In Quebec City, CUPE’s Young Workers Working Group was expecting strong support for a resolution setting up a campaign to “involve, inform and reach more young people.” Instead, the debate showed young people in the union don’t all share the same priorities.
One after the other, young members got up and spoke at opposing microphones. The “pro” side: CUPE has to do more to encourage participation among its youngest members. The “con” side: CUPE should instead focus on organizing young workers.
Older members didn’t know which side to support. In the end, the resolution passed, but only narrowly. The co-chair of the Young Workers Group, Candace Rennick, was caught off guard by the intensity of the debate and the fact that young workers were pitted against each other on the convention floor. But in the end, she says, “I’m glad it happened. It showed that young people can bring democracy into the union.”
Rennick and her co-chair, Justin Schmid, acknowledge many young members fall into one of two groups: career-track members like themselves, in locals with memberships that span all ages but tend to be older; and teaching assistants at universities who in many cases are active within CUPE only temporarily and see the union as a stepping stone to broader political fights. “We got a strongly-felt message from TAs that we’re not representing their needs,” acknowledges Rennick. “But we’re going to work with them to make change.”
CUPE’s Young Workers Group was established three years ago, and meets twice a year. Its main focus has been education. The group has created three training programs for young members looking to get active and union leaders who want to do more to involve young members and promote young leaders. They’ve also produced a handbook on reaching out to young workers and a website, www.youngworkers.cupe.ca
Rennick says CUPE is a role model when it comes to including young leaders and creating space for them. “If you take a look at what other unions are doing, CUPE is at the top of the list,” she says. At 25, Rennick is already president of her small local (CUPE 2280 in Peterborough, Ontario, representing workers at Marycrest Home for the Aged) and a regional vice-president on the national executive. Schmid, 30, is the full-time local president of CUPE 374, representing 1,300 municipal workers in Victoria, BC.
Both say they’ve had lots of support and encouragement to get where they are now, but they still face some prejudice because of their youth. “When people first see me, there’s a hesitation,” says Schmid, “but when they start dealing with me, they realize, ‘he knows what he’s talking about.’”
CUPE’s membership is aging and it showed at convention, which was dominated by members in their 40’s and 50’s – many of whom were themselves young CUPE activists and convention delegates 20 years ago. Hiring freezes and cutbacks in the public sector have meant fewer young people are being hired and retiring members often aren’t being replaced. But the young people in Quebec City – though few – made their voices heard on a broad range of issues, especially at the young workers caucus, which drew almost 100.
Adrienne Smith, 26, was one of the most vocal at the meeting, demanding to know why there are few new faces on the national executive board. “They’re not gonna leave, we have to push them out,” she told delegates. Another delegate, James Richardson, 27, of CUPE 23 in Burnaby, BC, backed her up by saying, “We’re not the future of the union, we’re here right now. We’re not just waiting for all of you to retire.”
It’s easy to understand why members like Smith are anxious to make their mark on the union. She’s already the president of CUPE 2278, representing teaching assistants at the University of British Columbia, even though she’s only been a member of the local since fall 2002 and plans to graduate in spring 2004. Unlike the vast majority of CUPE members across Canada, she’s even been through a strike.
Smith thinks that convention delegates focused too much attention on issues like pensions and not enough on recruiting more young people into the labour movement. On the whole, however, she believes her trip to Quebec City was worthwhile. “We got a chance to speak and we were listened to,” she says. “It was also great to sit down with other TA locals and not have to re-invent the wheel.”
The young workers caucus was held late in the convention, which meant young delegates didn’t have a chance to caucus before the divisive vote on the convention floor. Rennick says she’ll recommend an earlier meeting for the next convention. She’s hoping to make other changes to the group, too, like diversifying it (currently it’s all-white) and making it more representative.
But Schmid says that will be difficult until more young people rise within the ranks. “If there are no youth activists at the grassroots level, how can you expect to find them at the provincial and national level,” he asks. He’s hoping to recruit more young leaders through the training programs he’s helped establish. “Education is the priority we should deal with,” he says emphatically.
Schmid, Rennick, Smith and other young leaders within CUPE all seem to agree on one thing – they don’t always agree with each other. But older members aren’t exactly a homogeneous lot, either. The impact of young workers within the union – like the impact of the union as a whole – will depend on the willingness of members to work together for the common good.