Unifor honoured a 104-year-old Black sleeping car porter, activist and union leader with the Neil Reimer Award at the union’s convention.
Mozart Mimms, who dedicated 32 years of his life with the Canadian Pacific Railway and VIA Rail and is proud of the power and changes unions can make, was named the recipient of the award on Thurs., Aug. 11, 2022.
The Neil Reimer award is named after the revered activist, trade unionist and politician and given to a person for their outstanding contribution to the public good.
The grandson of enslaved people, Mimms was born in 1918 in Allensville, K.Y., just before the end of the First World War.
He went to an all-Black school just outside of his home town, began four years with the U.S. Army in 1941, and earned a degree in geography from Tennessee State University.
But what brought him to Vancouver in 1952 was the calling of the Canadian railroad, where he began his career with the Canadian Pacific Railway, first as a sleeping porter, then as a porter instructor, platform inspector and later, to VIA Rail, as a service manager. But while on the job, he experienced racism and discrimination.
“People would look upon us as servants…you had to be friendly and be careful of what you’d say to a customer, because they might report you as not being nice to them,” he said in a video shown to delegates at Convention. “I think [Black workers] tolerated it. If you wanted a job, you had to take a second-class job.”
During his career, Mimms served on an employee grievance committee and served as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
“Before the union, for workers from Vancouver to Toronto…if [the train] was five hours late, you didn’t get paid extra for the five hours,” said Mimms. “We got the union, then you had to be paid for overtime. They also got their holiday pay. They got their sick leave paid. So, it was a great thing that happened.”
Mimms said in the video there has been some leaps in racial justice, but there’s still lots more work to do.
“I never thought I’d live to see a Black mayor. When I was growing up, segregation was king, 100 years ago,” he said. “I think we still have to fight harder. We’re not at the goal line yet.”
Unions continue to play a pivotal role – not only in fighting for workers’ rights, but also elevating racial justice, said Mimms.
“Unions help so many people that never have been helped before,” he noted.
“When I started working on the railroad, there were very few Black sleeping car conductors, but the union got together and pursued [their agreements] and then companies started hiring more. When the union organized, it gave us a better way of life.”