The following article appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Action Speaks Louder — published biannually by OPIRG Toronto.
By Ellie Ade Kur
At the 2015 CUPE National convention in Vancouver, a resolution hit the floor to expand our union’s National Executive Board by four seats reserved for diversity reps from equity-seeking caucuses. From our section in the back we watched dozens of people rise, speaking at con mics: “people need to earn these positions”, “if more minorities wanted to be on the executive board, they’d run”, and, my favorite cringe-worthy moment, “talking about our differences breaks our solidarity.” The motion was defeated to thunderous applause, and immediately after the convention hall (3,000 members strong) was coached through the song Solidarity Forever by CUPE’s in-house band.
This is one of my most vivid memories of union organizing–my first national convention and a staggering moment of defeat for the progressive trade-unionists running the campaign for better representation on our National Executive Board. In many ways this loss reflects some of the most pressing blind spots in CUPE organizing to date – the idea that issues of equity, inclusion and social justice are second to labour management models of unionism.
My name is Ellie Ade Kur. I’m a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Toronto (UofT). I served on 3902’s Executive Committee following the Unit 1 strike in March of 2015 and resigned 8 months into my term because of rampant issues of anti-Black racism, bigotry and harassment. I was controversial in my role because I was adamant about what I like to call ‘unapologetic transparency’, where executive members and those privy to information from the employer allow members to access, critique and shape responses and organizing efforts. I believe in collaborative organizing that is accessible and driven by the will of those most heavily impacted, emphasizing participation from equity-seeking groups at UofT. And for these reasons I have been the subject of ongoing threats and harassment in my union. We need to talk about anti-Black racism, social justice and equity work in union spaces.
Who is Prioritized in Union Organizing?
Thinking about issues of equity and social justice typically comes second to imposing this labour management model of trade-unionism, which demands Union staff and executives act as middle-men between rank and file members and the employer. When union executives decide that it is their job to act as middle-men between rank and file membership and the employer, they often commit themselves to a position that asks membership to capitulate to the demands of the University for the sake of incremental gains. This labour management model of unionism also requires executive committee members to maintain strong, friendly relationships with those working for labour relations. It wasn’t uncommon for my colleagues to talk about shifting their gaze away from things like direct action, protesting and member-based organizing. “If I have to sit across from Labour Relations, I can’t be rude,” was a common line and excuse used to justify inaction. It’s also not uncommon from executive members to become so wrapped up in maintaining these relationships with the employer that they forget about the demands and interests of their members.
Detached from these perspectives are the views and experiences of seasoned organizers in Union spaces who, more often than not, come from marginalized communities: queer, racialized, sex-working students and academic workers. Because unions don’t typically champion the politics and perspectives of the most marginalized, we see a lack of education and awareness in these spaces when it comes to pressing political concerns around issues of anti-Black racism, anti-poverty organizing, policing, status, related social movements. In CUPE 3902, we still struggle to connect Black Lives Matter and anti-racism work to union development when Black women and racialized members are threatened, harassed and disrespected by those who think anti-racism work is a distraction from the goals of the union. In CUPE 3902, issues of sexual violence during the Unit 1 strike went unreported and unresolved when union reps and strike coordinators told those disclosing to “focus on the goals of the strike.” Equity work and fighting inequality are seen as something secondary to this labour management model of union operations and a rigid focus on building a relationship with the employer. The reality is: if you can’t walk into a union space and feel safe, secure and heard, these elusive ‘goals of the strike’ or ‘goals of the union’ aren’t built around you and your needs. In this way, the most marginalized communities on our campus are overlooked and pushed out because they aren’t being heard, especially when they report sexual violence, threats, harassment, anti-Black racism, etc.
When labour movements are disconnected from the realities of their most marginalized members, they are disconnected from the roots, realities, and motivations of their most powerful, resilient and creative organizers. Considerations of social justice, equity and inclusion are the foundation of a strong labour movement and strong organizing. Thinking about equity and inclusion in the context of bargaining and negotiations means collective agreements do not allow particularly vulnerable groups to slip through the cracks, for example, securing strong health coverage for academic workers and their families and minimum funding packages at (ideally above!) the poverty line. Equity audits and bargaining built on inclusion point to agreements prioritizing workers from equity seeking groups, in settings where they excel: small classrooms, tutorials, appropriate compensation and strong support networks.
Organizing with Solidarity in Mind
In the 2015 Unit 1 strike, organizing with solidarity in mind would have looked like the explicit mention of undergraduates and faculty at the University in ways that weren’t tangentially connected to benefits for communities outside of the union: smaller classes and tutorials, more time allocated to students and grading on Description of Duties and Allocation of Hours (DDAH) forms, reducing tuition fees, and a commitment from the University of Toronto to pay everyone at or above the poverty line. If CUPE were interested in building long-standing networks with students, faculty and staff at the University, our goal would have been consultation, collective negotiation and collaboration with student unions and faculty organizations on campus.
In the aftermath of the Unit 1 strike, many of our members felt demobilized and disheartened. My role on the executive was to connect with other student and labour organizations on campus, coordinate member-driven organizing initiatives, and mobilize our communities through social and political forms of action. It isn’t possible to touch on themes of political action and exploitation without thinking about marginalization, social justice and critical equity work within the union. That requires us to shift our understanding of equity, inclusion and social justice work in CUPE 3902. These are the foundation of strong movements. With this in mind, I organized rallies, protests, events, workshops, and information sessions to mobilize members, start conversations about political action and the labour movement and force UofT’s Governing Council to respond. I worked to repair tense relationships between our union and student organizations on campus feeling tokenized following the strike; revive political energy and action with other locals on campus; and connect our struggles with the University to broader issues of corporatization at UofT with progressive faculty organizers on campus.
I resigned from my role on the executive committee because of rampant issues of anti-Black racism and bigotry. I resigned after widespread threats from members of our Union promising to find me, ‘teach me a lesson’ and silence my views on critical equity and social justice work as they were distracting from ‘the work of the union’. These messages came at me from every direction: on campus, online, calls, texts, emails, etc. For eight months I was the only member of the executive committee structuring their role around meeting and organizing with rank and file members of the Union and using the language of liberation to structure our work. For eight months I subjected myself to threatening emails, text messages and calls, while organizing members to engage in union politics. I organize using methods that embrace collective action. I believe that rank and file members are the ones who hold the key to the knowledge and strategies to help us move forward. And I believe that once you are elected to do this kind of work, you are indebted to the membership.
When leaders don’t bother to invest in organizing or outreach, and actively shame people doing mobilizing work, they are scared of their members and the power of a strong, informed, organized union base. Members hold power: the power to elect officials, shape policy, bargaining practices and demands, as well as the power of oversight. When members are allowed to access the same information as executive committees, they are better able to hold leadership accountable. In the context of CUPE 3902, a union whose executive is largely comprised of the same faces changing positions from year-to-year, these executive roles are coveted. Elected leaders do not want members, particularly active, critical and politicized members to participate in these spaces. Political action, direct action, member-engaged organizing strategies- all of these things work to shift power and authority off of executive members and onto the membership. That kind of accountability terrifies executive members I’ve worked with, because it would force them to get political and get organizing. It would highlight their inappropriate use of union funds and resources: paying each other out in honorariums, using union funds to buy each other gifts, double salaries, hire friends, and secure jobs at the University or within larger divisions of CUPE.
The labour movement isn’t anyone’s playground for a better job opportunity – it’s a political struggle for workers rights that has the power to better the lives of some of our most vulnerable communities. When our leadership actively works against member-driven organizing, or against pushes for critical equity work, they silence the voices, concerns and demands of those with the most to lose. A friendly relationship with senior admin at the University is not more valuable than an engaged membership ready to organize with other student and labour groups on campus. It is not the job of executive officers to ‘sell’ anything to their members: executive officers work for us. They are elected to do carry out the will of the membership and need to be held accountable for abusing power, withholding information, and demobilizing communities.
When unions like CUPE 3902 replicate the same hierarchical (and exclusionary) forms of top-down leadership that the University relies on, prioritizing relationships with senior admin over the struggles of members living in poverty, we have a problem. When there is no emphasis on union development, training organizers, creating support systems and political action groups to challenge and improve on how we function as a union, there is no growth. These practices exclude the most marginalized members – poor, working-class, BIPOC/racialized members, new immigrants, single parents and families with dependents, workers with disabilities and members disproportionately exposed to harassment and intimidation. When unions like CUPE 3902 shut these voices out of the process, we get creative in our organizing. In order to survive we rely on creative forms of action that the apolitical cannot replicate: grounded forms of member-engagement, public education and political action. These are not easy forms of organizing. These methods lead to a lot of uncomfortable conversations and require patience, unlearning and a dedication to building spaces for as many members as is possible. Often we need to break our solidarity down to build it properly.