Solidarity in Action? COPE 225 vs. Canadian Association of University Teachers

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COPE Local 225 members on the picket line

By Aalya Ahmad, co-president of CUPE Local 1979

Workers at unions are strangely situated in the labour movement. On the one hand, many are in the enviable position of being paid to be union activists working full-time to broadly advance the interests of union members and, by extension, all workers. Because they work for unions, staffers often enjoy good pay, benefits and working conditions compared to other workers, including the rank-and-file members whom they serve.

At the same time, staff locals create certain dilemmas, both for the unions that employ them and the unions that represent them. Elected officials have trouble with being simultaneously union activists and management, while business unionists may be threatened by collectives of social justice activists. In B.C., Unifor recently revoked the charter of local 467, a conglomerate of union and non-profit staffers, claiming that 467’s “interests and loyalties” were “not compatible” with those of other Unifor members.

In fact, fraternization of the staff with rank-and-file members is often heavily frowned upon and the involvement of staffers in the union’s struggles beyond offering mere technical assistance is seen as unconscionable meddling and even a sign of corruption.

As with other progressive and social justice organizations, the unwritten expectation exists that union staff will identify themselves with their employer, devote themselves tirelessly to “the cause” and make considerable sacrifices, working around the clock, if needs be, during “crunch times” such as organizing drives, rounds of negotiations and strikes. Staff will often unreservedly make these identification and sacrifices; they will also tend to be very reluctant to call out workplace abuses for fear of exposing rifts and vulnerabilities within the labour movement. It’s a sad day, therefore, when these workers are taken for granted and mistreated by the organizations that employ them.

In Ottawa, members of COPE Local 225, staff at the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) have begun to walk picket lines in response to management demands for cutbacks on their serious illness family leave as well as cutbacks on their provision for lieu time after working longer-than-usual hours. It is hard to fathom why such petty concessions are urgently required of the CAUT’s tiny staff. As “the national voice” for 70,000 academic staff, the CAUT arguably comprises some of the most elite and well-compensated workers in the country (that is, if you don’t count precarious contract/sessional instructors). But, counting perhaps on the insularity of faculty members in contemporary corporate post-secondary institutions, CAUT doubled down on its demands, even postponing an equity conference scheduled for late February rather than accept COPE’s offer of mediation-arbitration.

Instead, management reached into the toilet bowl and scooped out a dirty, dripping tactic to try to break the union. A “partial lockout” has been imposed on COPE members, cutting the wages of individual union members in a random and arbitrary fashion. For example, one staffer has been cut back to 80% of their wages while yet another might not see any cuts at all. Significantly, women COPE members have experienced the worst of this sleazy maneuver; the person responsible for CAUT’s equity program, for example, has suffered a 50% wage cut.

It’s obviously appalling that such a stratagem would be employed by an organization that says it “fights for fair working conditions, compensation and benefits” for its own members. But the tactic has only hardened Local 225’s resolve to stay firm in the face of employer provocations.

As a rebuff to the divide-and-conquer tactic of cutting their pay in different proportions, workers have pooled their remaining wages so that each one is getting an equal pay cut (approximately 22% less) as a result of CAUT’s “lockout.” This is a shining example of solidarity that deserves to be more widely known and fully supported.

In these times, no union member, regardless of where they work, can afford to race another union member to the bottom or stand by while another workers’ organization treats its own employees so shabbily.

It is often said that the labour movement is a family but if that is the case, we must not ignore the reality that families can also be sites of hidden abuse. If we do not address our “sisters and brothers” behaving like bad bosses, how can the house of labour retain the ability to challenge employer attacks? When we are extracting concessions from our own workers, how can we claim to be defending workers’ rights?

To support COPE Local 225 members, please visit their website at www.cope225caut.ca, send a letter of support, and donate to their strike fund if you’re in a position to do so.

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