Socialist Action, Fall, 1999
by Gord Doctorow
Comrade André Bekerman succumbed to a two-year battle with cancer on June 7, 1999. André regarded himself as a revolutionary socialist, and his life in many respects reflected the evolution of many of the young revolutionaries of his generation.
Before becoming a union organizer and senior negotiator for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), he came into contact with the Canadian Trotskyist movement in Toronto led by the worker-intellectual Ross Dowson. André became a member of the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes (YS/LJS), and later the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (LSA/LSO).
He was born in 1943 in Brussels, Belgium. Because his father was a Polish Jew, his family lived a fearful existence. André was fond of recounting his first anti-fascist action in 1945 when some Nazi officers, attempting to quickly leave the besieged city by car, had accosted his mother who was pushing André in a carriage along the sidewalk. The Nazis were looking for directions out of Belgium. She slyly advised them to proceed towards arriving Canadian troops.
I met André in late 1964 when he was a University of Toronto student leader in the Student Union for Peace Action; at the time there were demonstrations in solidarity with U.S. Black voters who were attempting to assert their civil rights. As a political novice, I listened carefully to the eloquent and decisive voices who were attempting to create a united, coherent and militant strategy in the midst of chaotic and turbulent discussions that typified the "new left". André, David Hemblen, and Dierdre Gallagher (André’s first wife) stirred me into action. It is because of them that I came to reject the sectarian snipes aimed at the Trotskyists when I found out that they were all members of the YS/LJS. And it was because of them that I eventually joined up.
André had a charismatic presence. When he rose to speak, others listened. He was quick to demonstrate leadership in action: as a volunteer to help harvest sugar cane in Cuba (for which he received the distinction "model worker"), and as a lead marshal in a huge demonstration to commemorate the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.
Impatient with the middle class student milieu and with a taste for militant, working class action, he dropped out of the English literature program at U. of T. and started out on a career of working and deep involvement in unions. He began with a job digging a tunnel for Toronto’s University subway line in 1965. He led a successful fight to have the Toronto Transit Commission mount a public memorial plaque to honour the sacrifices made by the tunnel workers.
He remained a member of the LSA/LSO until the early 1970’s, during which time he involved himself in mass movements, including opposition to the Vietnam War and in solidarity with Cuba. Eventually, he dropped his formal affiliation to the Marxist organization, but remained sympathetic to it.
In the thirty-four years that he served in the labour movement, he occupied the roles of organizer, education officer, and negotiator. He worked, in turn, for the Labourer’s Union, the Canadian Union of Operating Engineers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Communication Workers, the United Garment Workers, the International Woodworkers, and OPSEU (since 1980). In these roles, he focussed his energy and organizing talents in a syndicalist direction. He remained a militant, but one who became increasingly influenced by the imperatives of collective bargaining in organizations seeking reform not revolution. André always sought to get the best collective agreements for his membership, employing solidarity and discipline on the picket line. Regrettably, it was he to whom the task fell to negotiate the surrendering of OPSEU’s previous gains in the Social Contract negotiations. Similarly, he expressed criticism of the Canadian Auto Workers’ refusal to participate in co-management schemes with the big employers.
Naturally, the contradictions of his union role taxed his patience. So he turned his restless mind to a new passion—archaeology. He sat on the board of trustees at the Royal Ontario Museum for the past six years. He enjoyed the excavation trips to places like Cuba and Greece and he took a socialist’s pleasure in uncovering facets of collective life. After obtaining his master’s degree in Archaeology from U. of T. in 1998, and despite the debilitating effects of his cancer, he embarked on a doctorate.
His life ended in a combination of struggle and optimism. For this, his memory is an inspiration to his legion of friends in the labour and socialist movements. At the Steelworkers’ Hall, at a meeting held to celebrate André’s life on June 11, which ended with the singing of "The Internationale", I was lifted by the spirit of open identification with the class struggle and by the hundreds of participants that packed the meeting. The audience was composed of his surviving family, a CBC broadcaster, an official of the Royal Ontario Museum, trade union officials, an NDP member of the Ontario legislature, a former federal NDP MP, old comrades, and rank-and-file unionists. The stories that were told at the meeting expressed undying admiration for the radical and socialist aspects of his life. In that spirit, ours is not to mourn; ours is to organize and carry on the struggle for a socialist future.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All