June 16, 2021
Andria Babbington is first woman of colour to lead Toronto & York Region Labour Council
June 16, 2021
Recently arrived from Jamaica and working as a room attendant at the Sheraton Centre Hotel, Andria Babbington had no idea what her co-workers were talking about when they suggested she assume the role of shop steward.
Still in her teens and the youngest on staff, she witnessed first-hand some of the challenges hotel housekeepers are exposed to.
Complains to management fell on deaf ears.
“They would say it’s not my business and I should look the other way,” recalled Babbington. “Most of the workers were immigrants and newcomers and we weren’t treated with respect by management and guests. They didn’t have a voice and were afraid to speak out, fearing they might lose their jobs. I decided I wasn’t going to leave and, perhaps, the only way things were going to get better was if I stepped up.”
With support of co-workers and representatives of UNITE HERE Local 75 that has represented hospitality workers in Toronto and south central Ontario since the 1890s, she took up the offer to become the shop steward, a position she held for 16 years until leaving the hotel in 2002 to work as a union organizer.
Last month, Babbington made history as the first woman of colour to lead the Toronto & York Region Labour Council (TYRLC) that represents almost 220,000 unionized workers in Canada’s largest urban centre.
She replaces John Cartwright who held the position for almost two decades.
Babbington was the TYRLC Vice-President for the last nine years.
“After John made the announcement late last year that he was stepping down, I started to get a lot of calls asking if I am considering running for the position,” she said. “I didn’t think I was ready for that. What caught my attention were the messages I got from women, suggesting I should step up to the plate. They were telling me that I had to do it for them.”
When two New York hotel workers accused International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a prominent Egyptian businessman of sexual assaults in a two-week span in May 2011, Babbington was on the frontlines denouncing the disgusting behaviour.
Sexually harassed several times, she suffered the indignity on one occasion of a naked guest offering to pay if she touched his genitals.
After the death of her father, Babbington came to Canada to join an older sister and was immediately thrust into the workforce.
Besides the time spent working in the hotel sector, she was also a Health Care Aide and hairstylist.
“I love doing jobs where you can help people,” Babbington noted. “I learnt that from my dad. Even though we didn’t have a lot, my father used to pack groceries before he left home for work and deliver it to someone he knew was really in need. He would take in a struggling family member into our home despite the fact we didn’t have much space.”
Cartwright said his successor is dedicated to working people having a better life.
“Andria is fiercely passionate about working people being respected,” he said. “She helps workers find the strength in themselves to be empowered. The leadership is in good hands.”
At age 67 and a cancer survivor, Cartwright – the National Chair of the Council of Canadians, Vice-Chair of United Way of Greater Toronto and Co-Chair of the Toronto Community Benefits Network — said the time was right to step down.
“Also, when you are in leadership, there comes a moment when you must pass on the baton,” he noted.
Before joining a union, Cartwright was part of a Scarborough youth group supporting Filipino American grape workers in the United States during the five-year Delano Grape Strike & Boycott that ended in 1970.
A carpenter by trade, he was turned on to unionism after witnessing a foreman in a bad mood fire a worker.
“I watched this guy, who had 30 years service and helped build the company from scratch, put his toolbox on his shoulder and walk out,” Cartwright said. “I was a woodworker then before I got into construction and that firing left a lasting impact on me. Seeing injustice in the workplace made me realize that if I was going to work with my hands, I wanted to have a union to defend me so that wouldn’t happen to me.”
Joining the Local 27 Carpenters Union 45 years ago, he was elected a union representative in December 1982 and, nine years later, head of the Building Trades Council.
In 2001, he was elected the TYRLC president.
Cartwright said the highlight of his presidency was having the privilege of meeting and listening to working people from all walks of life.
“I was also honoured to be part of a movement that makes this a better place for us to all live,” he added.
Over the years, Cartwright has helped develop the Campaign for Public Education, Public Transit for the Public Good, Toronto Waterwatch and Toronto Hydro campaigns to defend vital public services in Toronto. He has also been deeply involved in apprenticeship and training issues and the crafting of the Canadian Labour Congress ‘Green Jobs Strategy’.
Cartwright authored the ‘Greenprint for Greater Toronto’, a plan for climate action in every sector of the economy.
Source: Ron Fanfair