In thousands of workplaces and communities across Canada, public sector workers know what it means to have control over their working lives. They are the 570,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Canada’s biggest and fastest growing union.
Dynamism, strength and militancy describe CUPE, a union that fights for jobs and workers’ rights, and defends the public services that support our way of life. CUPE members deliver these services in municipalities, hospitals, nursing homes, homes for the aged, schools, universities, libraries, childcare centres, public utilities, social service agencies, airlines, broadcasting, public transit and other transportation sectors.
Strong Grassroots Democracy
While CUPE is Canada’s largest union, in a way we are also its smallest. With more than 2,200 locals ranging in size from a half dozen members to more than 15,000, CUPE combines the support, resources and solidarity of a vast union, with local control by the members each union local directs its own affairs. This unique combination accounts for CUPE’s magnetism and our strong grassroots democracy. In CUPE, the members make the decisions and policies at all levels, from local meetings to national conventions.
CUPE members and leaders fight their battles local by local and province by province, each victory creating a breakthrough and support for the next struggle. Each battle has its political dimension too, since government policies determine the levels and kinds of services CUPE members provide in their workplaces. As a result, CUPE has become one of Canada’s most socially and politically active unions. Our members have campaigned during municipal and school board elections for candidates taking progressive positions, and traditionally supported the New Democratic Party federally and provincially (outside of Quebec). They have mobilized, built public support and worked in coalitions to influence all levels of government.
Organizing the Unorganized for Strength
A key focus of CUPE’s activities since CUPE was founded in 1963 has been organizing new members to protect vulnerable workers and further strengthen the union.
We’ve come far since the early days, when many public sector workers were reluctant to join unions. That hesitation disappeared once they saw that unionization could give them the power to win significant economic improvements and protections. Hospital, municipal and hydro workers joined CUPE in large numbers. An important organizing victory came in 1966, when the union won the right to represent 9,000 Hydro workers in Quebec. By the end of 1969, CUPE’s membership stood at 130,000, almost double what it had been at its founding six years before. It wasn’t long before the union would start attracting new members from other sectors, such as the social service and nursing home/home for the aged sectors.
A significant part of CUPE’s recent growth has come through mergers with other unions, such as the Canadian Airline Flight Attendants Association, the Canadian Union of Educational Workers, and the British Columbia Hospital Employees’ Union. These groups have concluded that belonging to a bigger union gives them a better chance to combat public employers bent on restructuring and downsizing, or governments eager to restrict workers’ rights.
CUPE also continues to have a high level of success in organizing unorganized workers, over 10,000 a year in recent years. Because of the major shift to private sector delivery of public services, CUPE now also represents increasing numbers of workers whose work is being privatized.
A Leader in Equity Struggles
In 1967, CUPE made labour history when the members elected Grace Hartman as national secretary-treasurer the first woman to hold a top position within a Canadian union (see Crean, Susan, Grace Hartman, a Woman for Her Time, New Star Books, Vancouver, 1995). In the same year, CUPE made its first pay equity breakthrough when female members working for the city of London, Ontario won an end to wage discrimination enshrined in separate wage schedules for men and women.
Today, our membership is 60 per cent female. In addition, the face of our union includes a membership from varied racial and cultural backgrounds.
The earliest struggles of CUPE women were about taking their rightful place in the union gaining strength and influence in CUPE, and building the support of their male co-workers for demands for equality in the workplace, in the union, and in society. The union put pay equity on the bargaining and legislative agendas of governments, winning this economic breakthrough in some places. We fought against harassment and for paid maternity leave. We pressed and continue to advocate for universal childcare, and better pay and working conditions for childcare workers.
Today’s equity struggles are different but no less critical than the ones of years gone by. Our fights for employment and pay equity, and an end to racism and discrimination in all its forms, reflect our commitment to resist a larger right-wing strategy to divide and weaken workers. In 1998, CUPE and its staff unions won a landmark court case in which the Ontario court of Appeal upheld CUPE’s challenge to the Income Tax Act, allowing CUPE’s staff pension plan to provide survivor benefits to lesbians and gay employees.
Defending Workers’ Rights
In the 1970s, after a period of prosperity and public sector expansion, the tide began to turn against workers. Many governments took a tough stand against labour, removing the right to strike for groups of public sector workers. In 1975, the Trudeau government introduced wage controls, prompting one million workers, including 100,000 CUPE members, to stage a one-day general strike the largest general strike in Canadian history.
These events were followed by waves of deregulation, contracting out and cutbacks in the 1980s. In 1981, 16,000 Ontario hospital workers went on an eight-day illegal strike for better wages and working conditions. The national president and two other union leaders were sentenced to jail terms. Two years later, CUPE members in B.C. took to the picket lines with other public employees in a massive Operation solidarity campaign against the Bennett government’s cutbacks programme.
The 1990s brought the destructive trends of restructuring, downsizing and privatization. CUPE members faced demands for concessions, job loss and employer attempts to run roughshod over collective agreements. Our locals waged some of the longest and toughest fights in their history, both against employers and, in many cases, provincial governments.
Defending Collective Agreements
In New Brunswick, 20,000 CUPE members went on an illegal province-wide general strike to stop the McKenna government from breaking signed collective agreements and imposing concessions. The workers went back with their signed collective agreements intact.
CUPE members in Ontario fought the NDP government’s so-called social contract , which brought a 5 per cent wage roll back with nothing offered in return. The social contract not only strained relations between our union and the provincial NDP, it also gave rise to major debates and divisions within the labour movement.
Quebec’s CUPE members fought against the Bourassa government’s attempt to override the rules of free collective bargaining, and subsequently the Bouchard government’s threat of legislation to roll back municipal and transit worker wages by 6 per cent. More than 10,000 workers rallied to protest the roll back in Quebec City.
CUPE hospital laundry workers in Calgary went on an illegal strike to stop their employer from contracting out their jobs to the lowest bidder, sparking a wildcat of thousands of other hospital workers. They received incredible support from other workers and Albertans and forced Alberta’s Klein government to blink and to start putting money back into health care.
Many of the battles to defend public sector workers were also about fighting to preserve services. CUPE organized to defend social programmes, through major efforts like the CUPE national task force on nursing homes, which exposed the darker side of the private, profit making nursing home industry. In towns and municipalities, in provincial legislatures and at the federal level, CUPE members championed a strong public sector as the cornerstone of our Canadian society.
In a bold and innovative move, the union launched a national coalition campaign to save medicare in 1992. The campaign combined grassroots activities to collect pledge cards in communities across Canada, with a national TV action special about our health care crisis. This initiative sounded the alarm about the serious threat to Canada’s most cherished social programme and laid the groundwork for other union and coalition actions in support of medicare.
Fighting for a Better Future
Today, the very foundation of our social and economic well-being is at stake. It is not just public sector workers’ wages and working conditions that are under attack. It is our jobs, the services we offer and the very communities where we live. It is our way of life. Good, decent paying jobs are disappearing to be replaced by part-time casual or privatized jobs with low pay, no security and few benefits. Over the past 10 years, CUPE’s percentage of part-time members has grown by a staggering 118 per cent. Today, CUPE represents 120,000 part-time workers. Our social infrastructure is crumbling too as public services that benefit the community are lost or converted to private sector businesses driven by personal profit.
To build a better future in the new millennium, we must fight to rebuild the public sector from a position of strength. We are dedicating resources to involve and mobilize all of our members more effectively in the struggle. We want every CUPE member to take on this fight.
We are also building our power through continued organizing of unorganized workers as we have been doing in record numbers these last few years. We are reaching out to workers of colour, aboriginal workers, and people with disabilities as well as to younger workers, whose prospects for a secure future are dwindling. Our goal is half a million members in the new millennium.
A More Strategic Union
We have learned many valuable lessons from our history. We are more knowledgeable, more active and more strategic.
Where most CUPE locals once negotiated on their own, province-wide or regional bargaining is now the norm in many of our sectors. This gives us a lot more power to press for our demands and resist concessions.
From one end of the country to the other, we have declared war on privatization. Our members are organizing grassroots and political campaigns to stop privatization in their communities and nationally. Our targets range from private hospitals in Alberta, to privatization of social housing in Newfoundland; from public-private partnerships in Nova Scotia schools and in British Columbia, to selling off control of water in Ontario and country-wide; from private toll roads in New Brunswick, to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a trade agreement which would have created conditions for the wholesale privatization of all public services.
More and more, our fights involve working together with other unions, community groups and users of public services. One such example is the building of coalitions in Ontario for the Days of action protest to fight the Harris government’s attacks on public services and social and labour rights.
It is clear that people want protection from the social and economic ravages of the global marketplace for themselves, their children and future generations. They want to live in a caring society. They want to work together for change.
As we enter the new millennium, there is no struggle more important for CUPE than the fight to save public services and our jobs. We are making history every day in struggles big and small, because we know we can make a difference for working people and those who live in the communities we serve.