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Making inroads on equity issues is tough at the best of times. But in bad economic times, the task is doubly difficult. Nonetheless, CUPE is committed to keeping the fight for workplace equality squarely on the front burner at a time when all the gains we’ve made in this area – let alone all the goals we have yet to reach – are at risk.


This is no time to take a step backwards. On the contrary, it is a time for us to take bold and innovative steps to ensure that equality becomes a reality. We have to fight the backlash against equity that is being fed by the uncertainty and fear created by these difficult economic times.


Getting at the Roots of Discrimination


There are many forms of discrimination against gay men and lesbians, people with disabilities, visible minority, aboriginal people and women. Discrimination affects these groups in different ways.


Ali, an experienced city planner, called a municipal employer in the Toronto area to inquire about a job. He was told that a position was available and to bring in his resumé. He arrived at the personnel office the same day and was told the job had been filled. Shocking and hurtful though this is for Ali, it’s not an isolated incident for a visible minority person in the City of Toronto or an aboriginal person in Winnipeg or Regina. Studies by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the Social Planning Council of Metro Toronto show that when majority race people and members of visible minorities with the same qualifications and experience show up for a job, more often than not the visible minority people are not given the job. Discrimination undermines the ability of these groups to care for their families. It denies their contribution to society.


Margaret, a school secretary in Charlottetown, PEI, has just received a $3.00 per hour increase through pay equity. At CUPE’s National Women’s Conference, she tells Janet, a school secretary in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, about this increase. Janet has suspected for some time that she and her fellow secretaries are underpaid. Unlike PEI, Saskatchewan has no pay equity law requiring employers to correct wage discrimination. As a result, many working women struggle to make ends meet with poverty line incomes. This has a severe emotional impact on them and their children.


Jack took his letter of application for a university library technician job to the department of human resources. On arrival, he found there was no ramp to accommodate his wheelchair. After a frustrating 20-minute wait, he asked two by-passers if they would lift him and then his wheelchair up the steps. He felt humiliated. He then took the elevator up to the fourth floor human resources office. He told the personnel officer about his experience. The personnel officer told him there was a freight elevator at the back of the building which he could have taken. He also said he didn’t think Jack had the communications skills to do the job. Jack could see that the personnel officer was jumping to conclusions about his communications skills because he had cerebral palsy. Eighty percent of people with disabilities are able to work. Jack is one of many who are denied job opportunities every day because of systemic barriers and misinformed stereotypes.



Lee is a lesbian and was recently hired as a child care worker. One morning she mentioned to a co-worker that she and her partner had been to a concert on the weekend. In the afternoon, she noticed other workers whispering and looking at her curiously. A friend later told her that a male co-worker was nervous about working with her, thinking she was weird and would likely want to talk about sex all the time. A week later, her boss told her she was concerned about her working alone with the children and suggested she might consider a job that didn’t deal with children or the public. By week’s end, Lee’s stomach was churning and she couldn’t sleep. To add to her distress, she went to a union meeting of different locals and overheard a brother saying “Is that a man or a woman?” referring to Lee. A union sister later told her that Lee’s local was described as “a bunch of lesbians”.


This is a pretty typical week in the life of gay male and lesbian CUPE members. Hurtful stereotypes seriously jeopardize job opportunities and contribute to harassment and exclusion from normal social relationships with co-workers.



A recent CUPE survey on violence in the workplace found that 73% of the CUPE women who responded reported being physically assaulted on the job within the past two years. Marion, a nursing home worker, is one of those women. One Saturday, Marion went into a room to assist an elderly resident to sit up for lunch. Without warning he lashed out at her, slapping and scratching her face, and yelling “keep your hands off me you “black bitch”. A terrifying experience for Marion, whose job it is to help this man – a man with the power to threaten her job. Marion’s experience of violence is an extension of what many women face at home. Because women have little status and little power, they are vulnerable to abuse. Marion is doubly disadvantaged because she is both black and a woman.




These case studies show the double-edged sword of discrimination. Sometimes, as in Marion’s case, it is overt and deliberate. Often, it is so deeply rooted in our employment systems, like Jack’s case, that it is only when we see how it excludes certain groups of people that we realize its adverse impact.


Beginning at Home


We need to confront racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination wherever we see them, including in our union. When union members undermine each other, our solidarity is threatened. If we can’t work together, we can’t move forward. In fact, we are more vulnerable to losing hard-won gains.


Many CUPE members feel threatened by initiatives such as employment equity or strong policies and procedures to combat racism and harassment. Our members sometimes view employment equity as a threat to jobs and promotional opportunities. They talk about it (as do many other Canadians) as reverse discrimination.


We need to be ready to take on the major questions our members are asking.



  1. Why should employment equity be a union priority when there are so many other issues at stake?

    There are many important issues that unions must tackle. Employment equity is a priority in CUPE because it will benefit all our members. Here’s how.

    First. More than 50% of our membership is women, one of the groups which can benefit from employment equity. Second. The changing face of our community is rich in diversity but this is not reflected in our workplaces. Discriminatory policies and practices against aboriginal people, visible minority workers, women, workers with disabilities and gay men and lesbians set up barriers to their full participation in the workplace. Union activists know that unwritten practices bar them from opportunities because of their activism. So the fight for social and economic justice, of which employment equity is a part, will benefit all workers. Third. Divisions within the union weaken us. If members don’t feel the union represents their interests, they will not be active in the union. This robs the union of valuable ideas and energy.


  2. How can we fight for employment equity in the middle of a recession?

    This is a tough time for all workers. Workers are losing jobs; they’re experiencing wage freezes and rollbacks of hard-won gains; women who won pay equity adjustments are having them rolled back – many have yet to see pay equity; visible minority and aboriginal workers who are beginning to enter the workplace see doors closing – some are last hired-first fired; as fear increases, tensions rise in the workplace causing workers to lash out at those more vulnerable, such as lesbians and gay men. As the social safety net deteriorates, workers with disabilities become more disadvantaged. Their chances of entering the workplace diminish.

    Employers always argue, it’s never the right time to make changes, such as increasing wages or improving health and safety provisions. Are we going to fall into this trap in our fight for equity?

    Many employment equity measures don’t cost a lot of money. Harassment policies and procedures; removing bias from hiring and promotion practices; opening up training programs to the designated groups; setting goals and timetables for adequate representation of the designated groups in the workplace. What better time to implement these than when it’s tough to make monetary gains?


  3. Does setting goals and timetables (or quotas) mean hiring unqualified people?

    Quotas were used in the United States 20 years ago to ensure employers fulfilled their responsibilities in affirmative action programs. However, when employers were faced with penalties, they sometimes hired unqualified people just to meet the quota. CUPE prefers the use of numerical goals and timetables in employment equity programs. Quotas tend to be too rigid and can be set arbitrarily.

    For example, it would be unrealistic in the short term to insist that because half of the working age population is women, that half of the employees of an engineering firm should be women. Although that would be our long-term goal, at the moment, there would not be enough qualified female engineers.

    A reasonable numerical goal would be based on the number of women who actually are engineers (8%) and those who are studying to become engineers (at l’École Polytechnique for example, the figure is 25%). A short term goal of 13% would be appropriate and achievable without running the risk of hiring unqualified people. However, let’s remember there are lots of qualified designated group members who’ve been denied job opportunities because of discrimination.

    Goals and timetables are essential to the success of employment equity. They serve a monitoring function to ensure progress is made. They are both quantitative, as in the above example, and qualitative, such as putting in place a bridging program for one year to train clerical workers for non-traditional jobs.

    It’s sometimes necessary to give people who have been disadvantaged the chance to become qualified for new opportunities. For example, if aboriginal people can’t qualify for certain jobs because they haven’t had access to appropriate educational opportunities, then an employment equity program would have to address that obstacle with training programs.

    Hiring unqualified people is not in anyone’s interest. For employers, it means the person won’t be able to do the job. It puts the person under tremendous pressure and can set them up for failure.


  4. Does employment equity mean white able-bodied males will be shut out of workplace opportunities?

    The whole point of employment equity is to remove discrimination from the workplace, not to cause it. The main reason unions organized was to stop employers from treating workers unfairly. Employment equity is simply an extension of those efforts. Over the decades, employment practices developed to meet the needs of employers at the time. As the mix of workers has changed, those employment practices, often without intention, put up road blocks to those new workers. For example, weight lifting requirements established for male workers are excessive for women moving into those jobs; just as work benches and washrooms designed for able-bodied workers seldom accommodate people who use a wheelchair.

    Cleaning up these practices is what employment equity is about. The designated groups will benefit as will other workers. For example, reducing weight lifting requirements lessens the chance of back injury for all workers; making sure work benches and washrooms are adapted for disabled people entering the workplace paves the way for workers who become disabled on the job.

    Employment equity is designed to ensure that workers in the designated groups have their fair share of all jobs. This could mean, for example, that a certain portion of apprenticeship positions will be reserved for qualified designated group members. This is to make up for past discrimination which has kept those groups out of the workplace and out of the full range of jobs.

    Majority group male workers will not be shut out of apprenticeship programs. They just won’t take up all of the places as they have in the past.


  5. Will employment equity undermine seniority rights?

    Seniority and employment equity have the same objective – to limit workplace favouritism and discrimination.

    Many aspects of employment equity programs are not affected by seniority. Some examples are: entry level hiring which is at the discretion of the employer, most aspects of the wage system, some benefits, working conditions and support measures such as childcare or paying transportation costs for training courses.

    Some aspects of employment equity can have a positive impact on seniority. For example: recognition that workers on maternity and parental leave should accumulate seniority; reducing the use of inflated qualifications and personal suitability to deny certain workers promotions because employers don’t like them.

    Nonetheless, the collective agreement, including seniority, forms part of workplace employment practices and must be examined for its adverse impact on the groups included in employment equity programs and legislation.

    In September 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada in its Renaud decision, said that unions have equal liability with the employer to seek to accommodate an employee where there is a discriminatory effect resulting from a work rule in the collective agreement.

    The decision raises important questions that the union must come to grips with.

    How do we deal with the issue of qualified female workers applying for jobs in a predominantly male unit where there is departmental seniority for promotions? What if the women have greater seniority in the organization, and aren’t getting the jobs in the predominantly male unit?

    What about a situation where qualified visible minority workers apply for permanent, full-time jobs as labourers but are denied these jobs because there are casual and part-time white workers who have more seniority than they do?

    What is fair? Who should get the job? How can we reconcile our two competing interests – advancing the rights of members who have been discriminated against and protecting the rights of long-service members? There are no easy answers.

    We need to have thoughtful and widespread discussions about this question; to spell out the ground rules for employment equity initiatives in bargaining and legislation; to be clear about what can and cannot be changed in our seniority clauses. Some locals and divisions have had debates, have taken positions and have bargained on the issue of seniority. We need to take their experience into account during our own discussion on the issue. Broad consultation needs to take place within the union so that our position on seniority will meet all of our goals. The courts are starting to provide answers to some of the questions. We need to come up with our own answers before the courts tell us seniority is a problem and force their solution on us.

Pushing for Employment Equity

When we talk about employment equity in CUPE, we are referring to all the bargaining, policy and legislative thrusts that are needed to make the workplace welcoming and equitable for designated groups (aboriginal and visible minority groups, women, lesbians and gay men and people with disabilities). However, there are still some issues that need to be worked out regarding how gay men and lesbians can be incorporated as a designated group. They clearly need protection against harassment and exclusion from benefits, jobs and promotions because of discriminatory practices. What isn’t clear is how to deal with goals and timetables. There are no Statistics Canada figures on the percentage of lesbians and gay men in the population. Nor do we want them to self-identify in the workplace if they aren’t ready to do so.

The aim of employment equity is to make our workplaces reflect our society. We start by getting a profile of the representation of designated groups in our workplaces and whether it reflects their representation in the community. Then we do a systematic review of the barriers to their employment and design measures, with clear goals and timetables, to correct them.

Perhaps recruitments are done by word-of-mouth or not advertised widely enough in newspapers read by members of designated groups. Or inflated education requirements, such as grade 12 for all hospital jobs screen out aboriginal people. Perhaps interviews are done by one person, who sidelines people on the basis of personal bias, instead of by teams, with representation from designated groups and with written questions and answers. Or the workplace is inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. Perhaps aptitude or physical ability tests are not job-related, or the tests are gender, culturally or linguistically biased, thus screening out qualified people from the designated groups.

The employer may limit access to information about training and who can apply, or have biased practices when it comes to promotions, transfers, special assignments and acting positions. These things can be corrected through non-discriminatory policies and practices and remedial measures.

Perhaps the wage system is discriminatory and needs to be corrected through the pay equity process.

Benefits may not be available to all workers equitably. Do long-term disability plans discriminate against people with disabilities and people with AIDS? Group life insurance, sick leave, health care insurance, pension plans, maternity and parental leave benefits should all be examined for discriminatory elements, such as exclusion of same-sex spouse in their application.

Harassment may be the cause when large numbers of visible minority workers are resigning, and exit interviews should be conducted to monitor this. Resignations, discipline, discharge and layoff and recall must all be monitored for adverse impact.

Why Employment Equity is on CUPE’s Front Burner


  1. CUPE’s experience shows that defending the interests of all our members strengthens the union. For example, as women have moved into the labour force in greater numbers CUPE has initiated programs to address women’s issues. Today CUPE’s ranks consist of 52% women.


    In today’s economic climate people are pitted against each other for a shrinking piece of the pie. By continuing to be a leader in equality issues, CUPE can bring workers together to fight for our fair share.


  2. Economic restructuring is causing layoffs among CUPE’s membership. Promoting and defending equality issues is crucial to both our present members and to unorganized sectors where women and minority workers are concentrated. CUPE members’ equity gains are being threatened by wage freezes, rollbacks and layoffs. New members will be attracted to CUPE when they see we take action on equality issues that affect them.


  3. Employment equity leads to greater diversity in CUPE workplaces. The more our workplaces reflect our community the better we can serve the public. For example, if hospitals in communities with significant aboriginal populations hire aboriginal staff, the hospitals will be more sensitive to the community’s needs.


  4. Making employment equity a priority welcomes the designated group members among our ranks to be more active in the union. This ensures the union is in touch with and can respond better to the needs of our members, through bargaining, legislative and education initiatives.


  5. Legal precedents like the Renaud case require that the union be more pro-active in implementing its duty to accommodate its members. When we are pro-active, we can shape our responses to better meet the needs of our members than if we wait until the courts do it for us through decisions like Renaud, or let employers implement employment equity programs without our involvement.

Action for Employment Equity

Because of our extensive work and progressive policies on equity issues, CUPE is well placed to make meaningful gains in attaining employment equity.


CUPE will expand its efforts on behalf of women workers. And we must give particular attention to the fight for equality for the other equity-seeking groups (aboriginal and visible minority workers, gay men and lesbians and people with disabilities).


CUPE’s National Women’s Task Force, Rainbow Committee and Pink Triangle Committee (and their regional and local counter-parts), in conjunction with the Equal Opportunities Department and the Anti-Racism Office, will be the catalysts and resource for this major equity thrust. However, the locals, with the assistance of staff representatives, will be the driving force.


  1. Negotiating Equality

Our work to achieve employment equity must first and foremost take place at the bargaining table.

To assist locals to bargain employment equity plans and collective agreement clauses on equity issues, CUPE will develop a comprehensive bargaining kit on employment equity including, among other items:


  1. Achievements in employment equity.


  2. CUPE’s policy on seniority and employment equity (to be developed in a broad consultation process with CUPE members).


  3. How to negotiate joint workplace training sessions on harassment and abuse.


  4. Samples of material relevant to the preparation of an employment equity plan.

Locals should make special efforts to involve designated group members in strategy sessions on bargaining employment equity issues.


  1. Education

Education and training provide the backbone for our equity thrust. They provide people with the information and skills needed to develop local action initiatives.

CUPE will:


  1. Provide specialized training to staff and leaders on all issues related to discrimination and employment equity and the specific effects of discrimination on the different groups.


  2. Develop education material for members and staff on violence against the designated groups and why it’s an issue for unions.


  3. Develop training modules for local leaders to assist them in dealing with employment equity related complaints and grievances.



  1. Action for Legislation and Other Reforms

Legislative initiatives can often force employers to provide minimum protection on equity issues. Government reform in other areas reduces societal discrimination.

CUPE will:


  1. Develop model employment equity legislation.


  2. Continue to lobby for strong pro-active employment equity legislation.


  3. Continue to lobby for improved legislation and protection, facilities and services for survivors of violence; as well as a comprehensive awareness campaign on violence against the disadvantaged groups.


  4. Lobby for reform of the education and training systems to be more inclusive of the designated groups.


  5. Lobby to strengthen human rights commissions and human rights legislation.


  1. Community Solidarity

CUPE will:


  1. Build new links in the community as well as strengthen our established links on employment equity issues. This will enhance our bargaining and political work.


  2. Continue efforts to make CUPE’s staff more representative of our members and the communities we serve and build effective internal support systems for staff from the designated groups.


  3. Build wider networks within CUPE among the designated groups to share common concerns and efforts to enhance participation and learning in the locals.


  4. Expand our links with workers in other parts of the world, because sexism, racism, heterosexism and other forms of discrimination recognize no border.
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