A few years ago, disability rights activist and CUPE 1936 member Sheryl Burns convinced her local executive to advocate for an improvement in benefits coverage for hearing aids. The cost was minimal, and it only benefited a small number of people, but the impact for them was invaluable. Burns considers this small victory one of her most important ones.

But Burns, who is hard of hearing, knows it would never have happened if she hadn’t been on the bargaining committee. “It’s disturbing because there aren’t always people with disabilities at bargaining tables. And if there is, there is only one,” she remarked during a panel called ‘Putting equity at the forefront’ at CUPE’s Women’s Conference.

“It’s not always easy to get equity concerns put on the forefront in bargaining — or to keep them there when the pressure mounts at the table,” said Gina McKay, Regional Vice-President for Manitoba and president of CUPE Manitoba, as she opened the discussion.

“But as trade unionists, we know that if any worker is unsafe, we all are unsafe. To stand up against right-wing threats, austerity and cuts, we need a union that fights for everyone. And this means changing our structures and using our collective power to break down barriers for equity-deserving groups,” said McKay.

At the Vancouver General Hospital, Hospital Employees’ Union member Lisa Kreut and her co-workers succeeded at getting trans-inclusive language in their collective agreement. The language forbids behaviours such as deadnaming and includes an eight-week leave for gender affirming surgery. Just like the hearing aids, the new clauses are extremely important for a very small number of members.

HEU won this fight because they were very well prepared, and because the bargaining team and membership were primed for it. “We did years of consultation,” said Kreut. “As soon as you get your agreement, go back into bargaining!” she advised, because the work is never finished.

As the only Black and woman with a disability in her workplace, CUPE 2000 member Nadia Aristyl quickly learned that she had to speak her truth and tell others what she needed to do her work and participate in her community. Now, she is a leader, advocating for the inclusion of other equity-deserving members. Last fall, she got her local executive to adopt a resolution to promote Indigenous women at Hydro-Québec.

Social services worker and CUPE 2191 member Juanita Forde spoke about the discrimination experienced by Black women in her workplace, who faced higher levels of discipline and termination compared to their white colleagues. Juanita explained her work as an advocate on a joint anti-racism team with her employer, and the positive impacts of speaking truth to power.

Victories like this are uplifting, but they do not tell the whole story. In fact, all panelists spoke eloquently about the constant challenges they face as union leaders from equity-deserving groups.

Lindsay Poll, an Indigenous activist who works as a WestJet flight attendant, talked about the discrimination she experienced at work. She was told to wear high heels, to arrange her hair in a certain way, and to avoid facial markings which are a symbol of her heritage and teachings. “I didn’t listen because I dance to my own drum,” said Poll, who is a member of CUPE 4070.

But resisting is a daily struggle, and as Burns said, “We can’t let go. It’s not about us … it’s about paving the way for other activists to participate.” The hill is particularly steep for persons with disabilities who are so often forgotten, even when we speak about inclusion. “We are invisible. We are oppressed. We are not even being seen,” she said.