deputy mayor and, in 1967, as NDP MPP for Oshawa. That was around the time he told Ed Broadbent to stop boring people.

Fresh from university, this whippersnapper intellectual with a winning smile thought spouting off about John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx at GM plant gates would win him votes. No way, said Pilkey; I wouldn't even vote for you.

According to Broadbent this was the beginning of his political initiation under Pilkey's infallible leadership, key to his subsequent life. "Cliff Pilkey was a very intelligent man, deeply committed, not an intellectual," said Broadbent. "But he had a deep, passionate, instinctive commitment to social democratic and trade union values which have compassion and equality at their core."

In 1967, Pilkey became the national representative for the United Auto Workers before they broke away from the international union and became the Canadian Auto Workers later in the 1980s.

This led him toward the signature phase of his career: his tenure as president of the Ontario Federation of Labour from 1976 through to his retirement in 1986.

Activist Judy Rebick tells a story about how, as important as this position was to Pilkey, he put it on the line during the 1982 OFL convention over the issue of abortion rights.

This was a time when federation membership was 80 per cent male and it wasn't uncommon for women to be heckled or catcalled by their union brothers if they spoke.

The microphones were stacked by women delegates seeking support from the OFL for the legalization of free-standing abortion clinics. Support wasn't easily forthcoming. Let's move on, a few leaders said; reproductive choice isn't a labour issue.

Suddenly, President Pilkey had heard enough. He handed over his role as chair, stepped down from the stage, and grabbed a microphone himself. The Pilkeyesque bellow immediately filled the room.

"Cliff made one of the most passionate pro-choice speeches I have ever heard," said Rebick. "I'm sure he swayed a lot of people and he put his whole credibility on the line."

He spoke about his mother's struggles with too many pregnancies and not enough help or money, and how her life could have been much different. Once again shades of his history imprinted themselves on his present.

Death threats followed but Pilkey was unperturbed, trusting that the anti-choice blowhards would blow over, and they did. He was even sent 30 pieces of chocolate candy wrapped in silver paper, implying the famous biblical betrayal by Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver.

But for Pilkey, the important thing was to stand behind his principles and support a controversial resolution put forward by women delegates at the labour convention.

"It was the time that the labour movement became a feminist labour movement," said Rebick. "He was a real fighter, Cliff."

Cliff Pilkey leaves Viola Pilkey, Judy Robins, his son Allan Pilkey, who also served as mayor of Oshawa and later as NDP MPP for Oshawa from 1990-95, and daughter Jackie Zaika. He also leaves his grandchildren John and Jane Pilkey and his sister Evelyn Thompson.

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