Corina Crawley | Cupe Staff
William Chalupiak | Cupe Staff
Education is a powerful tool, and it’s not neutral. Underlying every educational program are the values and vision of the society it serves.
Our Union Education Branch has been fostering inclusion and an equity perspective for a long time. We do everything we can to ensure that every member from our diverse CUPE community, from coast to coast to coast, has a voice and sees themselves reflected in our union.
We believe that promoting equity is not just a responsibility – it is the key to our strength and unity.
Educating our members is crucial to creating a safe space for reflection, introspection, and change, and for addressing specific issues like white supremacy, colonialism, racism and all forms of discrimination.
Founded in 1964 to educate CUPE activists on everything from being a good steward to parliamentary procedures, the Union Education Department has served a critical role in empowering CUPE members.
From these humble beginnings, it has grown with the ever-evolving needs of our membership.
In 1965, 75 participants took part in the second annual Ontario Summer School. The courses focused on all the basics for local activists.
By 1967, the Union Education Department had grown to four full-time representatives, and had set their sights on ensuring women were benefiting from the program. Along with workshops for union members, the Education 67 seminar included recreation for families and a special session for “wives”.
Through the 70s, the focus shifted from simply including women in union activities, to challenging the structural issues impacting women at work. Equal pay for equal work initiatives and job evaluation joint committees were launched, and the CLC sponsored mixed trade unionist courses encouraging women to attend.
“The number of female trade unionists will soon reach 50% of the total organized labour force, but in spite of that, few women are ever elected to fill administrative offices in the labour movement,” said Jean-Jacques Jauniaux, Quebec education director at the CLC who created the school for Quebec’s women trade unionists in 1971.
Throughout the 80s, the focus on building a more equal union broadened. CUPE had grown by leaps and bounds, and with it, the desire to reflect the true diversity in the membership became more and more important. So, there was a stronger push to provide union members with the union education they need.
Along with education for bargaining, finances, grievance handling and managing daily union affairs, union education began prioritizing workshops promoting building an inclusive CUPE with diverse leadership.
In 1986, the Union Education team launched Strategies for Equality, a new course which focused on ending workplace discrimination in all its forms.
By 1993, CUPE had taken big steps toward becoming a leader in the fight against racism. Union education continued to play a major role in the broader work CUPE members were doing to combat racism in their workplaces, introducing anti-racism workshops into their regular course offerings.
At National Convention, National Rainbow Committee members presented CUPE’s major policy paper on employment equity called On the front burner, proposing to institute equity and fight to eliminate discrimination against women, gender diverse, Black and racialized people, and persons with disabilities. Delegates adopted the strategy by a vast majority.
“Look around your communities, the faces are changing,” Rainbow Committee Chair David Onyalo urged 1993 National Convention delegates.
Thanks to the tireless work of trailblazers like David Onyalo and Pam Wagner, CUPE continued to broaden the horizons in our pursuit of justice in the workplace. By 1997, a new workshop on homophobia and “invisible discrimination” called Out of the closet and into the classroom was being offered to CUPE members.
“I was a union activist first and a gay rights activist second, so I could see how lesbian rights fit into the union framework,” explained former CUPE Pink Triangle Committee Chair Pam Wagner after hosting a pilot project for the workshop in 1997.
The new millennium brought a renewed commitment from our union to dismantling injustice at work. Indigenous CUPE members in B.C. organized the first “Aboriginal Council” in 2004.
“We wanted to celebrate our diversity as First Nations cultures. But we also wanted to figure out how we could have a stronger voice in CUPE and make some positive changes in the union,” said Richard Gauthier, a Métis student advocate from CUPE 3523 in Kelowna. He participated in organizing and facilitating the 2004 event described as “the largest CUPE Aboriginal gathering ever held in Canada”.
This was followed by the creation of the “National Aboriginal Council” in 2006.
At the same time, CUPE was also taking on ableism at work. Our union was eager to make sure that all members’ rights were respected. Thanks to activists like Richard Sherring and other members of CUPE’s Persons with Disabilities National Working Group, CUPE expanded its educational materials to help highlight the voices of workers with disabilities.
Our dedication to equity, as exemplified by the training we have provided to CUPE members in the past 60 years, is a part of what sets us apart and fuels our growth as a union.
Worker-centred literacy is an important aspect of inclusion, and we’ve been taking the lead on literacy in the labour movement. Literacy and essential skills are necessary tools for building activism and leadership beyond the status quo in our union, as well as in our workplaces and communities.
The new century has led to new course offerings from our Union Education Branch, such as Bystander training, Safer spaces for gender-diverse members, Disability and ableism, and Indigenous issues. Check out all our resources at cupe.ca/union-education
The COVID-19 pandemic also forced us to accelerate the shift to online learning. This led to increased participation from members who may not have had access to our workshops and resources in the past. As the cost to participate in union education activities decreased, and with the ability to participate remotely, the number of new participants in workshops increased exponentially. Members could now access online education on their own time, rather than needing to book time off work and juggle with family responsibilities or multiple jobs.
The Union Education Branch continues to play an important role in driving forward CUPE’s strategic initiatives, empowering members, and building solidarity.