Nearly a hundred CUPE stewards from the Lower Mainland, along with activists and staff from around the province, gathered today at the Maritime Labour Centre for the first stewards conference held by CUPE’s Metropolitan Vancouver District Council.
The two-day conference, themed “Building Skills, Empowering Workers,” began this morning with an opening plenary followed by a keynote speech from Vancouver labour lawyer Leo McGrady and a panel presentation on workplace challenges for stewards. There are 95 registered delegates.
Conference co-organizer Sarah Bjorknas described the conference as an opportunity to combine the new CUPE Education modules with practical, on the ground experience. The event is aimed at building foundations for future activism while increasing stewards’ confidence in their ability to act. More than anything, it’s a great networking opportunity.
“This is a chance for stewards to get together and meet each other who aren’t the ones who get to go to convention,” said Bjorknas, a vice-president of CUPE 23 representing library workers and an at-large member of the Metro council. “The conference is drawing from a different part of the union, so it’s more grassroots.”
The panel discussion dealt with themes relevant to all stewards—experienced or new. Retired CUPE representative and former CUPE BC president Mike Dumler offered some wisdom on how to prevent grievances from falling through the cracks. CUPE Legal representative Amanda Rogers discussed workers with job performance issues, and CUPE Equality representative Conni Kilfoil spoke about Duty to Accommodate issues.
McGrady’s keynote address dealt with Section 12 of the BC Labour Code, on the duty of fair representation required of unions and employers’ organizations to their members. For Bjorknas, his presence was also an opportunity to discuss social justice issues.
“I first knew about him through The Protesters’ Guide to the Law of Civil Disobedience, which makes a connection between social justice, community activism, and the labour movement. So I got to ask him about that,” she said. “He sees unions as an important tool for social change.”
The conference continued in the afternoon with the steward learning series of workshops: mobilizing workers, conflict resolutions skills for stewards, resolving grievances without going to arbitration, and representing members in front of management. Friday’s agenda concluded with dinner and an evening of entertainment featuring CUPE 391 member Todd Wong’s “CUPE’s Got Talent,” a comedy act by Assaulted Fish, a performance by the Gram Partisans band, and music DJ’s by CUPE 718’s Amen Sharma.
For tomorrow’s agenda, delegates will continue with the steward learning series, followed by an afternoon plenary. The highlight, said Bjorknas, will be the interactive popular theatre workshop with Victor Porter.
“A lot of us were here all day last Saturday working with the facilitator, who led us through some exercises that will allow us to work together and find ways to invite people to participate,” she said.
“That’s a pretty exciting educational tool. It’s like doing role play on a grand scale, but in a safe space.”