New Brunswick last month lost a man who fits the classic description of the citizen-worker. That’s a term historians use to talk about union activists who see their work as a form of practical citizenship engagement in support of the communities and people they serve.
Tim McCarthy came to Canada from Ireland as a young man sixty years ago; he married a New Brunswicker who was teaching in British Columbia; by 1967 they were settled on the Miramichi; he and his wife raised four children. McCarthy was employed as a skilled tradesman throughout his working life, first as a plumber and pipefitter and then an electrician. He retired from the Fraser (later RePap) paper mill in Newcastle in 1995.
But the basic facts are only a start. McCarthy also found time to serve three terms on the Newcastle town council. He volunteered with the Knights of Columbus, the Kidney Foundation and the Alzheimer Society. He was also active in his local of the Canadian Paperworkers Union and on the Miramichi and District Labour Council.
To the end of his life, he remained a Miramichi loyalist. When the CBC produced a so-called “romantic comedy” about the Miramichi, he wrote the corporation president to complain about “the degrading manner in which it depicted organized labour, women and local service organizations”.
When I first met Tim McCarthy, he was president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, a position he held for nine years between 1982 and 1991. I found him to be a soft-spoken man with a strong will. When necessary, he could give a big public speech to a crowd in front of the legislature; but he could also happily tell a story to make his point or raise his Irish tenor in song at a union event.
When McCarthy took office, labour was still benefiting from the activism of the 1970s that gave Canada its highest-ever level of union membership. In 1983, he was pleased to have the Federation convention addressed by one of the Catholic bishops who prepared that year’s “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis”, with its classic statement of social priorities: “the needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich; the rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profits; the participation of marginalized groups takes precedence over the preservation of a system which excludes them”.
But the 1980s turned out to be a decade when governments were more likely to cut public services and freeze wages, and premiers no longer came to the Federation meetings to look for support. Although the unions were often on the defensive, McCarthy led the way in lobbying for first contract arbitration for newly certified workers and for laws against the use of strikebreakers during labour disputes.
He was a notable supporter of improving the participation of women in the unions, which increased significantly on his watch. He helped raise the profile of issues such as pay equity, and in 1987 “equal pay for work of equal value” was unanimously endorsed as a priority for the Federation.
Although he did not speak French, McCarthy was also praised for supporting the Federation’s transition to a pragmatic form of bilingualism to encourage greater participation by Acadian members. This included revising the constitution to ensure that the work of the Federation was conducted in both official languages.
He also took steps to build an alliance between unions and environmentalists by participating in the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and supporting a “sustainable prosperity” approach to development. When he retired, the Federation established an annual Tim McCarthy Environment Prize for trade unionists and members of their families.
McCarthy knew that the Federation needed to spread the message that unions serve the public interest by raising standards for all working people. This helped explain his interest in promoting labour history in New Brunswick. When he arranged summer funding for one of my students to do research, he was delighted to insist that the student be paid $10.00 an hour, which was almost twice the minimum wage at the time.
Like citizen-workers in other times and other places, McCarthy did much good in his own time and place. He came to New Brunswick “from away”, but he will be remembered as a man who embodied the ideals of solidarity and citizenship that are part of the provincial identity.
David Frank teaches Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick. He is the author of Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (2013).