"No person is an island. We have not one thing in our lives that we accomplish on our own. We don't get born on our own. We don't get married on our own. We don't have children on our own. We don't have a job on our own. There's not one single thing in life that you do that doesn't depend on somebody else."
Reg Basken is one of Canada’s most respected labour leaders, known for his collaborative approach to negotiating agreements, particularly in the energy and petrochemical sectors. As a volunteer, he has served on numerous boards to better the community by serving those who are in the greatest need.
Reginald C. Basken was born in Churchbridge, Saskatchewan in 1937. Along with older brother Cliff and younger sisters Marian and Dorothy, Reg spent his childhood on a quarter-section farm. While times were financially challenging and farm work was a constant pressure, there was always family time set aside. Reg’s parents encouraged their children to pursue social, academic and political endeavours, with frequent lively debates at the kitchen table.
In high school, Reg was very active in the Air Cadets, reaching the highest rank for a civilian. He served on an Honour Guard for the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, at the British Empire Games in British Columbia and attended a leadership course in Ontario. In his final year with the Air Cadets, he was fortunate enough to be one of six Canadians to go on an exchange program with the United States, visiting Washington, D.C.; Arkansas; and New York City over a seven-week period.
Reg enrolled in engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, but he couldn’t afford to finish his degree. Instead, in 1957, he started work as a linesman for Saskatchewan Power. Little did Reg know that this position would be the start of an unexpected but rewarding career.
When Reg joined Saskatchewan Power, a friend told him that there was a higher position available. He was given the job by the superintendent, but he received a cool reception from his co-workers. When they invited Reg to join them at a union meeting, he thought they might be warming up to him. At the meeting, they surprisingly nominated and elected him as their shop steward.
In this role, his first task was to file a grievance - against himself. The grievance challenged his right to his new job because proper procedures had not been followed. Reg voluntarily stepped down, and was subsequently re-appointed after a proper process was undertaken. His actions won over his co-workers and opened Reg’s eyes to the importance of a union. Two years later, Reg was elected president of the 2,300 member provincial union.
Saskatchewan in the early 1960s was the epicentre of the emotional Medicare debate. Tommy Douglas fought and won the 1960 provincial election based on a commitment to bring in public health care. But the doctors and insurance industry, followed by many in the general public, began to oppose it. The labour union for which Reg served as president was a major supporter of Medicare. The government asked Reg to take a leave of absence to work with the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour to fight for Medicare.
Reg felt strongly that medical care should be a universal right, not a privilege based on wealth. In his youth, his father needed an emergency operation for a blood infection. The family lacked money to cover the cost of the surgery, but luckily, the doctor accepted two of the family’s turkeys as payment. With this experience in the back of his mind, Reg travelled across Saskatchewan, trying to bring his common-sense approach to the debate. Though the doctors went on strike, compromises were eventually reached. Medicare became a reality in Saskatchewan and, before long, throughout Canada.
In 1963, the former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) International Union recruited Reg as a negotiator for Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In the Centennial year of 1967, Reg was transferred to Edmonton where, in 1970, he became the assistant director of the OCAW’s Canadian District. The energy and petrochemical industries were expanding. Starting in the late ’60s, Reg organized about half a dozen worksites, including Suncor and the former Texaco and Gulf refineries. He negotiated hundreds of collective agreements between then and his retirement in 1998.
Between 1972 and 1978, Reg served as the President of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). It was a time when Peter Lougheed’s new Progressive Conservative government was bringing economic and social change to Alberta, including changes in the field of industrial relations. Reg made a positive impression on the new government, and was asked to provide Cabinet with briefings on labour affairs and to join Alberta’s trade mission to Europe in 1974.
During his time at the AFL, Reg was at the forefront of a movement to expand unions beyond their traditional roles, taking their place within the broader society. He felt then, and still feels, that labour needs to be a partner in community issues; for example, in advancing the rights of first nations peoples, in northern development and in securing social justice. He paid special attention to two issues that helped define his career—workplace safety and environmental sustainability. He believes it is imperative that health and safety committees be formed with employers for everyone’s benefit.
His experience is that safe workers are more content and more productive, leading to more satisfied employers. Reg also believed that a healthy economy requires a healthy environment, and vice-versa, so both must be sustained. His work in this area led him to serve on the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy between 1986 and 1994, and its Alberta counterpart between 1987 and 1991.
In 1984, Reg negotiated the merger of the Canadian section of OCAW with the Canadian Chemical Workers Union to form the new Energy and Chemical Workers Union (ECWU). He became its president, serving until 1992, when ECWU merged with two other organizations to form the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP, now UNIFOR). Reg served as its executive vice-president, secretary and treasurer until his retirement in 1998.
Reg’s impact on labour relations has reached beyond Canada. He was a member of the prestigious British-North American Committee and the Duke of Edinburgh Commonwealth Study Conference, both of which are designed to foster improved working relations between business and labour. Inspired by these experiences, Reg, along with Governor General Edward Schreyer, founded the Governor General’s Canadian Study Conference. At the request of the federal government, he co-chaired the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva in 1986. He served as an executive of the International Chemical and Energy Federation, which examines global working conditions and other labour issues. In 1999, he was appointed to the Alberta Labour Relations Board where he served as a member until very recently.
Reg does not accept the stereotypical view that confrontation is a necessary part of collective bargaining. While Reg is no pushover, he is well known for working collaboratively throughout negotiations. He believes bargaining should be about problem solving and finding solutions that leave everyone satisfied. This approach has served Reg well. Over his career, wages, benefits and working conditions for Alberta and Canada’s energy and petrochemical workers improved greatly, as did the prosperity of their industries. While there were local strikes over local issues, there was never wider strike action under Reg Basken’s watch. One of his proudest achievements is this long period of labour peace in a major sector of Alberta and Canada’s economy.
Politically, Reg has long been involved with the New Democratic Party. He believes that while people have to take personal responsibility for their lives and for those around them, collective action through government also has an important role to play. Reg attended the NDP’s founding convention in 1961 in Ottawa and, upon moving to Alberta, became the Alberta party’s treasurer. He later served for seven years as the party’s president. Reg's political experience was an asset when he sat as a panellist for 12 years on the Sunday Magazine current affairs program on CKUA radio.
Reg has always found time to give back to the community. He has been involved with the United Way for over five decades. He has been the only labour representative to serve as the campaign chair for the Alberta Capital Region United Way. He has served as board president and remained until recently a member of its Campaign Cabinet. He has also been actively involved with the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Seniors’ Association of Greater Edmonton. Reg has undertaken several roles within the University of Alberta, as a member of its senate and as a guest lecturer and instructor in labour relations.
Reg has been recognized for his service with the Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, a 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal and the Alberta Centennial Medal. He also earned a United Way Award of Distinction, National Philanthropy Day Award for Social Services in Edmonton and a Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton Community Service Award.
Throughout his career, Reg worked hard to make a difference in the lives of the workers he represented, and the citizens of the community in which lived. He takes the same approach to his personal life. Reg has a son Kevin (Olga) and a daughter, Colleen Barry (Dave). He is proud that his five grandchildren—Robbie, Jessica, Jeannine, Kim and Reg—have all successfully completed post-secondary education and that they all play a role in the Basken Family Fund, a charitable endeavour in the Edmonton Community Foundation, which sees the entire family decide which charity will receive their donations to those in need.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence