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Closas brothers: 115 years at CP Rail

by Levy Abad

  Closas Brothers
The Closas brothers, Joe, Ed, & Dominic have put in a combined total of 115 years of service at CP Rail 

One of the strongest unions in Winnipeg is Lodge 35 of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW – now under Unifor) of CP Rail where Filipinos work in different roles as mechanics, blacksmiths and other occupations. “The Canadian Pacific Railway was founded in 1881. Usually, referred to as CP Rail from 1968-1996 and until now, it was the first transcontinental railway of Canada” (Wikipedia).

In the history of the CP Rail Union of Winnipeg, you have the Closas brothers, Dominador, Jose, and Eduardo. Dominador Closas or “Dominic” arrived in 1970 and started in the garment industry. By 1972, he joined the CP Rail workforce as a carman/boxcar mechanic until he retired in 2012 with 37 years of service.

The second sibling, Jose “Joe” Closas started working for CP Rail in 1976 as a blacksmith until his retirement in 2014, 38 years later. In our conversation, Joe shared that in 1976, he was earning $5.21 per hour and considered it a blessing when he arrived in Winnipeg.

Eduardo “Ed” Closas started in 1981 and worked as a blacksmith too until he retired in 2021 after 40 years. Together, the Closas brothers completed 115 years of service to CP Rail and the union.

Pinoy railroaders

According to Joe Closas, they are known as the “railroader brothers” in the CP Rail union brotherhood. He remembered that his older sibling, Dominic, worked the night shift and Ed had the evening shift, while he worked the midnight shift for 31 years.

I asked Joe what blacksmiths do. He gave me the following examples – hot forging axles to convert to frog-fitters, forging tools, linings, and crowbars, repairing couplers and yokes, fixing broken beams, and so much more. 

The Closas brothers hail from Meycauayan, Bulacan, a first-class municipality, just 19 kilometres north of Manila. I inquired from Joe if he had union experience in the Philippines, and he said, “none at all,” but added that in 1968 he experienced being swept into joining an anti-Imperialist student rally chanting “Down with imperialism!” years before the First Quarter Storm of the 70s.

Union brotherhood

I pressed Kuya Joe about who else he knows as unionists, shop stewards, VP, or Chair. Joe with his sharp memory, told me about Amado Rosales who became the Vice Chair for the Prairie Region of the CP Rail Union from June 1997 to 2000, and Leo Alonzo who became a Shop Steward during the leadership of Glen Michalchuk as VP of the Prairie Region 1994 to 1997 and 2001 to 2003. He also mentioned other Shop Stewards like Rigor Celones (Lodge 6 Weston Shop Human Rights rep), and Sonny Amposta (Lodge 6 Shop Committee Vice Chair).

All these gains happened during the time of Lodge 35 of the CAW. According to Glen Michalchuk, “CAW received its charter in 1994 but the brotherhood of railway carmen joined CAW around 1992.” Online sources would show that “Unifor represents approximately 1,200 of CP’s mechanical employees who are responsible for maintaining railcars and locomotives.” Joe also shared that for three consecutive years, maybe in the late 80s, he used to organize the “All Filipino Employees of CP Rail” barbecue picnics at Assiniboine and Kildonan Parks. Joe also shared that he experienced two brief strikes, in which the union demands were met, and a return-to-work was issued thereafter – proving the unity and strength of the union.

Joe Closas and community activism

Among the brothers, Joe is the one active in the community. Neri Dimacali and Romeo Tabanera who are pioneers of Kilusan ng Manggagawang Pilipino (KAMPI) (Filipino Workers Movement) in Winnipeg, founded in 1996, attest to the involvement of Joe with labour and solidarity concerns. Another community organization where Joe was involved was the Breakfast Club where pioneers like journalist and poet Rey Pacheco, Bob Gabuna, former MLA Ted Marcelino, Fred De Villa (Chair 2015), Rey Reyes, Esmeraldo “Esmie” Ledesma (CN Rail Union member), and Neri Dimacali (CAW local VP) were active in migrant education and information programs and fundraising for victims of calamities in the Philippines.

Nowadays, the Closas brothers are just enjoying their retirement benefits. You’ll find Joe Closas hanging out with senior contemporaries but still concerned about the community and the welfare of workers – something that is ingrained in his consciousness by the union movement.

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.