In March, CUPE representatives joined 180 union women from over 42 countries to fight for the rights of women and girls at the 63rd annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) in New York City.
It was a whirlwind week of meetings, briefings, lobbying, networking and rallies. Counterpoint caught up with two CUPE members to find out what the experience meant to them. Stacey Connor, president of CUPE 2073 (representing Canadian Hearing Society workers) and Gina McKay, recording secretary for CUPE 2348 (representing community, health, and social services workers in Manitoba) reflected on the lasting impact of their work at the UNCSW.
What do you feel you accomplished?
Stacey Connor (SC): As a deaf woman, I experience barriers that limit my participation every day. It felt good to be at the UN speaking out about my experiences, and to be recognized by my union for my work as a woman who is deaf. I met people like me who face many barriers all over the world, including two deaf women - one from Sudan and one from Mongolia. It was an honour to take part in their workshop and learn from them.
Gina McKay (GM): My biggest accomplishment was gaining a stronger sense of the need for international solidarity. I was humbled to hear women, trans women and non-binary women from all over the world share their experiences of working in the public sector. Their issues and oppressions are similar and familiar. So many of them are struggling because of unregulated corporate global capitalism and greed. Equity-seeking workers struggle in all parts of the world, and in all unions. I brought my own experiences forward as an LGBTQ2+ union member, and I was able to find commonalities with our labour movement in recognizing that, as a movement, we are only as strong as our most silenced voices.
Why is it important for unions to bring our voices to the UN Commission on the Status of Women?
SC: It is important for women who are deaf and hard of hearing to have a voice on the international stage to ensure that we are not neglected. Our role as union women with disabilities is to remind the United Nations and the world that we exist, and that we cannot be ignored. No one can speak on our behalf.
GM: Our local, regional, and national issues and challenges in Canada are also international challenges. Women and equity-seeking workers experience oppression and discrimination worldwide. Solidarity among workers is the only way to unite against the structures and systems that keep us silenced. Our voices in the UN bring progressive approaches to human rights protections in the labour movement. With ever-increasing far-right opposition dominating the UN commissions, it is imperative for the labour movement to unite and mobilize to ensure that the diversity of workers’ rights and issues are upheld globally. It’s not enough to fight for strong protections in our own communities. All working people - both unionized and non-unionized - are vulnerable in a capitalist, neoliberal global economy.
What action has being part of this delegation inspired you to take?
SC: It caused me to reflect on my own leadership and the opportunities for me to continue to fight for the rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing, both within CUPE and in the broader community. I plan to voice these concerns during our convention and remind members that they need to be inclusive, advocate for others, and treat everyone equally. Deaf and hard of hearing workers need a platform to communicate with other workers. Ensuring there is genuine space for people who are deaf and hard of hearing takes work. We need resources to ensure language support is in place so we can fully participate in discussions, and for information and education to be made available to union members and the community about their role in creating these spaces.
GM: I flew home with big ideas about how to increase our presence at the next UNCSW to create a stronger front against the rise of the far-right. I’m going to stay connected through the global online conversations about women’s and LGBTQ2+ rights, and keep CUPE’s work and voice active in that forum. The equity work that we are doing across CUPE can help make a difference on a global scale. Intersectional labour activism is so impor tant, and diversity is one of the labour movement’s greatest strengths.
How did you feel at the end of the week?
SC: I was angry and frustrated by what I heard from women around the world who are deaf and hard of hearing. I was also very grateful to CUPE for the opportunity to make so many new connections. I fear a lot of commitments are made to support women like me, but will end up being talk with no action if we don’t find a way to continue to create spaces for genuine inclusion, globally and locally.
GM: I felt energized to stay connected to the global activists we met and engaged with, and reflective because we still have so much farther to go. As advanced as some countries may be, there are still so many communities struggling for basic human rights. As a global labour community, we have to work together to ensure workers are not left behind in the struggle for human rights and freedoms.
Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.