A legendary trade unionist has died. Fred Upshaw passed away peacefully March 1 at his home in Oshawa. He was 81.
Upshaw was the first Black person to lead a major Canadian trade union, serving as President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) from 1990 to 1995.
“I had the privilege of serving on the Executive Board under Fred’s leadership and considered him a great friend,” said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of OPSEU. “He was a mentor to literally hundreds of OPSEU activists, including me.
“He took the reins of our union at a critical point in our history,” Thomas said. “His leadership laid the foundation for the powerful, outward-looking, progressive union we are today.
“He will be missed.”
Fred Upshaw was born in Halifax in 1935 but moved to Toronto with his mother at the age of six. He was the eldest of six children in a single-parent family.
His life as an activist began at Malvern Collegiate High School, where as student council president he led a walkout to demand that students be consulted over uniform changes. Upshaw’s early years as a debater and professional singer helped make him a spellbinding orator, which came in handy when he began his union career. Following a short stint on the executive of United Auto Workers’ Local 222, Upshaw trained as a registered nurse and took a job at Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, becoming a member and eventually president of OPSEU Local 331.
Elected to the OPSEU Executive Board in 1980, Upshaw became First Vice-President/Treasurer in 1984 and President in 1990.
Upshaw’s presidency coincided with the five-year rule of Ontario’s NDP government under Premier Bob Rae. Upshaw led the union during the fightback against Rae’s Social Contract Act. As a key leader of the Public Services Coalition, Upshaw won agreements that minimized the impact of “Rae Days” and prevented layoffs. During Upshaw’s time in office, OPSEU won the right to strike for Ontario Public Service members, joint union-management control over the OPSEU Pension Trust (now OPTrust) and the colleges’ pension plan, and political rights for Crown employees. Always a human rights activist, Upshaw championed employment equity during his term in office.
“He was somebody who could feel for people who were going through hardship,” recalls James Clancy, who served as OPSEU President before Upshaw. “In Fred’s time, we drove some innovative language around maternity leave, human rights legislation, and employment equity, and at the same time the face of the union was changing.
“There weren’t a lot of unions that had visible minorities in leadership positions. His mere presence, and the way he carried himself, was a real positive for OPSEU and the changing demographics in our communities. It’s often the things that are not said that are instrumental, and I think that his presence in union meetings, in community meetings, was groundbreaking in many ways.”
Upshaw’s activism continued long after he left office, said Sara Labelle, now Regional Vice-President for Region 3.
“I met Fred when I ran for the Board in 2011 – that’s how long Fred was supporting and helping new activists,” she said. “He was a solid supporter of labour and social justice and everything that we fight for every single day. He was always encouraging people coming up the ranks. He was always available for a conversation.
“He will be very much missed in Region 3, in Oshawa, and across Ontario.”
“Fred Upshaw didn’t change when he became president,” said Ethel LaValley, a long-time friend who served on the OPSEU Board with him. “He always stuck to his roots and he was always kind to everybody. He had a really good connection with people.”
Upshaw leaves his wife Rose and five children.