Pierre Ducasse | CUPE Staff
Troy Winters | CUPE Staff
We know April 28 as Workers’ Day of Mourning, observed across Canada in honour of those killed or injured on the job. What is less known is just how instrumental CUPE was in establishing this day.
In 1983, the health and safety director of CUPE, Colin Lambert, came up with the idea of a day to recognize workers killed or injured on the job. Lambert was a former steelworker and miner from Sudbury. He made the suggestion to CUPE’s Health and Safety Committee, and members were quick to endorse the idea.
At our National Convention in 1985, delegates adopted a resolution calling for “a day of recognition each year for those who have suffered death or disability as a result of their work”. A year later, it was the Canadian Labour Congress’s turn to endorse the idea.
Workers then mobilized and intensified pressure on governments to recognize the day of mourning. In 1991, the House of Commons at long last passed a private member’s bill, sponsored by the NDP, naming April 28 as the “Day of Mourning for Persons Killed or Injured in the Workplace”.
Today, that day of action and remembrance is widely recognized across Canada’s labour movement, and around the world, with the yellow canary as its signature symbol.
Here are some other occupational health and safety highlights from our history:
The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) was created in 1988, thanks to efforts by CUPE and other unions. Employers had a deadline to ensure that all controlled products were labelled and had a material safety data sheet.
“This system is meant to protect workers across Canada by providing them with information on the hazardous materials they use at work. WHMIS is a major step forward for workers,” said CUPE Health and Safety Director Colin Lambert in 1988.
Due to pressure from CUPE Saskatchewan, which developed a postcard campaign and made historic gains at the bargaining table for CUPE health care workers, Saskatchewan became the first province in Canada to specifically include protections against violence in the workplace.
CUPE 4980’s Pearl Blommaert was instrumental in this fight for better health and safety standards for workers in Saskatchewan. She was the first woman to win the National Health and Safety Award for her work, in 2015. She also influenced provisions in provincial legislation and regulations, and policies for musculoskeletal injury prevention, working alone, shift work and psychological harassment — another first in Canadian occupational health and safety law.
On May 9, 1992, deep inside the Westray coal mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia, methane gas and subsequent coal dust explosions killed 26 miners underground. The mine had been open for less than eight months. CUPE submitted a brief to the Westray Mine Public Inquiry, denouncing a workplace culture that intimidated workers from speaking out and promoted profits over safety. More than 10 years later, and despite the families’ efforts, no individual or organization had been held liable for the miners’ deaths.
There is an ongoing “see no evil, hear no evil” culture surrounding the disaster, said CUPE’s 1996 submission to the Westray Mine Public Inquiry. “You must speak of the evil that allowed yet another disaster to occur.”
The disaster had a strong impact on occupational health and safety in Nova Scotia, and on March 31, 2004, the Canadian government passed Bill C-45, amending Section 217.1 of the Canadian Criminal Code. Known commonly as the “Westray bill”, it established new legal duties for workplace health and safety and allowed criminal prosecution and liability of organizations where workers have faced occupational health and safety violations that have resulted in injury or death.
The first ever Canadian survey on domestic violence in the workplace, put together by the Canadian Labour Congress and Western University, with help from CUPE and other unions, revealed that more than one third of workers had experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. Over 80% of those workers said domestic violence had a negative effect on their work performance including, for some, losing their job. More than half said the violence occurred at or near their workplace, and over a third reported that coworkers were affected as well.
Most of the people who filled out this survey were in stable, unionized jobs, and workers in non-union and precarious employment faced even more negative job-related impacts.
In November, recognized annually as Domestic Violence Prevention Month, Manitoba became the first province to introduce proposed new legislation that provides paid leave for domestic violence victims. The leave became law in 2016 and included 10 days, five of which are paid, in every 52-week period.
Check out CUPE’s bargaining guide Domestic Violence and the Workplace to learn how every local can negotiate protections regarding domestic violence.
After decades of lobbying and work led by CUPE and other unions, on October 17, 2018, the federal government banned the production and input of almost all asbestos and asbestos-containing products.
For years, CUPE sounded the alarm about the danger of asbestos in public buildings and the risks to the lives of the workers who build, maintain and work in them, even as government and industry were working hard to keep the asbestos mines in business.
“The ban announced by the federal government is a step in the right direction,” said CUPE’s National President Mark Hancock celebrating this major victory for the labour movement. “Now it’s time for the federal government to work together with the provinces to harmonize regulations and to collaborate on health strategies for asbestos-related diseases.”
Building a safer and more inclusive CUPE
In March 2021, CUPE’s National Executive Board (NEB) formed the Safe Union Spaces Working Group (SUSWG). The group, made up of the women members of the NEB, conducted member surveys, held focus groups and organized listening sessions. They discovered that many CUPE members, especially women and those from equity-deserving groups, weren’t fully participating in the union due to safety concerns.
After gathering information from members, the SUSWG collaborated with experts to determine next steps. They outlined their recommendations in an interim report and action plan, published in April 2022. The working group presented its final report at our National Convention in October 2023. Since then, CUPE has been putting these recommendations into practice. Click here to learn more!