Unions are being blamed for many of society’s problems just now, but the truth of the matter is that the labour movement has a very important role to play in rebuilding the economy.

That’s one of the key messages business manager Mike Gallagher delivered during a speech at Local 793’s annual dinner dance held at the union banquet hall in Oakville on Nov. 19.

The event was attended by many of the union’s long-service members and their families. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Oakville MPP Kevin Flynn, who is parliamentary assistant to the minister of training, colleges and universities, also attended.

Gallagher said unions have become “the goat” for many economic ills, but they’re not to blame.

He noted that every free society has a trade union movement, which is healthy to building the working class and strengthening the economy.

Gallagher told the audience that is one of the reasons Local 793 supported the provincial Liberals in the last three elections.

Local 793 wanted the Liberal government to repair some of the damage done by former premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, and stop what PC leader Tim Hudak was trying to do, he said.

Gallagher noted the Liberals have come through, building 18 new hospitals, including one in Oakville.

“That is a stark change from what we had before,” he said.

The government also hired 200 health and safety inspectors to patrol jobsites, Gallagher said, and hired thousands more nurses in hospitals.

Local 793 is also doing its part, Gallagher said, investing about $7 million a year into its training facilities in Oakville and Morrisburg.

He said the province has partnered with Local 793 on many training initiatives and recently awarded the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario another $173,000 in funding on top of its original allocation of $701,000 for apprenticeship training.

In his speech, Gallagher touched on a number of other issues.

He said unions have made construction worksites safer but too many accidents are still occurring, one being an accident in Toronto that resulted in the death of Local 793 apprentice Kyle Knox.

“At 24 years old, a promising career was ended in a heartbeat,” Gallagher said.

While Local 793 is pleased that George Gritziotis has been appointed as chief prevention officer, he noted more work remains to be done, such as ensuring that all workers on sites are properly trained.

Gallagher also spoke about late union president Gary O’Neill who died Sept. 12. A video tribute to O’Neill was shown at the event.

“He was a person that had enormous compassion for his fellow human beings,” Gallagher said.

O’Neill took on a leadership role everywhere he went, Gallagher said, noting that he took the helm of the Working Families Coalition right from the beginning.

“He did a tremendous job on that,” said Gallagher, and he would have been pleased to see Premier McGuinty elected to a third term.

Gallagher also spoke about former business manager Joe Kennedy, who received his 60-year award at a ceremony earlier in the day.

He said Kennedy hired him as a business agent and it was one of the proudest moments of his life.

Gallagher said Kennedy and he didn’t always agree on matters, but he admired the fact Kennedy was decisive and stuck to his guns.

He noted that Kennedy and his team were responsible for bringing in Local 793’s pension plan, and that Kennedy had to convince his own members it was a good idea.