Aline Patcheva | CUPE Staff

Candace Rennick was elected as CUPE’s ninth National Secretary-Treasurer at National Convention in November 2021. The first woman in 20 years to hold the position, she is a dedicated leader who joined our union at a young age and learned how to harness the power of collective bargaining and collective action to make real gains for workers.

A member of CUPE since she began working at a Peterborough long-term care home at 16, Candace Rennick became involved in her union early and was elected president of CUPE 2280 at the age of 22. She became a leading champion for seniors and workers in Ontario’s long-term care sector. She has spent her entire working life fighting to make life better for CUPE members.

After serving four terms as a vice-president on the CUPE Ontario Executive Board, she was elected Secretary-Treasurer of CUPE Ontario in 2010, the first woman to hold the position. She has always said that “workers never win anything without a fight.” In this interview, we heard more about why she is excited about her new role and the victories to come.

Question 1

What significance do you attach to being the first woman in 20 years to serve as CUPE’s National Secretary-Treasurer?

I have worked for decades to make our union leadership representative of the full diversity of CUPE’s membership, and that includes electing women at every level of our organization. It is very significant that a woman now holds one of CUPE’s two national officer positions, but what is more important is that I not be last.

Members who identify as women generally have a very different lived experience. We are likely to be paid low wages, to have inadequate benefits, no pension, and therefore very little economic security. Many of us have experienced violence and harassment. And as a feminist woman leader, I understand that not all women experience discrimination in the same way. This is why it is so important to ensure that diverse voices are represented at all levels of our union.

Question 2

You served for 11 years as Secretary-Treasurer of CUPE Ontario. So far, what is different about holding the National Secretary-Treasurer position?

Obviously, the size and scope of our national operations are much larger, but fundamentally, my approach is not different than the approach I took to my former position. I am guided by the same principles and beliefs, and by the knowledge that every dollar we spend as a union is money that belongs to members, coming from their hard-earned paychecks. Every dollar must be used to improve the working conditions and enhance the quality of life of our members, and strengthen the services they provide.

I want to continue doing this work to achieve equity and justice, support members’ campaigns and initiatives, enhance our membership capacity and make the changes necessary to ensure our union spaces are safe for all.

Question 3

How do you think your leadership has paved the way for other women who want to follow in your footsteps?

Research shows our lived experience shapes how we view and practice leadership. Every CUPE woman has multiple identities. I am a white woman, and though I share some things in common with Black or racialized or Indigenous women, I have privilege that they don’t have.

I can bring to my position my own feminist perspective, and my own lived experience, but more important, I can make sure that the voices and experiences of other women are heard and understood.

There’s a huge increase in the number of Canadian women in the paid labour force. Women now have greater economic independence and security. Women outnumber men in trade unions, and here at CUPE, two thirds of our members are women. But if you go into any long-term care or child care facility, you will see women, many racialized, doing the lowest paid yet most difficult work.

So, yes, it is significant that I am a woman, but more significant is that I want to find ways to involve others and work collaboratively with diverse voices and views. Because one person alone can’t bring about meaningful change.

In that respect, probably the most important leadership change that came from our last national convention was that we now have a National Executive Board and a National Executive Committee that include so many more women, with diverse identities. I am excited to be joined by so many amazing women on the NEB who will absolutely contribute to make progressive things happen for women and for all members. Thinking big and being bold together is the only way to move forward.

Question 4

You have been working alongside all the women members of CUPE’s NEB in the Safe Union Spaces Working Group. What is the group’s mission?

The Safe Union Spaces Working Group was established a year ago to investigate issues of sexual and gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination at CUPE. It is yet another initiative related to employment equity and making our union stronger and safer.

We conducted research, identified gaps where we need changes, and heard from members at focus groups and listening sessions. Now, we need an all-out concerted effort by CUPE members and staff to make all forms of violence and harassment unacceptable.

Everyone should read our first report presented at our National Convention, because solving the problem can’t be left to our national women leaders alone. Solving the problem requires all of us in CUPE to understand the issue, believe that it is real, and take action to address it. We must have the courage to examine and change the deeply rooted culture that permits and perpetuates this discrimination and harassment.

“As your new National Secretary-Treasurer, as an activist, and as a feminist, I am determined to do my part to make real, lasting change for women in our union, and for all workers,” said Candace Rennick at CUPE Ontario’s Women’s Conference.

Question 5

What are your top priorities as National Secretary-Treasurer and what do you hope to accomplish in the coming months?

I want to increase our union’s organizational capacity to make real wage gains for our members, to get good pensions for those who have none, and to address the disrespect that employers and governments show for us. Using all our union’s resources to meet the immediate needs of our members, and to plan for future needs, is crucial.

Right now, CUPE members, like all workers, are struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of so many long-standing issues that undermine health and safety, employment security, proper compensation, work-life balance, and much more.

Women are over-represented in the occupations and sectors hardest hit by the shutdowns and closures, and many women lost their jobs. Women continue to be held primarily responsible for children and other family members. So, mothers with young children were forced out of the paid labour force in much greater numbers than fathers – a matter of economics for families. Women were also more vulnerable to infection, sickness, and death. It makes me sad and also angry.

We need to find new ways to address the economic, social and political system failures that made the impact of the pandemic so severe, especially for the most vulnerable in our union and in our communities.

The pandemic confirmed so much of what is wrong in our country. A lot could have been prevented if we didn’t have so much inequity, if women had better jobs, better protections, and if our health system and social supports were what they should be.

Our union has been doing a really good job helping members get through the public health crisis. But an immediate priority for me is figuring out what more our national union can do to get through these very rough times.

Question 6

Last December, the NEB approved CUPE’s budget for 2022. How will CUPE’s finances continue to build our union and our movement?

CUPE’s finances will always be my primary focus as Secretary-Treasurer, making sure that I account for every dollar that comes in and goes out. But I view that part of my job very broadly — I wasn’t elected to be a bean counter. I want to make sure that all our resources, everything we spend money on, and all our assets are used strategically to advance the interests of our membership.

The only way we can make lasting gains is to be and act like a powerful, united, activist union —a union in which members are actively involved, a union that has what it takes to constantly move forward, never backward.

So, my focus on finances will include working with all the other leaders in CUPE — local union executives, division and sector leaders, the National Executive Board — and with CUPE’s staff, in order to find the best ways to engage members, and to do union work well.

I am also responsible for CUPE’s large Defence Fund and Strike Fund, and we will continue to use these powerful tools to support our members.

We need to bolster our campaign and political work, strengthen our coalitions with others, and make sure our union reflects the full diversity of CUPE’s membership and our communities, so that we can make big strides toward economic, social, and racial justice, real gender equity, and meaningful truth and reconciliation.

We’ve made progress for sure, but we still have work to do, including with respect to our own recruitment and hiring. We also need to push employers into implementing more equity and representative workforce programs.

Too many members, but mainly women, Black, racialized and Indigenous women in particular, don’t have access to pension and benefit coverage, or a decent wage. We must prioritize resources to securing decent wage increases, pension coverage and benefits for all members.

All these steps will make our union an organization where everybody – leaders, activists and members – act in ways that are welcoming of all members, and in ways that actively support equity and inclusion.