CUPE 3903 and the Failure of Top-Down Mobilization

Picket sign with slogan “Strike To Win!” (Photo by author)

As many of you may know, CUPE 3903, the union representing Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants, and Contract Faculty at York University (a union of which I am a member) recently concluded a successful strike. Our month-long strike ran from March 3rd until March 30th, and ended with the ratification of a contract that met virtually all of our major demands.

The strike was a tense and emotional event, and we all went through our share of ups and downs. With the strike over, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to reflect on what I feel were important moments in the months leading up to and during the strike. In particular, I want to discuss some of the divisions that have been present in 3903, and that I believe played an important role in shaping events surrounding the strike.

Although some of the disagreements and debates that have occurred between members on both sides of this divide over the past year have been personal and unproductive, the nature of these divisions are not personal. Rather, what we have are two fundamentally differing visions of how the union should function. On one hand, we have active components of the rank-and-file that believe in, and advocate for, a union that operates from the bottom-up and is driven by its membership. On the other hand, there are those who last year ran in the union’s elections on a slate called “Union Renewal,” and that have served on the executive during the past year, that seem to favour a more top-down approach to union organizing in which the leadership exists not to follow directions from the membership, but to direct them instead.

I want to talk a bit about these competing divisions and some of the ways in which the top-down approach of the slate members of the executive and their supporters (many of which are currently running for the Better Union slate) has manifested itself over the past year. I’ll do this by referring to three events that I feel best reflect their mode of organizing. The first are events that occurred during a December 2014 meeting held to decide on a timeline on the strike vote and potential strike, a meeting that was stacked by the executive in order to ensure that the vote went their way. I will then discuss how the slate-dominated executive’s mode of organizing failed during the strike, allowing membership-driven unionism to prevail and win the strike. Much more could be written about the internal politics of CUPE 3903, but I will leave the rest to be written by someone with a lot more time on their hands.

This analysis is largely based on my own experiences. My hope is that it will make a worthwhile contribution to the post-strike analysis of the events leading up to and during the strike of March 2015. Contributions and/or disagreements are more than welcome!

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No Longer Dependents: Unions, Benefits, and Relationship Recognition

Last week, CBC reported the story of Della Wolf, a BC child whose birth certificate lists three parents: her two mothers and their male friend. The story of Della’s birth certificate made the news because hers was the first birth certificate in British Columbia to list more than two parents, something made possible by the province’s new Family Law Act, which allows up to four parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate.

This news story got me to thinking about something that I came across in my research. In 1990, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) published a series of reports titled Employment Benefits for Lesbian and Gay Workers and Their Families. The reports outlined a number of potential measures that the labour movement could adopt to help with efforts being made by lesbian and gay activists to obtain greater recognition for same-sex relationships. The reports dealt with issues such as bargaining, insurance policies, legal decision, and discrimination. Although they could at times make for some dry reading, some of the arguments made within the reports provide a fascinating insight into a time when the fight for relationship recognition was beginning to heat up.

One particular section in the report about ending discrimination stood out. The section dealt with the manner in which eligibility for benefits was determined by employers and insurance carriers. The report argued that, although the term “dependent” was often used to describe those who could be included on a worker’s benefit plan, actual dependence had very little to do with it. As the report stated, a “dependent” was not defined by actual dependency, but by their relationship with the worker. More specifically, someone was defined as a dependent one if they were a child or spouse of the recipient of a benefits package. In other words, someone could only be a dependent and therefore eligible to access a worker’s workplace benefits, if they were that worker’s child or spouse. The report continued by pointing out an obvious flaw in this manner of determining eligibility, stating that using biological and spousal relationships as the determining criteria did very little to meet the needs of many workers, gay or straight. Rather, it argued, this system was “devised to answer the needs of the traditional, one-income nuclear family.” In other words, it was tailored to meet the needs of a very particular family model, one in which one adult, usually the man, worked outside of the home, while his wife and children (dependents) stayed at home. The system, the report argued, was therefore not designed to meet the needs of a majority of workers, regardless of their sexual orientation, whose families and intimate relationships did not fit this model.

(Our Times, December 1989)

Despite these flaws, CUPE nevertheless admitted that the “most immediately attainable” approach to obtaining recognition of same-sex relationships and expanding benefits to same-sex partners was to simply expand on the current definitions of ‘dependent’ to have them include same-sex partners. Although there was recognition by the report’s authors that the current method of determining eligibility was limited, and that there was a desire to challenge these limits, they nevertheless recognized that doing so would be an uphill battle. The decision to move forward by redefining spouse to include a same-sex partner instead of attempting to challenge the limits inherent in this model of sharing workplace benefits and insurance coverage was therefore a deliberate strategic decision.

What does this have to do with the recent story of Della and her three parents? When I read the story, it reminded me of CUPE’s report and their criticism of the system of eligibility used by employers and insurance carriers, often with the consent of unions, to grant coverage based on criteria rooted in familial relationships.* Despite the advances made in the areas of women’s rights, as well as lesbian and gay rights, many of the benefits outlined in collective agreements still rely on an outdated system of criteria and use language, such as ‘dependent,’ that do not reflect the reality and relationships of an increasing number of people. This is the case with my own employer and union, whose insurance provider continues to define a “dependent” as a spouse or child.

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since CUPE issued the report critiquing this model of granting benefits. With the legal recognition that families often assume different shapes, it would be to the labour movement’s benefit to push for benefits packages and insurance coverage that also reflected this. One way of doing this, as suggested by CUPE’s report, would be to allow workers to designate one or more people as recipients of their coverage, regardless of the nature of their relationship, or what the report referred to as a “designated beneficiary” system.

In addition to allowing the labour movement to provide greater recognition of different relationship and family models, a designated beneficiary system would also provide those who are not married or in a common-law relationship to grant coverage to other members of their communities who may be in need of greater health care. This was something that was brought up by a number of people I interviewed for my research. One interviewee stated that he currently cares for a neighbour dealing with hepatitis C. The interviewee does not have any children, nor is he in married or in a common-law relationship, yet he would like nothing more than to be able to provide his neighbour, with whom he has a close friendship, with the type of coverage that could greatly improve his access to health care. A similar argument was made by another interviewee who stated that his inability to include friends who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in his insurance plan meant that he was unable to help and care for them as much as he otherwise would have liked to.

So, while redefining the definition of ‘dependent’ to include same-sex relationships was a much needed and important step forward in terms of allowing lesbian and gay couples access the same benefits as their straight counterparts, doing so under the same set of criteria that relied on parental or spousal relationships to determine eligibility to employer insurance programs and union benefit packages unfortunately perpetuated the exclusion of certain workers whose relationships did not fit the mold of the nuclear family model. Unions are in a position to lead the charge on this. If the province of British Columbia can recognize that families come in various shapes and sizes, surely organized labour can help workers whose relationship models currently exclude them from accessing and providing the benefits to their own loved ones, however they may be defined.

*Those familial relationships that are recognized by most insurance providers are limited, as parents, siblings, and extended relatives are often excluded from insurance coverage and benefit plans.

Hockey, Homophobia and the Limits of Collective Bargaining

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a big sports fan. I love to watch the occasional game with friends and can get into it when I do watch it, but if I were to name five players from the Ottawa Senators (hometown hockey team), I’d probably include a bunch that have been traded or retired years ago. So, keep in mind that everything I say here is coming from someone who knows very little about the sport.

In the little bit of sports news that I do read, I know that a number of events over the last few years have forced the world of professional sports to address the question of having openly gay players (by professional sports, I’m referring to male leagues which attract much more media attention than do female professional sports leagues). Whether it be as a result of the homophobic rants of former professional basketball players, witty defenses of same-sex marriage from NFL players or professional soccer players coming out publicly, the world of professional sports has had to deal with the question of whether it is ready to have openly gay athletes. Some athletes have come out only after their retirement, but with the exception of Robbie Rogers, there are very few openly gay male professional athletes.

I came across an article recently in which Wade Davis, an openly gay former NFL player, stated that he expects the NHL to be the first league to have an openly gay player. While Robbie Rogers’ decision to come out last week put an end to the NHL’s chance to be the first league, Davis’ argument makes sense. As the article points out, the NHL has been very active in their efforts to promote gay rights in professional sports. Former Toronto Maple Leafs’ General Manager Brian Burke’s and his son Patrick have spearheaded this effort through the You Can Play Project, a campaign encouraging athletes to create environments respectful of all players regardless of their sexual orientation. These sorts of efforts to promote respect and equality among players are to be commended and, I believe, could go a long way. However, despite Wade Davis’ prediction, the NHL has yet to have a single openly gay player.

Brian Burke in the 2011 Toronto Pride Parade (photo credit: Ping Foo)

Brian Burke in the 2011 Toronto Pride Parade (photo credit: Ping Foo)

While I can’t view this issue through the eyes of a sports fan, I do look at it through the eyes of a union member and an historian of gay and lesbian rights in the workplace. Being a professional hockey player is a career. For professional hockey players, the arena and the locker room are workplaces. Like many other workers, NHL players have a union and a collective agreement. One day, out of curiosity, I decided to look up a copy of the agreement between the NHL and the players’ association, the NHLPA (the most recent contract doesn’t seem to be available online). Like many other unions, the NHLPA’s contract includes a clause protecting its members from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While human rights legislation in Canada has made these sorts of clauses standard, this was not always the case. In Ontario, gay and lesbian union members began to push for the inclusion of anti-discrimination language into their collective agreements in the early 1970s. They did so in large part because, at that time, gay and lesbian workers were frequently harassed and dismissed from their jobs solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. They hoped that providing lesbian and gay workers with legal protection from discrimination would encourage more of them to come out of the closet.

While the presence of an anti-discrimination clause in the NHLPA’s collective agreement demonstrates the extent to which gay and lesbian union members were successful, the fact that the NHL has yet to have a single openly gay player despite the existence of this clause demonstrates just how limited of a victory this was. Although the players are all legally protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, not one single player has come out. The reason for this is simple: these clauses protect workers (or in this case, players) from discrimination at the hands of their employers, but do very little to protect gay and lesbian workers from homophobic co-workers (or in this case, teammates). While collective agreements can provide workers from their employers, they do very little to address problematic workplace cultures. This is likely one of the main reasons that some workplaces, including professional sports leagues, have so few openly gay workers.

The further along I get in my research, the clearer this point becomes. Collective agreements don’t change workplace cultures, and workplace cultures don’t change overnight. This is why I would argue that, in a profession that seems to be behind the times in terms of inclusion of queer workers, efforts such as the You Can Play Project seem to be a step in the right direction. Although they are often initiatives of straight allies in the sports world (a fact that perhaps speaks to the importance of their work), they are nevertheless carrying the fight into areas beyond the reach of anti-discrimination clauses.