Kelti Cameron | CUPE Staff
Karin Jordan | CUPE Staff
Since CUPE’s founding in 1963, our union has been a member of the global union federation Public Services International (PSI). Over the last 60 years, we have supported countless international struggles, notably against apartheid in South Africa, and in solidarity with the people of Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Grenada, Nicaragua, Haiti, Burma, Iran, Palestine and the Philippines.
To this day, CUPE members have organized for peace and justice, and have backed workers and social movements fighting for their rights and defending vital public services.
We have always recognized that our unity as workers provides us with strength and ability to challenge the global economic system that oppresses us. Our unity allows us to exert our collective right to live in a just world.
We also recognize the need for strong organizations and allies who advocate for self-determination and liberation against all forms of oppression, including class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, race, disability, religion and ethnic origin. Our work to strengthen our movement in Canada has always been an important contribution to this global struggle, and for a strong public sector around the world.
Convention delegates take a stand on Vietnam in ‘67
CUPE joined the anti-war movement in the 60s by urging the Canadian government to stop sending weapons to the Vietnam war.
Actively supporting United Farm Workers grape boycott in the 60s
During the 1965 strike against table grape growers in Delano, California, CUPE supported the workers’ call for a boycott. The strike was a historic example of the power of consumer boycotts and solidarity. Initiated by the Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to fight against the exploitation of farm workers, it soon became an alliance with the Mexican National Farmworkers Association (NFWA) that resulted, five years later, in a victory for over 10,000 farm workers reaching a collective agreement with major table grape growers.
“The convention decided CUPE should urge all its members to boycott California grapes until the United Farm Workers’ Union has won its strike against the California grape industry,” CUPE reported in the special convention edition of The Journal in 1969.
Offering solidarity and calling for peace in the 70s and 80s
The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the revolutionary movements in Latin America in the 70s and 80s mark some of CUPE’s most significant international solidarity work. CUPE members were meeting with front-line leaders of the Nicaraguan revolution and of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. Our solidarity further extended to the people of Chile, Cuba, El Salvador and Guatemala as they fought for peace and liberation from American imperialism.
“For the basic union activities we engage in here, you could be kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured or shot,” recounted four CUPE members who met with trade unionists during their visit to Central America in 1986.
Anti-free trade in the 80s
In 1987, our National Convention voted in favour of formally supporting our union’s international solidarity work with the intention of engaging in solidarity instead of charity and focusing on social change instead of humanitarian relief.
The 80s also marked the start of significant mobilizations against Canada-U.S. free trade agreements. CUPE joined this movement and fought for sovereignty, equality, and mutual respect against the threat and incursion of American corporations in our national industries and in our public sector.
“If implemented, free trade will erode our manufacturing industries, our social programs, our culture, our political independence – all those elements that make us different…that make us Canadians,” wrote journalist Ed Finn in The Leader in 1986.
1991: birth of the National Committee on International Solidarity
Nearly 30 years of international solidarity work at CUPE, largely inspired by leaders in South Africa, led to the formation of the National Committee on International Solidarity in 1991. CUPE resources were directed toward education and worker-to-worker solidarity exchanges.
The following year, CUPE’s “Union Aid” Fund was formally established. It was the first international solidarity fund by a public sector union created to establish long-term and reciprocal relationships with allies in other countries around the world.
Global justice, a strategic priority
The globalization of social movements firmly embedded CUPE in the world by the early 2000s. At the height of the international anti-globalization mobilizations, our 2001 National Convention endorsed a policy statement titled On the front line locally and globally as a renewal strategy for our international work.
In 2003, National Convention endorsed a name change for our international solidarity efforts from “Union Aid” to “Global Justice”, to better reflect CUPE’s political orientation and objectives. That same year, CUPE’s Strategic Directions integrated international campaigns and strategic alliances as core elements of our union’s work.
And in 2005, National Convention adopted a policy that focused on sectorial organizing. This led to a health care workers exchange established by CUPE to create and strengthen the network of workers from that sector from countries across the Americas.
“Meeting our Colombian counterparts was just fantastic. We learned so much from them about how privatization is destroying their country, and how they can keep up their spirits in the face of such terrible conditions,” said Tracy Fall, a Charlottetown paramedic from CUPE 3324 who was part of the first Canadian unions’ delegation touring Colombia in 2007.
Actively building a fairer future
In 2007, CUPE outlined a substantial international solidarity action plan in the union’s Strategic Directions. The program included support for CUPE’s Global Justice Fund, for issues like member education, country and issue-specific calls regarding the HIV/AIDS epidemic, global social movements for water protection, and for countries like Colombia, Palestine, and South Africa.
CUPE’s International Policy Statement was adopted in 2014 by CUPE’s National Executive Board following an assessment of our international solidarity work, in an effort to adapt it to our ever-changing world.
“International solidarity is not charity, it is a strategic tool in the world struggle against labour’s enemies,” said Sisa Njikelana, NEHAWU General Secretary speaking at National Convention in 1989.
CUPE’s international solidarity has taken many forms and has grown significantly over the years. We have learned that there is a great deal of action and creativity taking place in the global labour and social movements.
Workers in Canada and around the world are fighting for a just, economically and socially sustainable world within the limits of its resources. We will continue to be inspired by their work and will continue to support it in the future.
Get involved, visit cupe.ca/international-solidarity