The State and Future of CUPE: Equality, Equity & Erasure

By Kimalee Phillip

Equity Officer with CUPE Local 1281 and Ontario Representative on CUPE’s National Women’s Committee

I’m 30. Many of my friends and those within my age group will probably never experience what it’s like to have a full-time, permanent and unionized job, much less a secure job with any semblance of benefits. I keep harping on to my friends the importance of having unionized workplaces.

CUPE Ontario 2015 Convention
CUPE Ontario 2015 Convention

Given the current context of widening economic inequalities and increasing attacks against organized labour, having members lose hope and question the direction of the union needs to be taken seriously.

I’m a trade unionist and my cultural and political upbringing in Grenada demands of me to remain cognizant of the critical importance of workers’ rights, but of also the need to challenge systems of domination and exclusion within organized labour.

It was extremely disappointing to not only witness my labour union regress on practices of equity but to also do so nonchalantly, while dismissing voices of dissent and racialized women.

At CUPE Ontario’s May 2015 Convention in Toronto, a constitutional amendment was passed by ¾ of the convention to remove the only three diversity seats, those for Aboriginal workers, racialized workers and LGBTQ workers, from the executive committee.

At the 2014 convention, CUPE Ontario adopted its action plan that stated that CUPE Ontario will “conduct a formal review of the CUPE Ontario executive structure and its election processes to determine if it meets the needs of our diverse membership, using a fully inclusive and consultative process.”

The result was a unanimous executive board recommendation to remove the three diversity VP seats, two of which had been in existence since the 1990s and were fought for by the racialized and Indigenous membership and allies.

Table Officers vs. Equality Representatives The structure of the CUPE Ontario executive board had comprised of an executive committee (table officers) that included the president, secretary-treasurer, four vice presidents (VPs) - elected by the convention at large - and three diversity VPs elected within their caucuses. Table officers serve as a decision-making sub-committee on CUPE Ontario’s executive board, therefore speaking to the power and responsibilities that they hold. Table officers meet and communicate independently of the full membership of the executive board.  For example, the table officers conduct meetings with CUPE National’s regional director and assistant regional directors, and may be cc’d on email communication between the two full-time CUPE Ontario officers and the national president and national secretary-treasurer. Furthermore, there were five sector representatives, six members at large and one retiree representative.
Why are table officers important? 
The structure of the CUPE Ontario executive board had comprised of an executive committee (table officers) that included the president, secretary-treasurer, four vice presidents (VPs) – elected by the convention at large – and three diversity VPs elected within their caucuses. Table officers serve as a decision-making sub-committee on CUPE Ontario’s executive board, therefore speaking to the power and responsibilities that they hold. Table officers meet and communicate independently of the full membership of the executive board.
For example, the table officers conduct meetings with CUPE National’s regional director and assistant regional directors, and may be cc’d on email communication between the two full-time CUPE Ontario officers and the national president and national secretary-treasurer.

Instead of maintaining three diversity seats as VPs (table officers on the Executive Committee), the recommendation was to establish three new equality representatives for young workers, workers with disabilities and women – these representatives would not be members of the executive committee.

The executive committee membership would thus be reduced from nine to six members – the president, the secretary-treasurer and four vice-presidents – each of whom would be elected by the convention at large.

This is a membership that has, time and time again, rejected resolutions and constitutional amendments to increase the diversity VP seats, and that has most recently voted to remove those seats from the ranks of the table officers.

A Step Backward for Equity 

Many of those who spoke out against the constitutional amendment to remove those seats were patronized, ridiculed and dismissed. It is unclear if all of the equity-seeking committees supported the adoption of this constitutional amendment and what the consultative process looked like.

Those supporting the resolution made claims such as, “this will increase diversity,” and “the title of VP is just a title,” therefore suggesting that the removal of the seats was actually of no consequence. Accordingly, we, the opponents, needed to stop harping on “these [read trivial] issues.” These claims added further insult to injury.

Following the convention, CUPE Ontario put out a media release claiming that “members of Ontario’s largest union took a historic step last week, changing their union’s constitution to ensure broader diversity on its executive board, which will enhance the union’s work against the austerity agenda.”

When the labour union that you are a part of touts of equality, diversity and inclusive leadership, yet staunchly supports such a regressive move, it demands a rigorous interrogation of how equality and equity are being defined and practiced.

Equality of opportunity assumes that we all begin at the same starting point. It assumes similar histories or that the impacts of oppression affect us similarly. Equality of opportunity is a bedrock principle of philosophical liberalism, the governing ideology in Canada. It requires us to pull ourselves up by the bootstrap, even if some of us entered the race of life without one.

Equity or equality of condition or outcome acknowledges the varied ways in which our bodies, spirits and communities are impacted by systems of violence and oppression. Therefore, an equity approach requires different and appropriate level of resources to address those differences. In other words, “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”

Equality is therefore not equity. The removal of those seats was not equality or equity. This move was backward. In the same breath that additional seats were created at the bottom tier of the decision-making scheme, there was an absolute removal of those very equity-seeking vice-presidential seats at the top.

Materials depicting CUPE Ontario's previous executive board structure
Materials depicting CUPE Ontario’s previous executive board structure

This “historic” constitutional amendment removed the guarantee that there would at least be one racialized worker, one Indigenous worker and one LGBTQ* worker among the table officers – positions that were elected from the respective equity-seeking caucuses.

Now with only six table officers, we can only hope that workers from those and other marginalized communities are able to successfully campaign for the positions of vice-presidents, secretary-treasurer and president. This state of affair is not an insurmountable one, but a difficult and resource-intensive endeavour.

Ajamu Nangwaya, a left-wing, equity advocate and African member, beat two white men on the first ballot at the 2008 convention for the position of third vice-president. Ajamu ran a full-fledged campaign with donations from supportive locals and individuals and came to convention with a campaign team, volunteers and professionally done stickers, T-shirts and campaign literature. But equity-seeking members would have to be willing to transgress the unwritten rules on not jumping the queue or wait their turn for senior leadership positions.

A diagram distributed of the new structure proposed to convention delegates
A diagram distributed depicting the new executive structure as proposed to convention delegates

Our union is in trouble

Our union and labour movement is not immune to the colonial and violent histories of Canada. The state of Canada relies on the continued erasure of Indigenous girls, women and peoples, the exploitation of their lands, the assimilation of immigrant and racialized peoples and the disproportionate imprisonment of Black and Indigenous peoples.

According to a study done by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), 50 per cent of status First Nation children in Canada live in poverty as measured by the Low Income Measure. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was formally requested to visit Canada by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA). CEDAW concluded that:

Canada’s ongoing failure to address the extreme violence against Aboriginal women and girls constitutes a “grave violation” of their human rights, thereby violating a number of articles of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, including the obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women; the right to equal protection before the law and to an effective remedy; the obligation on States to combat and eliminate harmful stereotypes; and the right of Aboriginal women to enjoy adequate living conditions on and off reserves.

CEDAW found that Canada’s failure to provide the conditions to realize the economic, social, political and cultural rights of Aboriginal women, “places Aboriginal women at an increased vulnerability, making it more difficult for them to achieve protection against and redress for different forms of violence.”

According to a 2013 report by Howard Sapers, the ombudsman for federal inmates, Black people in Canada make up nearly ten per cent of the 15,000 inmates in Canada’s federal prisons and are more likely than the general inmate population to do time in maximum security and solitary confinement.

As people living on Turtle Island, we currently live in and benefit from these ongoing systems of violence, exploitation and domination. We must remain cautious and alert to the ways in which our actions and inactions help to replicate violence, white supremacy and other forms of oppression within what are supposed to be progressive spaces.

The moment we decide that we have arrived at this false position of non-oppression and inclusivity is the moment we have failed.

Our union is in trouble. At the 2015 CUPE Ontario Convention, there was no attempt to hide or disguise the lack of seriousness and near disdain that our elected representatives felt towards Black women and others who opposed these regressive resolutions, constitutional amendments and discriminatory behaviours.

The arguments used to support the removal of these seats ignored the very real and potentially harmful power dynamics involved within any organization. CUPE Ontario is already a very white and male-dominated union, like many organizations and labour unions in Canada.

Therefore, the decision to take the easy road and recommend changes that will ensure limited future discussions (hence less discomfort and self-reflection) on equity and the executive board was cowardice. Already marginalized communities will now have to work twice as hard (at a minimum) to ensure that they win the “hearts and minds” of the convention floor – how does this guarantee equity?

The Vancouver Declaration

In 2006, members of the African Canadian Caucus within CUPE staged an insurrection on the floor of the National Human Rights Conference to demand transformative change within CUPE National. As a result of their efforts, the Vancouver Declaration was extracted from the national leadership.

CUPE members attending this historic human rights conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Nov. 23–26, 2006, have endorsed the following declaration, hereinafter known as the “Vancouver Declaration.”

The following principles and ideas form the basis for current actions and initiatives, including resolutions to future provincial and service division conventions as well as to the CUPE National convention:

A CUPE human rights course arising from the work of this conference will be developed and made available to all CUPE locals, district councils, provincial and service divisions.  We will encourage all CUPE chartered organizations to offer this course to its members.  A CUPE glossary of terms to assist in our equality education and work shall be established in consultation with the national equality committees and revised on a regular basis.

CUPE will pursue organizing and bargaining strategies that ensure union representation, and improved wages, benefits and pensions for all equality-seeking groups.

All CUPE locals, district councils, provincial and service divisions, and CUPE National will strive to identify and remove systemic barriers to representation of equality-seeking groups on elected executives.

The National President’s December 2006 report will detail progress on the establishment of diversity representation on CUPE National Committees, as a result of the process approved in the 2005 National Convention Strategic Directions policy document.

The National Diversity Vice-Presidents’ action plan shall be updated in consultation with the appropriate National Equality Committees and will continue to be resourced by the National Executive Board.

CUPE locals, provincial and service divisions shall be encouraged to form Aboriginal councils and equality committees.

The work of the CUPE National Global Justice Committee shall include providing recommendations to the National Executive Board on human rights and equality issues internationally including peace in the Middle East, and human rights injustices wherever they occur.

CUPE reaffirms its historical policies of the right to self-determination for Québec and for self-determination and self-government for First Nations.

CUPE National is committed to the pursuit of employment equity in the hiring of staff to ensure that CUPE staff are representative of its diverse membership.

CUPE National is committed to the trainee representative program.

CUPE National will work with its staff unions on negotiated employment equity plans.

CUPE National is committed to educating our staff on equality issues.

 Endorsed by Conference delegates, November 26, 2006.

The members who stridently pushed for the implementation of a principled anti-racist and equity program faced opposition from the national executive board, elements within the rank-and-file membership and even some equity-seeking members who were frightened by a vocal and oppositional form of advocacy.

The equity champions that sought to ensure that this declaration become crystallized faced much pressure, and many were labelled as troublemakers and shit-disturbers. The essence of what these members were fighting for, if implemented, would have removed many of the exclusionary barriers that divide the union’s membership and limit class solidarity.

We are now at a time where we are preparing for another national convention, which is taking place in Vancouver.

What changes are we going to demand? How are we going to act in solidarity with those moved and left at the margins of this labour movement?

We can shift the power dynamics and future of our labour union and we can do so without risking the existence of organized labour – an argument that is sometimes used to quell and silence debate around internal oppression within the union.

If you are involved in your local, district council and/or provincial and national committees, ensure that conversations around equity are taking place. Submit and support resolutions that call for an extensive review of equity, power and oppression with our unions and demand answers and accountability processes to help reverse these changes.

What risks are we willing to take to ensure that we are building the type of inclusive, accountable, class solidaristic, transformative and fighting labour movement that is so badly needed?

Print Friendly

4 thoughts on “The State and Future of CUPE: Equality, Equity & Erasure

  1. I appreciate rankandfile.ca because it allows voice to all of us in our movement. It is a platform I have used in the past and would like to use again in the future. As a very active CUPE Ontario activist I relish in the passionate debate and discourse on our Unions future and our road through equity has been no exception. It’s not a journey that is over and it really never should be. In that light I first want to
    Thank my Sister for her comments and for her obvious passion on the topic. As a fellow young worker and a person with disabilities I appreciate all efforts that have been taken and those that still are being taken to make us a more equitable Union.

    Unfortunately I am on disability leave and was not able to attend the convention but I did follow it closely just as I have the many debates on the topic at conferences and conventions that led to it. Was this a compromise? Absolutely it was. It is, however, one I feel still represents an historic step for our union. We now have representation on our board for all equity seeking groups that currently form caucas. The title and representation on the executive committee is absolutely not inconsequential full stop. However any fight for equity is not short and more work must be done on this which I am confident will happen because I know our activists will ensure it happens.

    In a Union that boasts such passion as that displayed by the author for equity we could not possibly be “in trouble” in my humble opinion we have a generation of activists that will continue to shape our direction and we will continue to move further on this road.

  2. Good article Kimalee. I disagree with you on some key points though. Remove one racialized worker, one Indigenous worker and one LGBTQ* worker and establish three new equality representatives for young workers, workers with disabilities and women non executive members. I think the fact that are three positions removed from the executive is more harmful than who is actually removed or which special interest group. Poverty effects everybody of all races,sexes,and creeds. I don’t think all black people have the same starting point as other black people and all whites don’t have the same starting point either. I think it does more harm than good to have special interest groups in a union. Most unions constitutions speak out against discrimination and involves suuspension or rejection of membership if any body is found discriminating. One time the ILA in the southern states had black locals and white locals. They found they had more collective bargaining power when they joined together for common causes and the racial tensions actually subsided when they worked together. You can read about it in Gilbert Mers book, The ups and downs of a rebel longshoreman,(working the waterfront). Patrick Lenihan would be ashamed of the executive if anybody was being peigon holed in his union CUPE. We hope they practice what they preach when it comes to inclusion?

Add Comment