Tara Paterson | Cupe Staff
“I certainly don’t want to give the impression that sexism and racism don’t exist in CUPE and many of our locals. But we do have a very strong mandate to fight even more forcefully than before to tackle all these interrelated equality issues, be they sexism, racism, or discrimination against lesbians and gays or people with disabilities… Our biggest challenge right now is to be vigilant enough so that equality issues aren’t pushed to the background.”
Then National President Judy Darcy wrote these words in a 1993 book titled Women Challenging Unions. Back then, Darcy was celebrating the work of CUPE activists and all they had achieved for human rights in the 30 years since the union’s founding. She was also warning members not to let up.
Now, 30 years on, we can look at Breaking Barriers: CUPE’s Human Rights History to see that members heeded Darcy’s advice. CUPE has kept pushing for human rights – though, as Darcy recognized even then, struggles remain. As we mark 60 years of our union, we can look back at some of these milestones to remind us to always keep up the fight.
Sister solidarity in ’67 and ’71
In 1967, an article in CUPE’s publication The Journal slammed the federal government for inadequate maternity leave. That same year, members of CUPE 101 in London, Ontario, won an end to separate collective agreements for men and women.
“Women generally work in a few occupations labelled “female”, earn less money than men and rarely reach the top,” stated the 1970 Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.
Four years later, our 1971 National Convention approved a massive program to address gender equality through a national women’s committee, special training and a plan to address discrimination, pensions, child care, part-time work, maternity leave, job protection for married women, rug-ranking and women’s participation in the union. Of the 140,000 members at that time, 45,000 were women, and some of them won the right to wear pants at work.
Fighting for reconciliation in the 70s and 80s
At the same time, Indigenous members were fighting for human rights – especially with the renegotiation of Canada’s Constitution on the horizon. In 1975, CUPE published a report by Wally Firth, Canada’s first Northern Métis MP, on inadequate conditions for Indigenous peoples. Later on, CUPE hosted Indigenous delegates of The Constitution Express in Ottawa, demanding that Indigenous (then referred to as ‘native’) and women’s rights be included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Our union is concerned that the already limited rights granted to Canada’s aboriginal peoples will be further jeopardized if the constitution is not amended to include them now,” said CUPE National President Grace Hartman in 1981.
Taking it international in ’85
In 1985, locals sought to ban pension fund investment in apartheid South Africa and organized a boycott of South African goods by hospitals, municipalities, nursing homes, schools and universities. They used that momentum to later challenge the United States’ blockade of Cuba and participate in a caravan of goods across the U.S. border bound for Cuba.
Queering workers’ rights in the 80s and beyond
In 1987, CUPE took the fight for same-sex benefits all the way to the Ontario Supreme Court. The Court ruled against CUPE, but five years later, in 1992, CUPE and two employees launched a constitutional challenge against the federal government’s definition of “spouse” as the opposite sex in the Income Tax Act.
“The government’s message to homosexuals seems to be that equality is OK on paper but not in practice,” said Mary Cook, first vice-president of CUPE 1996 at the Toronto public library, who fought on behalf of local member Karen Andrews.
The challenge would eventually be upheld, setting a major precedent for equality in pension and other benefits.
Resisting racism in the 90s
Indigenous, Black and racialized members fought hard to forge their way into the union. In 1991, CUPE appointed its first ever anti-racism coordinator, Harminder Singh Magon, and established the employment equity leadership training program for Indigenous, Black and racialized (referred to then as “Native and visible minority”) members.
Four years later, CUPE held the first-ever national anti-racism conference, mainly in response to National Convention defeating a constitutional amendment to add a “visible minority” (now referred to as Black and racialized) seat and an “Aboriginal” (now referred to as Indigenous) seat to the National Executive Board. As many as 275 members attended the anti-racism conference and demanded anti-racism training throughout the union and a comprehensive employment equity plan within CUPE. Delegates eventually supported the amendment for Indigenous and Black and racialized diversity vice-president seats at the 1999 convention.
Putting trans rights on the table in ’01
In 2001, CUPE 4400 and trans activist Martine Stonehouse were instrumental in getting the Toronto District School Board to become the first public school board in Canada to add gender identity protection for students and staff to its human rights policy. That same year, CUPE 3903 at York University negotiated up to eight paid weeks off for transition leave for trans members.
Taking sexism to task in ’05-’07
In 2005, there were only three women on CUPE’s 23-person National Executive Board. In response, National Convention established a National Women’s Task Force to consult women members and seek advice from activists and staff on women’s equality needs. The Task Force made recommendations to organize a National Women’s Bargaining Conference, develop a feminist legislative agenda, create a code of conduct, hire full-time equality representatives in every region, strengthen equality training, establish a mentoring program for women leaders, and develop dependent care policies for the union.
“Knowing that many feel the same concerns gives us the strength and power to break the barriers before us. United, we can tackle the most difficult problems,” said National Women’s Task Force Co-Chair Barb Moore after the presentation of the report in 2007.
Campaigning for accessibility in ’12
In 2012, CUPE launched a massive disability rights campaign, A Solidarity of Abilities, with the Persons with Disabilities National Working Group. Members across the country received fact sheets, posters, and a pamphlet titled Ready and Able. At the same time, CUPE’s Union Education Department launched a week-long duty to accommodate workshop, equipping representatives and stewards across the country with better tools to challenge workplace ableism.