Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

A Tribute to Gilbert Levine: His Pioneering Role in Labour Research

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

A Tribute to Gilbert Levine: His Pioneering Role in Labour Research

Article excerpt

IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO ADEQUATELY sum up the life and contributions of one of the most influential labour leaders of his time in one short article. So this tribute to Gilbert Levine (February 3, 1924--November 16, 2009) provides a thin slice into his rich life, focusing on Gil's early years, his unique and innovative approach to labour research, and some of his legacies.

An imaginative left-wing labour researcher, Gil left a legacy of activism and commitment to a variety of social justice causes. Well known in Canadian labour circles, Gilbert Levine was the first Research Director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Under Gil's leadership, CUPE's Research services became the envy of other Canadian labour organizations.

This was the important public face of a man who was also much more. Gil was a mentor to many, a historian, peace activist, socialist, folk music advocate and, above all, an amazing organizer. He was also dedicated to his family: as the caring and steadfast husband to Helen Zivian Levine for 62 years; as the adored and proud father to daughters Ruthie (Tamara) and Karen; as the engaged father-in-law with Larry Katz and Michael Enright; and as the devoted Zaide to Rachel and Daniel Levine Katz and Gabriel Enright Levine.

Up to about a month before his death, Gil enjoyed relatively good health and continued to be active in support of many progressive causes. He maintained close contact with CUPE up to the end, sending CUPE National President Paul Moist about 20 emails urging action on various causes in the few months prior to his death. (1) His diagnosis of acute leukemia and his subsequent rapid demise sent shock waves through his near and extended family and vast network of friends.

A memorial for Gil in December 2009 at the CUPE headquarters in Ottawa drew hundreds to celebrate his life and many contributions and grieve his passing. The message provided by his family gives some insight into Gil's unique nature, which touched and inspired so many people during his lifetime:

Gil loved life. As the child of Jewish immigrants in Toronto and of the Depression, he fought long and hard to make the world a better place. He was a pioneer trade unionist and longtime research director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). He was happiest when he was fighting for change, winning rights for workers, and organizing everybody.

He loved Yiddishkeit, the woods, Canada, tennis, biking, winters in San Miguel, the CBC at its best, oral history, his maple tree at the Arboretum, playing Upwords, big band music, hootenannies, and bad jokes.

He mentored and befriended many of all ages, and brought people together in remarkable ways. His work, his passion for social justice, his commitment and his caring will never be forgotten. Gil wanted to live forever. In all of us who loved him, he will live on.

As Gil's son-in-law observed at the memorial:

If we are very, very lucky, once or maybe twice in our life we will meet someone like Gilbert. These are the indelible people. It's the force of these people and the way they conduct their lives that stays with us forever. (2)

How did Gilbert Levine come to have such a tremendous influence, personally and politically? To answer this question it is necessary to begin with Gil's early experiences in school and in the trade union movement. These formative years saw Gil develop a consistent political vision, one that would guide him over the course of years of social movement activism. It was not always smooth sailing. Not only did Gil have to battle the usual suspects. He often fought on more than one front.

Gil's relationship with his union, for instance, changed from having the first CUPE president try to drive him out of the labour movement, using the RCMP to gather evidence he was a communist (3), to being praised by the current CUPE national president and secretary-treasurer as "truly the heart and soul of our union and its predecessor for over 50 years. …

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