Challenging racism in the workplaceOct 16, 1999 08:00 PM
To fight racism in our workplaces, we need to understand and fight systemic racism. Systemic racism is not a remote, or abstract concept. Its impact is real and devastating on workers of colour and Aboriginal workers – more so now than ever as downsizing, restructuring and privatization sweep across CUPE workplaces.
If we take a look at our workplaces, we can see that in spite of the inroads we’ve made on equity issues, we still don’t have equality. Instead, in our workplaces and elsewhere, systemic racism continues.
- The fact is, CUPE members of colour and Aboriginal members tend to be concentrated in lower paying occupations with poorer working conditions, whereas white workers tend to be in workplaces with higher paying jobs and better working conditions. If we had true equality, our workplaces would not be segregated.
- Workers of colour and Aboriginal workers are not well represented overall in unionized workplaces, which have higher wages and benefits. In some cases, they are shut out by discriminatory hiring practices.
- In Canada and in the industrialized countries of the world, workers of colour and Aboriginal workers are concentrated in non-union, low-wage jobs with poor or no benefits or job security, or in sectors which are extremely precarious economically.
- The public sector has been the major source of decent jobs for all workers. As public sector jobs disappear through privatization and restructuring, it’s last hired, first fired. Workers of colour and Aboriginal workers are particularly vulnerable because they are among the most recent entrants into CUPE workplaces. They are also among the groups who depend the most on the public services that are being cut back.
- The populations of cities, especially those of large cities, are changing and becoming much more diverse. The face of the workforce, however, is not keeping pace with these changes.
Racism keeps profits up
We need to be clear that racism is a working class issue. Racism benefits the wealthy and powerful. For centuries, racism has been used to generate incredible profits through the perpetuation of “job ghettos” and differential wage levels and working conditions.
Racism is also a way for employers to attack our solidarity as workers. As long as we allow racism to exist in our workplaces, we will face our enemies divided and weakened.
The very reason for our existence is to defend and promote the rights of all people and to end exploitation. That’s the definition of solidarity. As we enter a difficult century for all workers, we must use our solidarity to step up the fight against racism, so that all workers can reap the benefits we gain through common struggle.
Taking on racism
We can’t afford to be sidetracked by debates about whether people or institutions intend to be racist or not. We need to deal with what’s really happening to CUPE members of colour and Aboriginal members in the workplace. This means taking an activist approach to ending racism in our workplaces now. We need to go beyond employment equity committees and plans, and filing grievances. We need to organize and mobilize all of our members to act to force employers to make our workplaces fair.
To challenge racism in the workplace our union must:
Identify and support locals who are on the front line fighting racism
Let’s identify strategic targets in every province – that is, locals that are willing to take on the issue of workplace racism – and give them the support they need to make real breakthroughs. These local campaigns will also serve as examples of what we should be doing on a broader scale. For instance, if a particular community has a large Aboriginal population, but a mostly non-Aboriginal CUPE workforce, we should be on the front line taking on the issue. The union can help locals develop concrete strategies to counter employer resistance, gain membership support, and build community support to ensure the workforce reflects the diversity of the community it serves.
Get the hard data on who works in CUPE workplaces
Very few statistics or hard information exists about what’s actually taking place in CUPE workplaces and jobs with respect to workers of colour and Aboriginal workers – how many there are, what job classifications they’re in, their wages, how many have been downsized or privatized out of jobs or now work in part-time, temporary or casual jobs. We need to do our research and use it to press home our case for making our workplaces more representative.
Reach out to all our members and to all our communities
Our anti-racism fight can only be effective if we reach out to members of colour and Aboriginal members to find out what they are experiencing in the workplace. We must include them in developing anti-racism strategies for the union. We must also go beyond our workplaces and work with community organizations representing people of colour and Aboriginal people particularly when workers from these groups are not represented in the workplace.
Take on systemic racism through legal and legislative action
- We must use the legal mechanisms already available to us to challenge racism in the workplace. A recent example is the B.C. Health Services Division of CUPE’s complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Commission. The complaint is part of the union’s strategy to end employment discrimination against some workers of Asian origin at a long-term care facility in Victoria – workers who are paid less than counterparts in the same job classifications doing the same work.
- We must also continue to work with the rest of the labour movement and community groups to build legislative support for employment equity laws and to strengthen human rights laws.
Make organizing workers of colour and Aboriginal workers a priority
As part of our continued campaign to organize unorganized workers, CUPE must make it a priority to reach out to workers of colour and Aboriginal workers in our traditional sectors. Involving the Rainbow Committee and provincial committees against racism and discrimination, we should address the organizing requirements and integrate an anti-racism component into our organizing plans to reach out to these groups of workers. This includes training and using rank-and-file members of colour and Aboriginal members in organizing drives as member organizers.
Develop anti-racism education for members, leaders and staff
- We must continue to develop courses to help all members understand the systemic and class-based nature of racism. In particular, the union should focus on countering the myths that sustain racism and divert attention away from the real cause of the problems we are facing (for example, that immigration is a threat to our members’ job security and the cause of the economic problems we now face). We must show our members that at the root of racism is an unfettered, globalized, free market system that profits by exploiting all workers – and super-exploiting some.
- We must continue to integrate an anti-racism component into all of our campaigns and our education programs – into our training programs for shop stewards, and all our leadership development courses, for example. We must take every opportunity to build solidarity and sensitize members about the nature, prevalence and destructive effects of racism in the workplace.
- The union must also develop anti-racism training and materials for leadership and staff. This anti-racism training should include how to respond quickly and effectively to complaints about workplace racism. It should emphasize handling problems using an activist approach, rather than a strictly legal approach. We want employers to feel immediate pressure to remedy situations of racism, instead of doing nothing until complaints run their course through a grievance or complaint procedure.
Put anti-racism on the bargaining agenda
- We need to encourage locals to go beyond negotiating commitments to formal (and often complicated) employment equity plans as a way of breaking down the barriers for workers of colour and Aboriginal workers. Locals must negotiate clear and specific collective agreement language to ensure a more representative workforce. Such measures could include training clauses to provide real opportunities for promotions and transfers and eliminate job ghettos, more equitable hiring and promotion clauses, and faster, more effective systems for dealing with racism complaints.
- Many of our existing collective agreements contain clauses we can use to fight racism – and we should be using them! For example, our anti-discrimination clauses could be used as one way of fighting back against layoffs or contracting out when they have a particularly negative impact on workers of colour and Aboriginal workers.
Make our union more representative and supportive
Making our union more representative of our entire membership is about making our whole union stronger. At this convention, we will be debating the creation of two diversity seats on the National Executive Board. Already, seats have been created on the Ontario, Alberta and B.C. division executive boards.
Representation on decision-making bodies is critical to our ability to provide a collective voice for all CUPE members, build strong solidarity and deal with the systemic racism in our own structures.
But our efforts at better representation should not be limited to leadership bodies.
CUPE must provide the tools to empower all members of colour and Aboriginal members to participate in their union and fight racism. This will involve:
- Strengthening the work of the Rainbow Committee by developing a strong and active network of anti-racism activists all across the country.
- Providing special training and leadership programs for our anti-racism activists.
- Putting in place an effective communications system amongst members of colour and Aboriginal members to help overcome the isolation many experience.
Our members need to know that they can turn to their union as the front line of defence against discrimination in the workplace. CUPE’s anti-racism office must become known as a centre for specialized assistance for members who experience racism.
Build links with other groups fighting for equality
In the interest of strengthening solidarity, CUPE’s anti-racism activists must continue to forge links with other groups that experience discrimination, such as women, lesbians and gay men, people with disabilities and youth. The upcoming international Women’s March 2000, for example, will be an excellent opportunity to build solidarity with women and to highlight the double oppression faced by women of colour and Aboriginal women.
Fight racism as a worldwide problem
We must continue to build and maintain solidarity with workers in developing countries to fight the corporations and international financial institutions that exploit workers. In particular, we must fight the federal government’s current plan to give the World Trade Organization the power to dictate Canada’s social and economic policies, undermine our public services, and increase the exploitation of workers around the world. In providing education and tools to our members about the dangers in this latest round of trade talks, we must expose the racist policies of the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and their role in perpetuating racist employment practices on a global scale.
All workers will win
CUPE has always been proud of its solidarity – and rightly so. We are the largest, and one of the most diverse unions in Canada. We know from experience that the right wing spares no effort in trying to divide us, trying to pit different groups of workers against each other.
But our union will not stand by and let that happen. We are a union of many faces – but one strong union. Our entire union will fight racism in the workplace, and ALL workers will win.