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Remembering Lofty MacMillan

John Francis “Lofty” MacMillan
Our first blog focuses on the late John Francis “Lofty” MacMillan (1917-2006), the New Brunswick labour leader who became one of Canada's most important union organizers. What did Lofty mean to you? Please share with us your stories and memories about one of the giants in New Brunswick and Canadian labour history.

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From: Pam Guitard
Date: 3 June 2009
Subject: A Giant Of a Man

Lofty (Papa) Macmillan -- I knew Lofty from the federation and remember the NBFL Convention - Lofty dancing with his beloved Clara - and the many things he taught us younger union activists. Little did I think I would have the privilege to nurse Lofty. Well, I did, and he helped the executive of our Local many times from his bed to strengthen our local and I believe I was fortunate enough to be on one of his last picket lines. We needed members out for information and Lofty insisted he be with us and when Lofty spoke we had the respect to Move so we pushed the geri chair and WE stood on the line together. I will continue to stand on the line for the rights of the workers. Thank YOU Lofty for paving the way and being a great teacher!!!!

Pam Guitard is a nursing home worker and a member of CUPE LOCAL 2354.

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From: Gilbert Levine
Date: 1 August 2006
Subject: J. F. (Lofty) MacMillan, 1917-2006: A Tribute

Many here today are what the locals call CFAers. That's not a Certified Financial Advisor. It refers to those who come from away. So you may not be familiar with the amazingly talented people who have come from this corner of Cape Breton.

Angus L. Macdonald, a member of the World War 2 cabinet of Mackenzie King and later premier of Nova Scotia came from here. Sydney Smith, president of the University of Toronto when I was a student there in the late 1940s and later minister of external affairs in the Diefenbaker cabinet was born on the island just off Port Hood. Clarence Gillis, Nova Scotia's first CCF member back in the 1950s came from here. In more recent days the talent seems to be more musical with the Rankin Family, Buddy and Natalie MacMaster and others from neighboring Inverness County.

But the greatest son of Inverness County, in my books, was Lofty MacMillan. Through his efforts, he raised tens of thousands of workers out of poverty level incomes, gave then dignity and respect on the job, and gave them a voice in their conditions of work. That's more than all those big politicians did.

Lofty and I met at our first union convention in Calgary in the fall of 1957. With my background in radical politics and his background in militant trade unionism, we made a strong connection that prevailed through all our work in CUPE and after retirement. Lofty was my most solid comrade, my best supporter, and my best union friend.

In December 1956 I was the first staffer hired to be Research Director of NUPE, the predecessor union of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Six months later Lofty was one of four field representatives hired. There was absolutely no secretarial assistance. There were no offices. The trunk of the car served as an office. He would put over 40,000 miles a year on his car and he did so without complaint.

Today that same region is served by a staff of forty. So today when I hear CUPE staff reps complaining about their work load, I think of Lofty's early responsibility and take it all with a grain of salt.

At the time of the merger of NUPE and NUPSE in 1963 Lofty became the CUPE Director for the Atlantic Region. He then came to Ottawa as the National Director of Organization in 1967 and held that position until his retirement in 1982. Pushing hard to organize new groups, and to gain collective bargaining rights for public employees, he saw CUPE membership more than triple in those fifteen years.

Whenever Lofty traveled on the job, he would love to make family connections with other Cape Bretoners and be able to use them for the workers' advantage. Today it is called “networking”. “The administrator of this hospital is married to my second cousin's daughter” he would say, and would exploit that connection to the benefit of the hospital workers.

I remember in the 1970s traveling with Lofty to a meeting in Winnipeg. In a taxi from the airport to the union office, he spotted a picket line around an aircraft parts plant. Since he never saw a picket line that he would not join, he ordered the taxi to stop so he could march with the picketers. After a few minutes he shouted out to the picketers, “Who are the Cape Bretoners here?” Sure enough, they all assembled around him, made their family connections, and discussed the issues of the strike. It is a moot question who was more elated by that experience – Lofty or the strikers.

Lofty not only had a knack of seeking out Cape Bretoners, he had a knack of sniffing out cops and stoolpigeons in the labour movement. Especially during the period of the Cold War when the RCMP would have its plainclothes men spying at union conventions, Lofty would be able to spy them immediately and confront them. With his police background he was able to make a connection with these men and have them spill out interesting and useful information about their work.

I remember Lofty addressing a meeting of hospital strikers in Estevan, Saskatchewan in the early 1970s. One long-haired radical-looking “striker” demanded that the Legislature in Regina be stormed. When Lofty called him an “agent provocateur”, the “striker” vehemently denied it. Years later, Lofty and I were at a demonstration at Parliament Hill and there were uniformed RCMP officers all around. He walked up to this neatly dressed officer and said, “You're the bastard who tried to break up our strike in Estevan!” His face turned as crimson red as the jacket he was wearing.

For me, Lofty had two important distinguishing attitudes: first, that the workers were always right; second, he was always optimistic that when the workers joined together, they could always win. In classic terms this would be described as “class consciousness”.

These characteristics were best illustrated by his approach to the organizing of the New Brunswick provincial public employees. Before the 1960s these employees did not have the legal right to union representation or collective bargaining. When Lofty said that they should be organized, there were many naysayers who said it could not be done. That did not stop him. He went out and organized hospital workers, liquor store employees and many others. Legally, the Labour Board did not have the power to certify these groups and the application was rejected. Lofty skillfully used this rejection to illustrate the unfairness of the law and he mounted a campaign to change the law.

Eventually the Liberal government of Louis Robichaud established a Royal Commission to investigate the issue of public sector collective bargaining. CUPE made many representations to that Commission which recommended a very rational structure and system of bargaining that was eventually adopted by the government. What followed was a massive organizing campaign headed by Lofty, which eventually resulted in the vast majority of public employees joining CUPE. In the end, they had the most progressive public service legislation and the highest concentration of CUPE membership in Canada. Subsequent Conservative and Liberal governments have since watered down and restricted bargaining rights. Maybe they were able to get away with it because Lofty's leadership was not able to be there all of the time.

Lofty was happiest when, as a CUPE representative and later as Atlantic Regional Director, he could work directly with the rank and file membership. He was never quite as happy when he came to Ottawa as National Director of Organizing and was one step removed from the membership and had to largely organize the field staff instead of the membership. It is no wonder that he would use every occasion to get out of his office to work more closely with the membership.

Lofty was universally loved by the membership of CUPE. However he did have his critics within the staff. Since he devoted his whole life and thought to building the labour movement, he expected every other staffer to do the same. When traveling to cities outside of Ottawa, he would arrange to have the Regional Director or staffer to pick him up at the airport.

“Can I put my suitcase in your trunk?” he would ask. It was his way of checking to see if the trunk contained a set of golf clubs or fishing tackle. He never really approved of field staff pursuing such recreational activities.

Union blood flowed through Lofty's veins every hour of the day and every day of the year. I remember him being hospitalized with a possible heart attack in Sydney. When I called his hospital room, he said, “I'm feeling fine. I've just signed up all of the nursing assistants in the Union”. Even when he went on vacation in Barbados or Cuba, he did not just lie on the beach. He would be in constant discussion with the local people about their working conditions and their need for effective union representation.

Even in his later years when he was in a seniors' residence in Campbellton or in the Veterans Hospital in Vancouver, he was actively concerned that the hospital union was operating effectively.

I was worried about Lofty when he retired in 1982 at the age of 65. Since he had totally involved himself in union work all of his life, he had not allowed himself time for hobbies or other non-union pursuits. I was sure that he would have found retirement to be a tough go. How wrong I was. It has often been the case that when labour leaders retire, they disappear and are never heard from again. Not so with Lofty.

He and Clara moved to Campbellton where Clara had a home. As was the case with many others, that home had earlier been insulated with UFFI - formaldehyde. Lofty immediately organized the Campbellton Chapter of the New Brunswick Association of Homes with UFFI and became its first president. The group was instrumental in obtaining $1.5 million in federal grants to remove UFFI from their homes.

Lofty then ran as an NDP candidate in the provincial election. He was a Campbellton City councillor for three years. He served as president of the Clan MacMillan Society of North America. In 1987 he was elected president of his Canadian Legion branch and held that post for five years. He hosted a weekly talk show on the local TV station.

Lofty was asked to lead a fight by construction truckers who had not been paid when their company went bankrupt. He led the fight to stop the one-way flow of construction workers from Quebec coming to work in New Brunswick while N.B. workers were barred from working in Quebec. Even when he was hospitalized in Saint John he made the national news by highlighting the awful pre-packaged food that had been prepared by outside contractors.

It wasn't really retirement. He merely shifted his organizing skills from the union to take on organizing on political, social and community issues.

When Lofty was 16 his father took ill. He had to leave school at an early age in order to provide income for his family. In spite of that limitation, Lofty was a writer all of his life. He was always busy writing “resolutions” to be sent to various union conventions. In his retirement he regularly wrote long letters to the CUPE national officers expressing his concerns about the state of the union. He was also a prolific letters-to-the-editor writer on a wide range of labour, social, and political issues. This writing was recognized by the University of New Brunswick who conferred upon him an appropriate honourary doctor of letters degree.

I was often with Lofty at the point that he first met Clara. She was a staff member at the Campbellton hospital at the point that he was attempting to organize the group. Clara came from a traditional Acadian family and did not buy his story at first. She had many questions. She was a challenge. Lofty adored her feistiness and eventually they fell in love. It was a beautiful loving relationship from then on.

Lofty always spoke to me with such pride of his children: Marsha, John, and Jimmy. He was especially proud when they would embrace and advance his Scottish traditions. He was especially proud of Clara's daughters: Muriel and Jane. He loved them as if they were his own children and that love was returned.

In closing I want to mention that after Lofty had been CUPE Director of Organization for ten years, the CLC journal ran a story about Lofty's outstanding organizing efforts. The article was entitled “Mr. Organizer”. If we had to choose an epitaph for his gravestone – that would be it – MR. ORGANIZER.

That was Lofty.

Gilbert Levine spoke at a memorial service for Lofty MacMillan at Port Hood, Nova Scotia, 24 July 2006.

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From: Larry Katz
Date: 25 July 2006
Subject: My Personal Connection to Lofty MacMillan

John Francis (Lofty) MacMillan's passing represents a deep personal loss for me. I will miss Lofty. He was a good friend and mentor who I worked with for many years out of the national office of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Lofty was someone I always respected. I enjoyed listening to the stories and experiences he loved to share. I knew I could always depend on Lofty. He was unwavering in his devotion to trade unionism and to always remaining connected to rank and file workers and their daily struggles. He was a natural organizer…comfortable in his own skin, engaging, positive, strategic and innovative. Lofty also played a pivotal role in getting me hired by CUPE, something I will always be indebted to him for.

Looking back, I also see Lofty (and some other older unionists I identified with when I first started working in the labour movement) as a role model and inspirational bridge for inexperienced activists of my generation as we entered the movement in the 1960s and 70s.

I first met Lofty MacMillan over thirty years ago, in 1974, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when a group of Dalhousie University clerical, technical and library workers decided to try and organize a union local affiliated with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. At the time I was working as a laboratory technician at Dalhousie and was a member of the organizing committee. Lofty always took a special interest in the Atlantic Region, where he had initially worked for CUPE, and where he had spent his formative growing-up years. Lofty was proud of his Scotish roots and remained connected to family and friends in Port Hood, Cape Breton. I spoke to Lofty about our situation and he said he would do his best to garner CUPE National support for our campaign.

Our committee knew organizing Dalhousie would not be easy. The university president and influential members of the board of governors were strongly and overtly anti-union. Many faculty members also opposed unionization. The staff association that had been unable to win improved wages and working conditions refused to throw its support behind unionization, despite the desire to do so by many Dalhousie workers and our numerous attempts to move forward together.

From the outset, our organizing committee recognized that success would only be possible if Dalhousie workers themselves did the actual organizing. We also knew that we needed help from a full-time CUPE representative, one who was sensitive to the political culture of the region and university environment, who could work well with women (who represented the vast majority of employees on campus), and respected the views and democratic decisions of our committee. I didn't have a lot of confidence in the CUPE Atlantic Regional Director based in Sydney, whom I found pessimistic and traditional in his approach to organizing. We discussed this with Lofty. He was fully supportive and fully understood where we were coming from. He arranged for our group to become a local of CUPE and made sure that a young CUPE representative from Newfoundland, Fred Greening, whom we had met and liked, was assigned to work with us. It proved to be a mutually respectful relationship.

Dalhousie workers put their hearts, souls and energy into the campaign. We had a wonderful, representative organizing committee that worked hard and very well together. Over time, a strong majority of technical and library workers signed union cards. The clerical staff proved more difficult to organize. They worked in small officers and were more socially isolated than the library and technical employees. Many signed union cards, but an equal number were intimidated by the anti-union fears spread by the administration. A significant number of clerical workers felt insecure because the faculty members they worked for made it clear they opposed unionization.

Lofty was always available to us whenever we needed him. We all liked and respected Lofty. When things were going well, he gave us needed acknowledgement. When things were tough, he helped lift our spirits. You never had to question where Lofty stood. He stood with the workers, always.

To make a long story short, after the university successfully petitioned the Nova Scotia Labour Relations Board to exclude all grant-paid technicians from the bargaining unit (on the pretext that they were not employees of the university, but rather employees of the individual faculty members holding the grants), an official Labour Relations Board vote was held. We lost by a relatively small margin given the size of the potential bargaining unit. I'll never forget the moment we received the news while anxiously waiting in a room in the Student Union Building on campus. Our entire executive began to weep as we tried to console and comfort each other. I received a call from Lofty, who was then National Organizing Director for CUPE. He wanted everyone to know that he was very proud of us, and that we had done our best and that he considered all of us brothers and sisters.

Not too long after the campaign, the medical research grant I was paid from expired and was not renewed. Normally, other funds would be found to avoid lay-offs. Tremendous pressure was being put on my Department Director by the administration to end my employment. The Director and I had worked together for a numbers of years. He had been my thesis advisor. I worked in his laboratory after I finished my degree. We were friends and he had always supported me in the past in the face of pressure from the administration. This was true, for example, when I was President of the Dalhousie Graduate Student Association, and it was true during the CUPE campaign. The time had clearly come for me to move on. To try and fight back would have put my Department Director in an untenable position, something I didn't want to do. I also had made the decision to change career paths and to try to find employment in the union movement.

Two people from the CUPE National Office thought I should come to work for CUPE, Lofty MacMillan and Gil Levine. Both of them went to bat for me. Lofty found an opening in Saskatchewan, where I could work as a servicing representative. At the eleventh hour, Stan Little, who was then National President of CUPE, decided I was too radical to work for CUPE. I remember receiving a phone call from Lofty telling me that Stan Little had done an RCMP check on me and had learned I had been to Cuba for “guerilla” training. This was pure fabrication. I had never even been to Cuba. While I had no proof, my feeling was that Stan Little had concocted stories about me to block my appointment. I was trying to enter the labour movement at a time when internal divisions reflecting cold war politics were alive and thriving in the movement. After six months of unemployment when I did volunteer work in the union and social justice movements, Grace Hartman was elected National President of CUPE. Lofty and Gil Levine spoke to Grace and asked her if she was going to follow the same hiring practices as her predecessor. She said no. I was then hired to work in the National Research Department of CUPE, where I would work until my retirement a few years ago.

Lofty and I always enjoyed a good working relationship. I became even more fond of Lofty after beginning to work at the national office. We often traveled together and worked with locals or on campaigns together. I got to know Lofty at a personal level and grew to appreciate the importance of family, friendship and community in his life. Lofty could at times be crusty or very headstrong. I learned to see beyond these personality traits. Lofty could also be sensitive and romantic, and for me, this compensated for what some others saw as unbridled ego. During his years at CUPE Lofty played a central role in helping to organize tens of thousands of workers, defending workers on strike and being at the forefront of some of the major union struggles of his day. From putting the Canadian back into the Canadian labour movement, to challenging the second-class status of public workers, to fighting wage controls and other regressive legislation, to giving support to younger activists trying to make unions more inclusive and democratic, Lofty was always there and could be counted on.

After Lofty retired from CUPE he continued to play an active role in helping workers and doing support work where he lived. Once in a while I'd receive a letter from Lofty championing a cause or informing me of problems within the union that he thought needed attention. Lofty always spoke his mind and this didn't end after retirement.

One of my best memories of Lofty during his retirement years was during the CUPE general strike in New Brunswick in the early 1990s. CUPE members were on strike across the province to defend the integrity of their collective agreements. It was a tough fight and I spent many weeks in New Brunswick. I was very proud of CUPE New Brunswick during that strike. The strike leader was Bob Davidson, another protégé of Lofty, and the membership managed to successfully return to work with their collective agreements intact. Lofty, because of all he had previously done for the membership in New Brunswick, became an important inspirational symbol during the strike. At the meeting of local union leaders from across the province where the final settlement was ratified, Lofty got the recognition he deserved. He received a long, enthusiastic, standing ovation from all in attendance. It was a special moment and I was lucky to be present to witness the outpouring of affection and respect shown toward Lofty. It was a very special moment.

The last time I saw Lofty was when he was in a nursing home in Campbellton, New Brunswick. My wife and I had gone on vacation to Cape Breton. We spent a day with Lofty and his wife Clara on our way home. By then, Lofty was in a wheelchair and needed nursing care. But despite the discomfort and dependency, his spirit remained. He talked about the needs of the workers in the nursing home. He reminisced about some of the struggles in the old days. He wanted all the news we could pass on about his beloved CUPE and his many friends in the union. It was difficult for my wife and I to leave. We didn't know if we would ever see Lofty again.

As I write a memorial for Lofty is taking place in Port Hood, Cape Breton. Today is my birthday and the beginning of my wife's vacation. I know people who have traveled to Port Hood to take part in the memorial. I am there in spirit.

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From: Gerald Yetman
Date: 19 June 2006
Subject: Tower of Strength

I am in my 79th year and have recently been diagnosed wth Alzheimer's, but this still cannot erase the memory of Lofty MacMillan. I will always remember him as a great man who took a chance and hired me as a CUPE rep. He continued to be a “Tower of Strength” to me as I served my 10 years as President of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. I am very proud to have known Lofty and am forever thankful to him for giving me the opportunity to fullfill much during my life in the Labour movement.

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From: Léopold Arseneault
Date: 29 May 2006
Subject: What Can You Say About a Man?

What can you say about a man
who gave from the depths of his heart,
who opened the minds of millions, to believe,
to feel and to reach out for a new start?

What can you say about a man
who could touch your soul with the strength in his eye,
the conviction in his voice, the stature in his walk,
and from the ashes, seeding the philosophy, helped a UNION family to arise?

What can you say about a man
who could reach out with his firm hand
to assist anyone at any given time, sacrificing all that he had,
not focusing on monetary wealth or value, not notoriety or fame,
without the selfishness to claim that this is mine, all mine?

What can you say about a man
who could follow and not be afraid to lead, letting the most humble person teach him,
listening to the thoughts of children in economic need, and feeling the compassion for each of
their emotional, physical and spiritual necessities as required?

What can you say about such a man?
He would fight for you or any person in the room,
without knowing your name, place of birth or nationality,
but the idea of what was just is where his heart was consumed.

What can you say about a man
who fought diligently to accomplish feats one thought insurmountable,
opening doors of opportunity, breaking down walls of oppression,
with the spirit of strength but a heart so meek?

What can you say about a man
who implanted the seed of progress in the soil of a nation
that has so many infirmities
impeding the growth of equality and justice
for every individual aligned itself with perpetuating human separation?

What can you say about a man
who was not afraid to be criticized, who would welcome your opinion,
urge self expression, which could be led to thoughtful insight,
and if you could prove him wrong, he was not too self-absorbed to give in?

What can you say about a man
who looked at people with the love of God in his heart,
always striving to see the best in them,
challenging people to be better than they even thought,
expecting them to teach what they have learned and be willing
to do their part?

What can you say about a man
who met with government officials, CEO's, dignitaries and royalty,
sitting amongst them to share ideas about improving the personal human working conditions,
but felt so comfortable sitting around common folks,
not too proud to express a kind word to anyone who has gone astray?

What can you say about a man
who loved the Union Movement and his family so dearly,
whose thoughts and prayers he expressed daily,
never too busy to be reached for encouragement or a fatherly word,
to his heart he held them nearly and dearly?

What can you say about a man
who touched so many, being sincere, loving and kind,
fighting to better the lives of generations to come, having us search out God's plan for us,
desiring us to live in unison, love one another, protect one another, invest in the youth of today,
to be proud of whom we are and where we come from?

What can we say about a man?
John Francis (Lofty) MacMillan, CD, PhD
Let's not leave this man's vision behind!

This text was written 26 November 2003 and published in a leaflet for CUPE.

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From: Raymond Léger
Date: 19 May 2006
Subject: Brother Lofty MacMillan

Brother MacMillan was always ready to lend a hand, even when he was well into his retirement. When I was working for the New Brunswick local of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in 1995, we had a strike against the Dalhousie Coop. A rally was organized and we asked Lofty, who was living in Campbellton, to say a few words. His health was not the best, but he was determined to come. I remember helping him to climb up on the back of a truck to speak. He told the workers to hold the line -- they were right to be on strike and they should not take any concessions.

In recent years Brother MacMillan has received many tributes for his work. I was in the audience at the convocation on 21 May 1999 when Lofty received an honorary degree from the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. I noticed that Lofty was getting tired by the long ceremony and ritual of the event. He used his handkerchief a lot because of the heat in the room, and I was worried whether he could make it to speak. But when his turn came to deliver the address to the students, he stood up tall as a giant. Instead of talking of banalities, he spoke of poverty, of better health care, of the war in Iraq, of the rights of the labour movement and of the need to continue the struggle for social justice. He left the students with a challenge: “What role can we expect you to take in bringing greater justice to these Canadians?”

That speech was a summation of his own long fight for working people, and a reminder that there will always be a need in the labour movement for more Lofty MacMillans.

These comments are part of an article I wrote which will appear in the next issue of Our Times: Canada's Independent Labour Magazine.

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