Newfoundland and Labrador labour movement
loses one of its best-loved leaders
A tribute from CLI President James Clancy
LEO PUDDISTER was well known in Newfoundland and Labrador as flashy, stylish, charming and blustery trade unionist with a character that was larger than life. Once you met Leo you could never forget his colourful personality.
But for those of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, we will remember him for the other side of his character that rarely made headlines: a kind and sensitive individual who you could always count on for his honour, unwavering integrity and his fierce and relentless life-long pursuit of fairness and justice for working people. There was no question whose side Leo was on; he always had the back of working people.
Leo passed peacefully on May 2 at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s surrounded by his loving family. He is survived by his wife Bernie, his daughters Leah and Krista and his five grandchildren. He was 73.
In May 2003 Leo was elected President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) a component union of the National Un ion of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).
He first joined NAPE in 1968 as a correctional officer (CO) after several years in the Canadian Armed Forces. Within weeks he became shop steward for his local and eventually rose to the position of local president. He would go on to represent COs on NAPE’s board of directors (1979-80) and served as eastern vice president (1980-83), during which time he led the establishment of affirmative action positions for women on the board. In 1983, he became union staff, serving as employee relations officer and senior negotiator, a position he held up until 2003 when he was elected president of NAPE.
As both a staff member and the President of NAPE, he had an impressive record. He negotiated more contracts, organized more groups, and arbitrated more grievances than anyone else in NAPE’s history. His win record in arbitration cases is probably one of the best in Canada.
As National President of NUPGE, I had the privilege of working with Leo for over 25 years. I remember one of my fist encounters with Leo at the 1990 NUPGE Convention in St. John’s where I was first elected as NUPGE President. It was only minutes after being elected when a resolution against capital punishment came on the floor. I spoke on the pro side, followed by Leo on the con side. It was no surprise that Leo, as a former CO backed capital punishment, especially if it involved the death of a police or correctional officer. He was a fierce debater, in the tradition of all other NAPE leaders before him and those that came after him.
Despite the pro-side winning the debate, I will always remember that debate for my opponent’s ‘fighting Irishmen’ persona, his witty and salty Newfoundland tongue and his fierce loyalty to what he perceived as the interest of his former co-workers who worked at Her Majesty’s Prison in St. John’s.
Ironically, many of those co-workers guarded over him a decade later when he served a four-month jail sentence for violating a court injunction during an ongoing strike at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.
I visited him in jail at the time and recall how amazed I was at how well he had taken to what I felt was a very unjust sentence. He told me that “it was all part of the job, if you’re serious about representing the interests or workers, then you got to be prepared to go to the wall for them and live with the consequences. Besides that, how can I ever complain about the quality of care that I’m getting in here.”
I also worked with him during a tough and difficult strike in his early days as NAPE President in 2004. At the time it was the largest public sector strike in the province’s history that lasted 27 days. I observed his no-holds-barred approach taking on the province’s then popular premier Danny Williams. He was fierce and determined to win for the 16,000 strikers. Yet, he approached those negotiations with great skill and patience, despite the obvious toll and burden the strike had on him as the leader of his striking members.
His unflagging dedication to social and economic justice will be rememberd by thousands of workers in the province and across Canada. I believe it will also serve as inspiration and guidance to all working men and women in Canada.
Good bye my friend. You will not be forgotten.