Lawrence F. Sefton
Dedication Plaque – Larry Sefton Hall – 25 Cecil Street, Toronto.
Lawrence Frederick McNeil Sefton was born in Iroquois Falls, northern Ontario in 1917. His family moved frequently but in Toronto he attended high school at Humberside C.I. At the age of 17 in the Great Depression he headed back north to Kirkland Lake where there were jobs, to work in the gold mines. Years later, when asked why he became active in the union, he said that when first asked to join the union, he refused because he didn’t know anything about it. The guy that asked him got so angry when he didn’t join that Larry figured he must have had a good reason for being upset, so he read something about the labour movement and joined the union. Then several men came to him and asked him to run as secretary of the union. “They said it would only be a matter of keeping the minutes and attending the membership meetings and that would be all there’d be to it.” Though he was busy with other activities, he ran for office in the miners’ union and was elected. “And I’ve been completely involved ever since.”
When he was 24, he became the Recording Secretary of Mine Mill local 240 in Kirkland Lake – employed at Lake Shore mine as gold miner. During the strike in 1941-42, he went across Canada to raise money for the strike. He was blacklisted in 1942 after the strike was lost, went to Toronto and worked at Ronson Lighter Company until he was hired by the United Steelworkers Union.
Sefton was sent to Hamilton where he played a leading staff role in coordinating the strike against Stelco in 1946. This time the strike was successful and marked a watershed in the history of unions in Canada. Sefton remained in Hamilton as key staff after the strike and was active in organizing, community and politics.
In 1953 he was the unanimous choice of the union staff to become District 6 Director. He remained in this position until he retired in 1972 due to ill health. During his time, District 6 covered Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the territories. Sefton oversaw the union’s dramatic growth from 30,000 to 120,000 members expanding from basic steel into mining and other industries. Sefton led collective bargaining for decades achieving ground breaking agreements with some of the largest corporations of the day. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Sefton was well recognized in the halls of Parliament, business
and the news for his representation of workers, strong bargaining and commitment to social justice.
Sefton foresaw the impacts of technological change and global corporations on workers and their families. He believed in international unionism and was an opponent of what he considered narrow nationalism. He ardently believed that workers should not be divided against each other. Employers and corporations operate globally. Canadian employers or corporations in essence were no different from those in other countries. Only legislation and regulation made a difference. He played a key role in developing international solidarity and support for workers everywhere.
In a speech delivered by film from his hospital bed on November 9, 1972 shortly before his death, Sefton urged the Steelworkers Union to embrace broad social goals ranging from improving working conditions to campaigns against pollution to other forms of citizen action to keep the trade union movement from becoming a slot machine organization into which union members only pay dues.
He promoted a broader view of unionism in which all workers had a place and a role regardless of gender, colour, place of origin, sector or type of employer. Under his leadership, the idea that the United Steelworkers Union should be Everybody's Union first took root.
He died after a long struggle with lung cancer on May 9, 1973. Some years later, his widow Elaine received workers’ compensation as Larry’s lung cancer was recognized as being caused by his work in the gold mines, the result of a campaign lead by the United Steelworkers Union. He was survived by Elaine and their two children, Laurel and Michael.
Sefton was very much a builder of the modern labour movement. He had endured the ultimate loss for a union member in Kirkland Lake – he lost both his union and his job. He understood how important the right to representation was and how fragile that right could be in our society. As Lynn Williams, who was hired by Larry Sefton and succeeded him as District 6 Director (before going on to be International Secretary Treasurer and President), wrote, in the first of the Sefton Memorial Lectures held annually by the University of Toronto since 1982.
“During Larry’s career as our leader he was building, building, building – but it was often difficult and chancey building, in the sense that, unless one built carefully and intelligently and well, all could be lost...Each step was critical, each challenge difficult. It was no accident that we progressed as we did in District 6 – it was in large measure because we had a leader who had a profound understanding of the vulnerability of our movement and our people, and in consequence demanded of himself, and of everyone, the intensity of application and attention which were required, if we were to succeed.”
Shortly after his election in 1953, he supported efforts of the Toronto Area Council to acquire property in the heart of the city as a centre for local union services and a location for progressive political action within walking distance of two centres – Queen’s Park and City Hall. The cost of the Cecil Street property was $90,000. The Area Council purchased the property in November 1954.