Labour of love

How union members helped build Brock University

Vintage photo of McKinnon Industries employees admiring their fundraising thermometer chart.

I often hear how unions are going to be the end of our community: “Unions are bad for our economy.… Unions are ruining public education.” I am a proud union member but when I hear words like this I am, like many, apt to just shrug it off as ignorance. It’s difficult to debate ignorance and at times feels pointless. Ignorance needs education, and as education workers, it is time to speak up and educate. It is time to remind people that unions positively contribute to our community and demonstrate how unions contribute to the enhancement of our economy and nurture public education. This is the story of Brock University.

It began in 1957 in a small kitchen in Thorold, Ontario. Flora Egerter of the Allanburg Women’s Institute was listening to the radio when she heard an announcement by the Ontario government of its intent to build four new universities in Ontario. At the time, Niagara was booming with industry and growth and Egerter had a vision. She wanted to see a university in Niagara, which would provide post-secondary access for young women in the region and help support working families by providing an opportunity for students to study while living at home.

At first the government was not convinced Niagara was an ideal location. McMaster University was just down the road, and the Niagara region flourished on industrial manufacturing. In World War I, the factories manufactured parts for the war effort and then later, in World War II, the industry doubled to accommodate contracts for the Canadian, British and French governments. Niagara was ideally situated for this sort of manufacturing and so after the war, General Motors moved into the region, opening up a foundry that became one of the largest components-manufacturers for the auto giant. The industry employed thousands of unionized workers and was the heart of the Niagara economy.

So why would an industrial town like Niagara need a university?

Despite initial misgivings, Egerter didn’t give up. After garnering support from the local community council and industrial sector, she passed a resolution to call for the Ontario government to open a university in Niagara. The Ontario government reluctantly agreed and, in 1957, the Niagara District Joint Committee on Higher Education was formed and a name was chosen that represented the history of the region.

In 1962, the Brock University Founders’ Committee (BUFC) was established, specifically tasked to create and develop an academic and administrative plan that also needed to include a fundraising strategy to raise the money needed to build the university. Among the members of this committee was the late Lynn R. Williams, a union activist and leader in the region and the man who would later become the first Canadian to head the United Steelworkers of America.

On November 22, 1962, the BUFC held a dinner and invited local industry leaders to persuade them to make contributions towards building Brock University. Labour leaders voted unanimously in favour to ask their members for a voluntary contribution towards the fund. Leaders asked for the equivalent of one day’s pay per year to be taken through payroll deduction. Their goal was $1-million. In 1962, $1 was equivalent to roughly $8 today, and a full day’s pay for a working family was a substantial amount. However not a single member hesitated.

Union employees believed in working together as a community to provide otherwise inaccessible educational opportunities for the local youth. Within five years, the labour movement surpassed its goal, raising $1.4-million, a hefty sum by even today’s standards. Their donation totalled 25 per cent of the overall campaign proceeds. McKinnon Industries, UAW 199 (UNIFOR 199), a General Motors subsidiary, raised $518,000, the single largest donation to the fund.

One of these supporters was the father of Welland MP Malcolm Allen. A McKinnon Industries employee, his father did not hesitate at the chance to help raise money for the development of a local university. “At that time it was unheard of for the son of a factory worker to attend university or college. University students were children of lawyers or doctors. We didn’t have that opportunity until Brock University opened up. This university allowed us to have a chance at a different life, something we never dreamed of before.”

When Brock University opened in 1964, 100 students registered. Today, more than 18,000 undergraduate and graduate students populate Brock’s hallways and classrooms in pursuit of their dreams. On campus, there are five labour unions representing over 5,000 members, and Brock University is one of the largest employers in the Niagara Region.

Lynn R. Williams was appointed to the first Board of Trustees at Brock University in recognition of the dedication and commitment he and the labour movement made towards investing in Brock, the community and future generations. His voice represented that of the working women and men of the region who all had a vested interest in seeing Brock succeed.

Labour support for Brock University did not end with this single donation. Today, UAW 199 (UNIFOR 199) offers its members 28 scholarships to attend a post-secondary institution in Canada, and specifically offers two bursaries for students at Brock University. Through negotiations, they also offer a tuition-assistance program to aid students from falling too deeply into debt, with the average tuition cost of an undergraduate degree now a staggering $30,000 to $40,000.

Sadly, as you roam the crowded corridors of Brock University, there is little to actually remember those who were responsible for building Brock. Flora Egerter, recently commemorated in the renaming of a road on the campus, is barely mentioned in Brock’s history, and the contributions made by union workers, until a recent plaque commemoration, were all but forgotten.

There is no Niagara labour representation on the Board of Trustees and the only names you can find commemorated in the halls and annuals of Brock are those who have made corporate tax-deductible donations to the university and whose names, like effigies, adorn buildings. Nowhere are the names of the union workers who donated their hard-earned income to the building and the very existence of the university that now stands as a beacon for the Niagara Region.

In 2014, Brock University celebrated its 50th anniversary. Famous authors, actors, athletes, politicians and entrepreneurs all had their start at Brock University. It is a thriving legacy founded on the shoulders of one woman who had a vision and the union workers who helped to build it.

I’m not sure why, as a society, we seem to revel in the worst or see only the negativity that touches our daily lives. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but if we all look beneath the topsoil of our daily struggles, we will see the seeds of all that we have built together and the strong interwoven roots that hold up our foundation, inspiring us to have a vision for a stronger, united future.

About Alison J. Rothwell
Alison J. Rothwell is the Vice-President of District 35, Universities and Colleges (Brock University Support Staff), and is currently completing her Master’s thesis in Critical Disability Studies at Brock.

1 Comment on Labour of love

  1. Mr. Blair M. Phillips // August 9, 2020 at 8:11 am // Reply

    Well written and important historical fact about Flora Egerter of the Allanburg Women’s Institute . Thank you Ms. Rothwell for doing the research and sharing your findings…with us all.

    UAW/ CAW & TCA / Unifor Local 199

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