Mark Hancock | CUPE’s National President

Mark Hancock

It’s easy to look at how CUPE has grown over the years, and figure we’ve simply grown alongside the general population. But the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.

Consider this: in 1963, the year CUPE was formed, the population of Canada was about 19 million, about half of what it is today. But in that same time, our union has grown more than eight-fold, from 85,000 members in 1963 to more than 715,000 today. That’s partly because public services have expanded in the last 60 years, and partly because these front-line workers wanted the protection of a strong union.

Sixty years ago, our membership was made up of a lot of older white guys, and our activist base was too. The photo of our founding convention on my office wall definitely reflects that, as do the proceedings from that convention – only about 10% of the delegates were women.

But as our country has grown and diversified, so has our union. Today, we are the largest, strongest, and most diverse union in Canada.

Our most recent membership survey tells us that two of every three CUPE members identify as women. One in ten identifies as Black or racialized, while 5% of CUPE members identify as Indigenous, which is slightly higher than the national workforce average. One in five is a young worker under the age of 34. Nearly one in ten lives and works with a disability, and 7% of CUPE members belong to the 2SLGBTQI+ community.

We have grown because we reflect the diversity of the communities where we work, and because we speak to the issues that matter to members and workers in our communities. We’ve been showing up at Pride events long before it was popular, and we’ve been showing up for Indigenous, Black and racialized communities when they’re under attack since day one.

And we have grown because, every day, we fight to expand our tent and extend the benefits of union membership to more workers. We have grown because – whether it’s research assistants at the University of British Columbia or sex worker advocates in Toronto – we continue to reach out and organize workers in workplaces and sectors where people have never had a union supporting them.

I’ve seen first-hand just how much our union has changed since I first became a member of CUPE in Port Coquitlam, B.C.. The community was pretty homogenous back then, and there were not nearly as many people working at city hall as there are now. We had to push the city for facilities for the few women who had just been hired in the works yard. As our workplace diversified, we learned how to talk to our members about sexism and racism and human rights, in our workplace or in our union.

And I know that similar stories have unfolded in our workplaces and union halls across the country over the years. CUPE’s strength comes from our membership – it always has. And every day, since the day we were founded, the diversity of perspectives and experiences of our members has guided our work and given us the strength we need to take on the fights ahead.

That strength is why we will keep on scoring big wins for workers and families at the bargaining table and in our legislatures. It’s why we will continue to combat hate and discrimination. And it’s why we are going to take on the likes of Pierre Poilievre, whose far-right agenda is built on dividing and conquering workers and turning us against each other.

1964 CUPE article

“One of the major tasks of our new union was obviously that of organizing the unorganized in our jurisdiction and I am happy to report that in the first year, 39 new locals have been chartered across the country, and new units were added to existing locals,” wrote CUPE’s founding President Stan Little in his first year assessment report in 1964.