Apr 16, 2011

From illiterate dropout to published author

Ed Thomas living proof of union program’s value

VANCOUVER—CUPE 5167 (City of Hamilton) long-time activist Ed Thomas shared his story at CUPE BC convention about how literacy changed his life.

“Literacy empowers our members,” said Thomas.  “It’s inclusive and provides them with the confidence and opportunity to fully participate in union activities.”

A recent resolution that he wrote to recognize April 28 as a day to honour workers killed or injured on the job will go before the CLC in May.  It calls for the CLC to engage the International Trade Union Confederation to work with both the International Labour Organization and the World Health Organization for United Nations recognition of the Day of Mourning.  It could go all the way to the United Nations and be the first time the UN General Assembly adopts a trade union motion.

Thomas told delegates that he struggled through public school, dropping out at age 15 with a grade six education.  In 1966 his life started to turn around when he enrolled in an Adult Education Program and completed grades 7 through 12 before going to university for one year.

He started working for the City of Hamilton and was still struggling with spelling and vocabulary. Thomas enrolled in the Literacy in the Workplace program put on by the Workers Education Centre and the Hamilton and District Labour Council. He began writing resolutions for convention and articles for his union newsletter. 

Thomas found some historic union photos and began a class project to do a leaflet. He gathered additional material and interviewed a number of members and the leaflet mushroomed into the book, The Crest of the Mountain – the Rise of Local Five in Hamilton.  Because this wasn’t an easy task, Thomas created a tool for other union members, A Worker’s Guide to doing a Local Union’s History.  His latest book, Dead but not Forgotten – Monuments to Workers is dedicated to workers who have been killed or injured on the job. Thomas is now working on two more books.

“I would not be where I am today if it were not for the Literacy in the Workplace program,” Thomas told delegates. “It has been instrumental in changing my life.”

Thomas said that literacy impacts union members and is a key factor in workers succeeding both at work and at life. Literacy helps workers understand health and safety procedures and policies, enables them to understand their contract agreement, and enables them to write resolutions and participate fully at conventions and meetings.

Joint labour management committees and government funding are critical to the success of literacy.

Thomas was one of the first recipients of CUPE’s Literacy Award that is given to individuals or groups, learners or activists who’ve shown leadership or advocated for literacy.  This is the 10th anniversary of CUPE’s literacy program.

In thanking Thomas, Barry O’Neill described him as an example of what can be done with good workplace programs.  “His message of hope makes us very proud,” said O’Neill.

COPE 491