John Cartwright is retiring as president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and as chair of the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), leaving a legacy of being a strong champion of social justice issues for those in the construction industry and beyond.
The TCBN organized a tribute for Cartwright recently featuring a long list of speakers talking about his contributions to the labour movement. Cartwright was humbled by the recognition.
“The labour council that I am privileged to lead is 150 years old this year,” he said following the tribute. “That is generations after generations that have faced incredible challenges way tougher than you and I faced in our lives and made decisions over what kind of city, what kind of society to build. I’ve been inspired by those who came before and try to make sure people are putting the best ideas together and asking folks how we can build a better Toronto and a better Canada. Lots of amazing people have stepped in to be part of that journey.”
In the beginning
Cartwright started his career in the trades at the age of 18 in a woodworking shop making furniture. He joined the Carpenters’ Union Local 27 in 1976 and was elected as a rep at the end of 1982. In 2002 he was elected as the business manager of the Central Ontario Building Trades. More recently he became co-founder and co-chair of the TCBN, which is focused on winning community benefits and equity hiring on major infrastructure projects.
Throughout the course of his career he has been involved in numerous advocacy campaigns. He recalls the economic crisis of the 1990s when some trades in the Greater Toronto Area were experiencing up to 40 per cent unemployment.
“The big task in front of me was to figure out how on earth do we get jobs so that people can work again,” said Cartwright, adding a coalition of construction and related associations was created.
“We were lobbying all levels of government to invest in infrastructure, getting them to see that every dollar that they would spend during the recession…that would bring somebody out of EI and get them back a job or take an apprentice who had stalled in the system and put them back on the career path that they wanted. One of the most successful things we were able to do was create the Better Buildings Partnership with the City of Toronto in the mid-‘90s.”
In the early ‘90s employment equity was brought in by the government.
“We started looking and saying. ‘how are we making sure that young people from diverse backgrounds are coming into the trades?’ ” said Cartwright. “We wanted to reach Indigenous, Black and people of colour communities to say construction trades are great opportunities. We want to make sure this is a place is for you. We started doing some of that early outreach which the Community Benefits Network really has ramped up in a dramatic way.”
Cartwright was also instrumental in getting people to join the union during the ‘90s, a time when union density around North America had been reduced dramatically.
“With the leadership we had at the trades we went out and created multi-union organizing drives into the housing sector and other sectors and signed up thousands of workers into our unions and brought conditions and standards up dramatically,” he said. “We worked with the subtrades. We had a relationship with the developers to say ‘let’s make this a collective effort.’ Workers want to have union conditions and wages and benefits. Employers want to have highly skilled workforces that are a product of our apprenticeship system.”
The community benefits model derives from a number of experiences, one of those was the closing of the Kodak building on Weston Road in Toronto, explained Cartwright. The area had been an industrial powerhouse for years with thousands of well-paying union jobs. The community didn’t want to see it turned into a strip mall where their kids would have limited employment options.
Cartwright was instrumental in working with Metrolinx to create the Community Benefits Framework Agreement for the project. The building was moved and transformed into the Mount Dennis Station and Maintenance Storage Facility, the western terminal station of the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit project.
Although he is retiring, he will stay on as chair of the Council of Canadians, a national organization that works on issues such as protecting public health care and the environment. A priority for him has always been climate change and building the green economy.
“There is so much opportunity for us. We are only just discovering what the opportunities are for a very job rich transition to a sustainable economy,” Cartwright said. “That’s something I will be turning my mind to even more when I have a bit more time.”
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