'We had to move on'
Steelworkers Local 6500 president Rick Bertrand said he likes to imagine the stories the old Steelworkers hall would have been able to tell.
The hall, located on Frood Road, saw strike rallies, the “big fights between the Mine Mill and the Steelworkers” in the 1960s and countless community events and weddings, he said.
In September 2008, however, the hall burned down, leaving Local 6500 without a home.
“There weren't too many dry-eyed people when the place burned down,” Bertrand said. “So many of us were second and third generation miners.”
In early 2009, Local 6500 bought a grocery store building on Brady Street as their new headquarters, renting office space on Pine Street until they could complete renovations. They decided not to rebuild on the old site because of the small size of the lot and lack of parking, amongst other issues.
The union's building plans hit a snag later in 2009, when Local 6500 members went on strike against Vale. The strike was to last nearly a year.
Even without any work having been done, the Brady Street building was as a hub during the labour dispute, acting as the staging area for rallies and other events.
In November 2010, a few months after the strike ended, the union began renovations, first creating an office area so they wouldn't have to rent office space for their staff anymore.
The finishing touches on the building are currently being completed, with the hall's grand opening slated for Jan. 26.
“It's unfortunate the old hall burned down, but we had to move on,” Bertrand said. “We were lucky enough to pick up the old grocery store. Now this is our new home. I guess you can look at is as a rebirth of the hall.”
The building doesn't much resemble a grocery store anymore.
Besides providing enough office space for the roughly 30 people working in the city for Steelworkers Local 6500, Steelworkers Local 2020 and Steelworkers International, the building also features a 500-seat hall, a 150-seat hall, several classrooms and boardrooms and an outside deck.
The building has also been retrofitted with tinted windows and new siding, and energy-efficient lighting.
Bertrand didn't want to disclose exactly how much the union spent on renovations, but said it's roughly a couple million dollars.
The union's first chance to use their big hall was at its annual Christmas party for the children of union members. Many of those at the party hadn't been in the building since the strike.
“During the strike all it was was just one empty box,” Bertrand said. “When I saw the people coming in, the kids would run straight to the toys, but the parents were in awe. They seemed really proud of their new home.”
Continuing with traditions started in the old Steelworkers hall, the union plans to rent their facilities out to the community.
“We already have 13 or 14 weddings booked this year, just through word-of-mouth,” Bertrand said. “Community events have already started. There's the big lobster dinner the NDP are going to have in February. The Human League are going to have a big party in January. People are calling practically every day.”
Bertrand also looks forward to being able to provide education for union officials in the new classrooms.
Having the Howard Johnson Hotel right next door is ideal, because both wedding guests and those attending union education seminars can stay there, he said.
Bertrand invites community members to take a look around the building at its grand opening, which takes place from 3-8 p.m. Jan. 26.
He said several local politicians, along with Steelworkers International president Leo Gerard and Steelworkers District 6 director Wayne Fraser, have been invited to attend the event.
For more information, phone Steelworkers Local 6500 at 705-675-3381.
Posted by Heidi Ulrichsen
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