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CUPE’s Aboriginal organizing strategy has been evolving over the years. As we started organizing workplaces or started making contacts on reserves, we faced many obstacles. These included a lack of understanding about unions in the Aboriginal community, opposition from Aboriginal leadership, questions regarding jurisdiction in labour relations matters, and the need for different approaches to organizing.

We learned that we had to build a positive image of our union and unions in general and to tailor our materials to the Aboriginal community. From the start, we realized that organizing Aboriginal workers couldn’t be done in the traditional way.

First, organizers themselves should be Aboriginal so they understand the culture and traditions and can establish trust. A more personal approach is required, compared to the traditional strategy of calling a meeting of interested workers. Our Aboriginal organizers spend much time sitting and talking one-on-one with people.

We have also had to adjust our expectations of how an organizing drive should develop. Once, we were organizing a large Aboriginal workplace in Saskatchewan. After many meetings, just as it looked like the workers were about to sign union cards, they told us they had to talk to their elders first. It was frustrating because we were so close. But we had to respect their process and be patient.

CUPE has discussed different approaches to organizing in Aboriginal communities, such as holding a feast, an activity that involves the whole community and not just potential members. One of our contacts suggested that the idea of forming a union be put to a vote by the whole community. Our organizers have also developed a database and contact list for all the reserves and urban Indian and Métis institutions in Saskatchewan. They have also been making presentations to some of the reserve schools.

These different approaches make us ask, what is the role of the union in the community? Unions such as CUPE subscribe to the idea of social unionism – that unions are not just fighting for bread and butter issues but have a role to play in creating a better society. When we look at the conditions on reserves – high unemployment, substandard housing, tragic suicide rates and poor drinking water – it becomes obvious that the union can play a broader role.

One way CUPE does this is by raising the issue of unsafe water on reserves and challenging the dominant strategy of turning to public private partnerships (P3s). As well, the union tries to educate its members to debunk racial stereotypes and myths about Aboriginal Peoples and seeks to develop broader support for the right to Aboriginal self-government, respect for treaties and so on. We use June 21, National Aboriginal Day, to raise awareness of these concerns.

In our strategy meetings with other Aboriginal CUPE activists and staff from across the country, we spend a lot of time discussing the social and economic conditions in Aboriginal communities. The only solution is to get Aboriginals working and contributing to the tax system rather than living off it.

By Don Moran