The future looks bright for Operating Engineers across the country but there are challenges on the horizon.

That was the message delivered by Local 793 business manager Mike Gallagher on Aug. 25 at the 56th Canadian Conference of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Toronto.

“Moving forward we have some significant challenges ahead of us,” he said in opening remarks at the event.

One of those challenges, he noted, is the right-wing agenda of the federal Conservative government.

Gallagher, who was president of the Conference, said the Operating Engineers should be concerned because the Tories are intent on destroying unions and passed 11 anti-union resolutions at their convention last year in Calgary.

One of those resolutions called for a law that would allow unionized workers to opt out of paying dues to support political activism while another stated that mandatory union membership – and mandatory dues – limit the economic freedom of Canadians.

With a federal election set for next year, Gallagher encouraged business managers across the country to step up the campaign against the Conservatives.

He noted that unions are dealing with a prime minister that’s established and it won’t be as easy as some people think to uproot Stephen Harper.

Gallagher said that some locals across the country – including Local 793 – have passed resolutions to contribute to a federal political action campaign and he urged others to follow suit.

“This is a very, very important initiative,” he said. “It’s going to be vitally important to our future in Canada.”

Gallagher told the audience that the Working Families Coalition was recently successful in ensuring Tim Hudak was not elected in Ontario.

He said that Hudak got some of his ideas from Conservative Grover Norquist in the U.S. and, had the election swung in favour of the Conservatives, it would have had a domino effect that would have continued across the country.

The province was facing a “bleak future” under then Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak because his vision was an Ontario without labour unions, Gallagher said.

During the campaign, Local 793 freed up business reps to knock on doors and put up signs – and it paid dividends, he said.

The outcome, he said, is that “we are going to be building and building union here in Ontario, incuding the Ring of Fire.”

As for other challenges, Gallagher said the Operating Engineers must continue to meet labour demands with work picking up in the pipeline and energy sectors.

“We have seen work in Ontario that we haven’t seen in quite some time.”

He noted that training centres across the country must continue to turn out new operators and locals have to keep recruiting youth.

“We have to really get at it in terms of training. We need to have the 28 to 35 year olds come on in and train for the future.”

Gallagher noted there is reason for optimism, as the Operating Engineers in Canada are growing and will continue to grow.

He also said the Canadian IUOE office is close to reaching a statement of partnership with Aboriginal communities in Canada.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) agreed in principle last November to enter into a statement of partnership with the IUOE but reached a hiccup when the AFN chief stepped down.

A new leader will be chosen in December and Gallagher said he is hoping the statement will be signed then, resulting in a partnership with the AFN.

“That will be a good thing because we’ll be respected and trusted a little bit more,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Gallagher said, a Remote Learning Centre which was opened recently in Neskantaga is an example of how the Operating Engineers can work with Aboriginal communities. Local 793 supported the centre and the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario will be providing e-learning opportunities to Aboriginals via the centre.

“There’s no reason we can’t replicate that in every territory and every province if it works,” said Gallagher. “I was very proud we got to be pioneers and were able to do that.”

IUOE general president James T. Callahan and IUOE general secretary-treasurer Brian E. Hickey also spoke at the conference.

Callahan reported that the financial status of the International is in great shape both in the U.S. and Canada.

He also noted that the International is available to help Canadian locals, as the issues they face are often the same as those faced by locals south of the border.

“I don’t see a border when it comes to Operating Engineers. As far as I’m concerned it makes no difference.”

Fighting the right-to-work movement in Ontario is no different than in Ohio, he noted. “It’s a battle we will fight to the end.”

General secretary-treasurer Hickey said the fact that the IUOE is in great shape is “great news” that is worth repeating.

With membership on the uptake in Canada, the country is doing a large part to keep the International whole, he said.