More than 150 people attended a special ceremony at Local 793’s head office in Oakville on April 28 to officially dedicate a memorial garden and monument to honour members of the union who’ve been killed in construction site accidents or died from occupational illnesses.

The audience consisted of dignitaries, union staff, business reps, officers, construction employers, representatives from other unions, and family members of four deceased operators.

The event was held on Canada’s Day of Mourning. A minute’s silence was observed during the ceremony. Names of 36 deceased Local 793 members have been etched on the monument.

At the event, Local 793 business manager Mike Gallagher spoke about the importance of reducing worksite accidents and ensuring government and agencies take appropriate action.

“We have to increase our efforts tenfold and we have to go out there and we have to tell the government the only consideration that matters is not whether they get re-elected or not,” he said, “it’s whether our workers get to return home at the end of the day.”

Gallagher said every single death is preventable but in his 18 years as business manager, and in his 30-plus years working in the industry, governments have been exceedingly slow at addressing safety issues that are highlighted by unions or coroner’s inquest juries.

Expert witnesses testify at coroner’s inquest juries and give advice, but soon after the recommendations are released they’re ignored by government and safety agencies, he said.

“You could count on your right hand how many coroner’s jury inquest recommendations have actually been put in place in terms of making our jobsites safer and putting regulations in place,” he noted. “It’s an absolute travesty that is correctable by government.”

Gallagher said there are new technologies, new equipment and new methods coming into the workforce, yet the system moves slowly.

“We move at a glacial pace to get the job done, to protect the workers that we send out to work every single day and it’s a damn shame,” he said. “We should move faster, put a higher priority, stop every other consideration except for protecting workers out on the job.

“We should make sure that the government enacts regulations to protect workers, our sons and daughters and brothers and husbands and wives, that go out on jobs and into the workplace to be put at risk when there’s absolutely no reason for it whatsoever.”

Gallagher said the Operating Engineers will continue to hold the feet of government to the fire.

“From the place that I’m standing, from where we’re coming from, we want to make sure that there are no shortcuts that are taken, that nobody overlooks a maintenance issue with regards to a crane or skimps on training, or has any other consideration whatsoever, other than to protect themselves and the workers and the public that are around them.”

IUOE general president James T. Callahan, who lost a brother due to an illness from the cleanup after the collapse of the World Trade Centre in New York City, attended the ceremony.

“This is a thought-provoking monument, I have to say,” he told the audience. “Walking through there, it stirred up what the Operating Engineers are all about.”

When a family member is killed at work, Callahan said, it’s one of the most devastating things to get over because there was no opportunity to say goodbye.

“If there’s any solace to that, it’s when your loved one fell they never touched the ground because there were 380,000 Operating Engineers that ran to them spiritually and looked out for their families afterwards, and that’s what a brotherhood is all about.”

Callahan said the monument and garden are a moving tribute to Operating Engineers and fallen workers.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said it seems like the completion of a mission to see the garden and monument built.

He said Oakville is committed to worker safety and has not had a fatal accident of an employee under his watch, something he is very proud of.

“We tell them that we feel a great duty to keep them safe from harm. We tell them that our commitment to their families is that we only borrow you for your workday and we feel a great obligation to return you to your family and your home in as good condition as you showed up in.

“We do that by making safety our number one criteria.”

At the beginning of the ceremony, Local 793 vice-president Joe Dowdall read a poem entitled Callum by Milton Acorn, a famous Canadian poet and labour activist from PEI. The poem is about a minor named Callum who goes to work and falls down a mine shaft and dies.

Local 793 business manager Gallagher said the poem laments the fact that workers, when they go to work and are killed on the job, don’t receive any recognition and are soon forgotten.

“I thought that was very appropriate given the fact that we have constructed a monument here to our members and their families to make sure that they’re never forgotten.”