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Neil Soliven:

Human rights in the workplace and beyond


Neil Soliven

by Levy Abad

Neil Soliven, a labour and human rights activist who worked with New Flyer Industries (NFI) for 28 years, arrived in Winnipeg in 1983. He was 14 years of age at that time and hailed from Don Galo, Paranaque, Philippines. By 1986, he worked part-time with KFC while he was still a student. Ever since, Neil was interested in history, geography, and current events. He moved to Ross Foods (1989 to 1995) and then NFI (1996).

New Flyer Industries was known in the community as a good job to be had. NFI “was founded in 1930 by John Coval of Winnipeg, starting out as Western Auto and Truck Body limited” (A Brief History of New Flyer Industries). “Today, New Flyer is a subsidiary of NFI Group Inc., one of the world’s largest bus and coach manufacturer” (New Flyer website).

Historically, the arrival of Neil Soliven in 1983 was fateful since that was the third anniversary of the founding of the militant labour movement in the Philippines, Kilusan Mayo Uno or May 1st Movement, founded on May 1, 1980. It was in the same year when Senator Benigno Aquino was assassinated, which became the rallying cry for the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship (Manggagawa Noon at Ngayon, 2nd edition 2002, Eiler).

Immersed with NFI  for 28 years and continuing

Although leaving the Philippines early deprived him of experiencing the Philippine labour struggles, Winnipeg, the home of the General Strike of 1919, would become his labour history school. He was immersed with NFI for 28 years, and continuing. Neil’s first position in the union structure was Health and Safety in 2010 with the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW), which he held for nine years. According to Neil, CAW, along with Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) merged to become Unifor in 2013. “Unifor is Canada’s largest private sector union with more than 315,000 members across the country, working in every major sector of the Canadian economy” (Unifor website). Neil was also a bargaining representative for six years, notably being a part of the last and recent CBA with NFI Unifor 3003 Unit 4.

We are stronger together

I asked Neil about his impression of Canadian unionism. Neil explained that “At first, I was not a fan, but as I learned about the working class struggles and what the union had to bargain to improve the lives of workers about safe workplace, fair and equitable wages and benefits, eight-hour work day, long weekend, I became convinced to join the union. Digging deeper, I also learned about other accomplishments like ending child labour and exploitation of workers at the turn of the century, which led me more to become a believer of the worthiness of unionism. At the end of the day, we are stronger together “parang walis ting-ting, ‘pag mag-isa, madaling baliin, pero ‘pag buo, hindi mo mababali.”

Strike as a tool for change

Ask any labour leader and they would say they disdain resorting to strike, but if need be, in order to advance workers’ welfare, it becomes a necessity. Neil said that in 2006, CAW local 3003 Unit 4 (NFI) went on strike for four weeks due to “outsourcing of work.” He added that it was scary but revolutionizes consciousness. “You really see what you can achieve when you come together in numbers.”

Workers’ training and education

Revolutionaries of old learned that leaders of industries have their MAs and PhDs from the best schools and so the workers must be equipped with theoretical knowledge on how to adapt, react and transform a given exploitative social structure. According to Neil, Unifor has excellent training programs and facilities at Port Elgin, Ontario. Among the training he completed there was health and safety, human rights, workers of colour, conflict resolution, collective bargaining, and things that not only benefit the workplace, but also the wider community. Neil added that getting involved with the union makes one stronger. “You become aware of social issues and world events. Beyond the formal training that Unifor provides, it is also involved with Siloam Mission, Habitat, and the Filipino Street Festival.”

All these processes that Neil went through as a member of Unifor local is truly enviable since they advance democracy in the workplace and beyond.

Levy Abad authored a book titled Rhythms and Resistance: Narrative of Filipino Musicians and Activists (1972-1994). Levy is also a singer-songwriter, poet, and migrant rights activist who has released four albums centred on the life and struggles of migrants.