Alberta Woman of Steel Retires After 32 years as Union Member
RED DEER, ALBERTA – When United Steelworkers Local 1-207 member Karen Reay and her fellow workers at the Travelaire Canada travel trailer plant here got word that their operations would be permanently closing in January of this year, the end of an era had suddenly arrived.
Karen had worked at the plant way back in 1968 as a teenager and, after having other jobs, getting married and having kids, began a 32-year career at the operation in 1978. She worked in the laminating department all those years, going from 80 cents per hour in 1968 to $20.60 per hour in her final year.
In the laminating department Karen and her fellow workers would produce and laminate cabinet parts. They would also staple and glue back, front and divider walls.
"I still can't believe the plant is gone," says Karen. "It helped provide a decent way of life for so many families. The union (first the IWA and then the United Steelworkers) was able to negotiate living wages and benefits for us over the years and it is very sad to see the plant permanently closed. There were so many good people that worked there over the years."
Travelaire went into bankruptcy in January of this year. Its parent company, Glendale International Corp., based in Oakville, Ontario, had gone broke, taking Travelaire under with it.
Over the years the plant operated through boom and bust times. In recent years Travelaire added specialty products such as medical campers, park model homes and industrial skid shacks to its Red Deer production facility. Although the line of these new products did take off, the looming global recession brought layoffs and reduced production.
"We thought the place would continue to operate but the global recession that hit in 2008 had a major effect," says Karen. "And U.S. manufacturers dumped their trailers into Alberta and other parts of the Canadian market. Where we made built-to-last products with solid wood components, our American competitors sold trailers at a much lower prices. But they are not trailers that hold up to Canadian standards and our cold winters."
During her more than three decades in the union, Karen served the membership in numerous capacities, from health and safety committee member, to being a job steward and plant chairperson, to becoming a local executive board member and a delegate to union conventions, including the IWA Canada National Convention, the USWA International Convention in 2005, and a delegate to USW Women of Steel International and National Conventions in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
She also participated in numerous education courses including Job Steward Level 1 and 2, Duty to Accommodate, Health and Safety, and USW Officer Training. She also took a USW course on how to set up Contract Action Teams and a Women of Steel Course.
Local 1-207 president Nick Stewart says that Karen has "been a fixture of solid trade unionism" in the local union for decades.
"First and foremost, Karen has done a tremendous job in Red Deer – in her plant and in her community – where activism is so important," he says. "Karen has never shied away from a challenge and has always been there for her fellow workers."
In 2005 Karen was honoured to be on the main stage at the USWA International Convention in Las Vegas, joining the union's International President Leo Gerard and others. She co-delivered the convention's presentation on organizing new members and growing the union through affiliations and mergers.
Today she says that organizing is more important than ever, in an ever-changing economy.
In the 1960s, and through the 1980s, the Travelaire plant was a mainstay of Red Deer's economy, providing steady pay cheques to townsfolk. Since then the economy has becoming more diversified as the oil and gas boom pumped new economic activity into the community.
As a woman trade unionist, Karen points out that being active in the union can sometimes become a longer-term goal.
"Women in the workplace who have kids when they are younger, often have a tougher time getting involved in the union because they have so many family responsibilities at home," she says. "For me it got easier as my kids grew up. I became more active as the years went by."
Last year Karen was instrumental in helping set up a Local 1-207 Women's Committee – a body that encourages working women to take on active roles in the union.
"I say to the younger women that getting involved in the union is important. My union job gave me job security and good wages and benefits and that was so important for both my husband and I when we raised our family and were planning our latter years," says Karen. "We were able to help both our kids get a university education as a result."
"In earlier times people in our plant would just want wage increases and not pay attention to the pension plan. It's a good thing our union negotiated a defined benefit plan – that's what workers need when they retire," she adds.
Karen also sat on the Alberta Federation of Labour Executive Board, and is still active on the Red Deer and District Labour Council. She also serves on the United Way Cabinet for Central Alberta.
She is also an active NDP member, at both the provincial and federal level. Karen has also had a hand in municipal politics.
Karen's father was a member of the Alberta Union of Public Employees for over a decade but it was her ability to speak up for fellow workers that got her started in the IWA.
An ability to have an open rapport with both workers and management have served Karen and her fellow union members well.
"Karen is a sincere and unassuming individual, who people trust," says local union president Stewart. "She has the ability deal with issues right away and not let things go by."
Karen hopes to remain active in the USW as an "associate member."
When she reflects on her years in the workplace and union, Karen simply says "it's all been good."
"I've gotten a lot of satisfaction in helping people out," she says. "Once you speak up and deal with the issues you can make a difference."
"I am very grateful to have had unions in my life," she says. "They have educated me and I have become more knowledgeable and confident in representing the membership."