Filipino-Canadian heads Winnipeg’s Transit Union

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Romeo Ignacio Jr. – Giving back, paying forward


By Levy Abad

After more than half a century of presence of the Filipino community in Winnipeg, the home of the great General Strike of 1919 that changed the condition of the working class of Canada, I cannot but be proud to learn that a Filipino in the person of Romeo Ignacio Jr., is the current president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 (ATU local 1505), the union of Winnipeg Transit, which has about 1,500 members. Romeo worked as a bus operator from October 2005 to December 2019 before becoming Union Chair. He was elected last year (2020) with a three-year term ending in December 2022.

I was delighted to learn that Romeo Ignacio, one of ours, was placed in a position to give back to a city that fought for the future of workers. I am likewise proud in a sense that brothers and sisters in the union trusted a Filipino to lead an organization that plays a strategic role in connecting the city.

The union recently  concluded a lengthy first contract negotiations with the employer. Ignacio said it was a “tough year for all of us because the City did not want to negotiate anything, which is the reason for the strike action that resulted in the Unfair Labour Practice application with the Labour Board, which the union won”.

Like other newly arrived immigrants, Ignacio wanted a better future for his family. He arrived in Winnipeg in 2001 with his wife who is a nurse and their two kids through the Family Class Permanent Resident Visa under the Provincial Nominee Program.

Ignacio hails from Sta. Maria, Bulacan but grew up in Cavite City. He studied Civil Engineering at the University of the Philippines (UP), Diliman, QC from 1989 to 1995. After graduation, he worked in an Engineering consultancy firm for six years. He then worked with Moldex Realty for over a year before immigrating to Canada. 

On learning that he studied in UP, I ask whether Unionism was a product of his exposure to a school considered a bastion of critical awareness and social activism. He said that his studies during that time never permitted him to do so, adding that he was not also involved in campus politics. In his case, it was his workplace situation in Canada that shaped and influenced him to engage in union activities. This proves that where there are issues affecting workers, the requisites for unionism finds fertile ground.

He has been involved with advocating for better working conditions as a regular member of the union since 2008. Eventually, he was given the opportunity to run for a position with the help of the East Indian and Asian communities, as well as close to 200 Filipino drivers, which comprise about 15% of the membership.

First Filipino President

Ignacio is the first Filipino President of ATU local 1505 and possibly the first Filipino president of an ATU local in the whole of Canada. According to him, he only knows of one other Filipino ATU local President in San Diego, California.

I inquired about education trainings that the union provides. He explained that the shop stewards do get trainings. He also confided that he wants to get more members involved and that they have now the first Filipino Shop Steward who just completed his first level Steward’s training.

As a community, Filipinos have produced labour activists and leaders through the years like Asuncion ‘Sonny’ Arrojado (former President,Manitoba Nurses Association).Others like Phoebe De Leon, Neri Dimacali, Butch Mendiola and Ernie Pionela to mention a few were active in the labour movement in the province. To add Romy Ignacio on the list is a clear continuity of our contribution to protecting and further advancing workers’ interests. 

Labour activism

Labour activism is nothing new in the Filipino diaspora for we carry the spirit of unionism as we immigrate. We are reminded of U.S grapeworker Larry Itliong, a Filipino-American labour organizer in the 30s; Carlos Bulosan of the Cannaries and Silme Domingo, a Filipino-American labour activist and member of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) of Seattle. Silme and Jean Allen Viernes, another labour activist, were murdered for organizing resistance against the Marcos dictatorship in 1981.Marcos was found guilty of the murders in a civil case and had to compensate the Viernes and Domingo families with millions in damages.

Unionism in the Philippines started in 1870 with the Gremios (Guilds) according to the book Manggagawa Noon at Ngayon. It was followed by the formation of the first union, Union de Impresores Y Litigrafos de Filipinas (UILF)  formed in 1899. The first Federation, Union Obrero Democratica was formed in 1902.

From the idea of unionism in the Philippines, the founding of the federation happened a few years before the General Strike of 1919 in Canada. This historical circumstance serves as a context for our working-class consciousness as migrants.

Getting the trust of co-workers is not an easy road, much less being elected to be a union chair. Workers can easily detect sincerity in the area of comradeship and solidarity. Leadership in a union is not a walk in the park as the interest of your co-workers must not be compromised. One cannot help but be proud of Romeo Ignacio,Jr. for his role as Union President and other leaders like Shop Stewards. Beyond personal admiration, union leadership is anchored in protecting and advancing the historic and democratic gains of the ATU and the Canadian workers in general.  Ignacio himself said “it’s tough even before the COVID pandemic hit us. Leadership is challenging since most of the leadership have been part of the union in one way or another and being the first and only Filipino in the union executive poses a challenge.” 

In a way, Romeo Ignacio. Jr. and all labour activists are giving back and paying forward the sacrifices of the workers of the General Strike of 1919.

About Levy Abad

Abad is a singer-songwriter who has a number of songs to his credit. He is also an author and wrote the book, Rhythms and Resistance, a narrative of Filipino musicians and activists. He lives in Winnipeg,Manitoba.

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