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Meeting trade unionists from five West African countries was an eye-opening experience for Joanna Mason.

The activists were in Nigeria this summer for a workshop on human rights and the trade union movement. When they looked at the workshop title, Mason says their response was, ” ‘Well, what’s the difference?’ They saw right away that the two are inseparable.”

Sister Mason, a Winnipeg library worker and CUPE 500 member, was participating in the workshop through her position as a vice president of the Canadian Labour Congress, representing workers of colour.

“Trade unionism is about human rights - and human rights not just for some, but for all,” she says.

That’s the attitude she and other CUPE activists are working to promote within the union. “In Canada, we tend to put discrimination and racism on the side, and separate them out for a committee to deal with.”

She’s spent the last decade working with CUPE members to get equality issues off the sidelines and front

and centre in the union. She says CUPE members are well placed to make a real difference - in their workplaces, in their union and in the community.

“Now more than ever, employers are using racism and discrimination to divide workers and undermine

unions,” she says.

In her workplace, cleaning positions are being contracted out as unionized workers retire.

“The contract workers are mainly people of colour being paid minimum wage with few benefits and no union protection,” she says. “It’s hard for them to get work in other places so they take the job.”

Organizing these workers back into the union is a top priority for Mason. “If we don’t do anything to help these people, we’ll see more of our positions contracted out. The union loses out, we all lose out.”

Her employer’s strategy is not uncommon. Take the lowest-status jobs, strip the jobs to the bare minimum wages and benefits, give them to people already marginalized in the workforce, then sit back and assume no one will care. That’s not the case in Local 500. Mason says her local is now looking beyond just protecting existing cleaners’ jobs until they retire, and is looking at how to unionize the contract workers.

CUPE’s diverse membership means any issue has to be approached from many angles at once,” says Mason.

For example, workers of colour and Aboriginal workers are often the last hired into a workplace. That means “when you look at contracting out, amalgamation and downsizing, we’re often the first to go,” says Marie Clarke Walker, a Toronto education assistant and member of CUPE 4400.

“We’re getting hit every which way,” says Walker, who represents members of colour on the CUPE Ontario Executive Board. She says members of colour and Aboriginal members often hold precarious positions to begin with, and so are most vulnerable when employers look to cut.

Members working for change

There’s a growing network of CUPE members working for change on the job and in the union. That network includes three strong and active equity committees at the national level: the Rainbow Committee, co-chaired by Mason, representing members of colour and Aboriginal members; the Pink Triangle Committee representing lesbian and gay members and the Women’s Committee.

“Together, these committees have many projects on the go. And their hard work is making a difference - slowly, but surely,” says Fred Loft.

“Within CUPE I’ve seen a change in terms of the staff. We have more staff who are people of colour and Aboriginal people,” says Loft, who co-chairs the Rainbow Committee. An outside municipal worker in Hamilton and president of CUPE 5, Loft says the union’s come a long way in the 18 years he’s been a member - and the journey’s not done yet.

“When I first joined CUPE and went to a convention, I looked around convention floor and didn’t see any other Aboriginal people… And I knew something was wrong, because those people are out there,” says Loft.

Involving those CUPE members - and other members who don’t usually participate - is key to building CUPE’s strength, says Loft. “When we work together, we can move mountains.”

Standing up for each other is a key message in all of CUPE’s equity work. Because discrimination is a union issue. Employers and governments love to see union members that are divided and afraid of one another.

“It’s the oldest game in the book - divide and conquer,” says Pink Triangle Committee co-chair François Bellemare. He says it’s hard to defend members against contracting out, concessions and privatization when they don’t stand together in solidarity. It’s also about setting the standard for our bosses.

“We have to give a good example to our employers. If we want to end discrimination in our workplace, we have to end it within our unions,” says Bellemare, a Montréal-based flight attendant with Canadian Airlines.

“We can’t try and change what’s happening outside unless we’re also looking at what’s happening within our union and change it,” agrees Walker.

Representing and involving members is key to any CUPE fightback or organizing campaign. It’s also vital for CUPE’s decision-making structures. Because our union is that much stronger when every member takes part.

That’s why equity committee members are looking forward to National Convention. A National Executive Board-sponsored constitutional resolution proposes to add two diversity vice-president positions to the NEB.

Building CUPE’s strength

“It’s great,” says Mason. “Having these two positions will be another avenue for the work to be done. It won’t be the end of the road, but it will be an important step.”

From an organizing perspective, it will make a big difference, she says. “If a worker sees that this decision-making body includes and reflects them, they will feel much more a part of the union.”

Adding new voices at the table will keep diversity issues at the top of the agenda, says Bellemare. When his local was fighting for benefits for same-sex couples, having someone who was in a same-sex relationship on the bargaining committee “meant the issues moved forward much more quickly,” he says. And in the end, they won their fight.

Just as regions have representation, so too should members of colour and Aboriginal members - because they know their issues better than anyone else.

“It will still be a democratic process at the NEB,” says Walker, who is enjoying her work with the Ontario executive board. “Having members that speak for us on the board will contribute to the debates that end up forming decisions. And that’s so important.”

All three equity committees are working together, mobilizing members to support the resolution at convention. “It’s beautiful to see us all together focused on this one goal,” says Loft.

The NEB resolution follows the lead of members in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, all of whom have voted recently to include diversity positions on their division executives.

Sister Mason hopes that including members of colour and Aboriginal members will spark a healthy debate

within CUPE - a debate that will make the union stronger.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of talking about racism and discrimination, because it impacts on all of us,” she says. “If we can talk about it openly, then we can take the next step which is building a true culture of solidarity. That’s what this union is all about.”

Karin Jordan