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Volume Ten, Number One   January 2005

Unions big participants in United Way drive

For many, charity begins in the union.

Dan Keeton

Few might know it, but unions are big drivers in raising funds for charity causes and supporting social agencies throughout Canada. Their charity of choice? The United Way.

Of the millions of dollars raised each year, about 70 per cent comes from workplaces, and of those, some 40 per cent are unionized, says the United Way's Ken Isomura.

Isomura, labour staff coordinator for the Lower Mainland United Way, says union involvement in the organization goes back some 80 years, beginning with the labour council in Denver, Colorado, and in Canada, the Windsor branch of the United Auto Workers union.

The United Way was created "as a federated fundraising organization so that you didn't get every little organization tin-canning on street corners," Isomura relates.

Unionized workers support the United Way either through payroll deductions in the workplace or, in a more direct manner, through contributions in cash and volunteer time from union offices.

Of these, the biggest contributor in the Lower Mainland is the office of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518, says Isomura. Staff at the office donates generously while officers such as Brian Nassu volunteers as chair of the UW's Campaign Labour Committee. "It's part of organized labour's social vision," says Isomura. "UFCW takes this to heart."

Additionally, unions join or initiate specific projects separate from the United Way, says Isomura. Examples include the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' program of salmon donations, Protein for People, the juvenile diabetes campaign run by the Building Trades unions, or the Firefighters' support for the MS and burns units of the Children's Hospital.

"The Teamsters provide free transportation for performers in the Variety Club telethons, while Local 40 (of the former Hotel and Restaurant union) had a roast for their retiring president and donated the proceeds to the United Way," he relates.

The UFCW runs a program supporting leukemia research. Its chair for past 10 years is Darrell Causey, who says the committee runs picnics and sells a variety of items such as lunch bags and t-shirts for raise funds. The union's program was so successful it wound up creating a separate organization, the Leukemia Research Foundation. Causey is a director of the western regional office.

Isomura's own union – he was an activist for years in IWA Canada in New Westminster – holds charity roasts and sponsors a golf tournament in conjunction with the BC Federation of Labour and the Working Opportunities Fund.

"There are three pillars to union charity work: fundraising, community outreach programs and the union counseling program," Isomura says.

The latter is run through the Canadian Labour Congress, Canada's trade union umbrella organization, which runs a one-week training program for union members who become contact points for fellow members seeking assistance on dealing with a wide range of social problems.

"It was the missing component of trade union activity for years," says Isomura, who credits the Windsor UAW with initiating the program. "We've had shop stewards for workers' rights and plant safety committees. But we hadn't been dealing with workers' social and mental health."

In addition to everything else, union members can be found door-knocking during major fundraising drives, says Isomura. Union support "is not so much a quantitative, but a qualitative thing. Everything is not about the bottom line.

"I know a guy who's contributed through payroll deductions for the last 30 years. He was giving $5 a paycheque when we making $1.98 an hour. That's about two per cent of his income, which means he's giving more of his income than some business donating $50,000 a year.

"A lot of this stuff happens quietly. Unions don't tend to blow their own horns. But it's part of their commitment to social justice."

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