CUPE Ontario Convention Report Back: May 27-31
By Grant MacNeil, convention delegate and president of CUPE local 4600
At this year’s CUPE Ontario Convention, held in Windsor, the messages delivered from the union’s leadership were fairly homogenous: things are bad, but they are getting better, and we need to do more to make Canada better for workers. Yet with the provincial election rolling on, this year’s convention showcased a heated debate around the important question of how to move forward when labour’s traditional political allies have been weakening in allegiance.
CUPE’s dicey relationship with the NDP and the call for a workers’ party
With the Ontario election called for June 12, the threat Hudak poses to workers in the province would prove to be a theme throughout convention. And while there was a general consensus on the need to “stop Hudak,” there was no cohesive vision on how to move forward as a movement.
Some speakers openly supported the NDP, including Henri Giroux, an executive board member and NDP candidate for Nippissing. Some delegates felt that, despite the shortcomings of the party, we should continue to support them, with hope for change after the election.
Others were openly critical of the party, such as Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) President Sid Ryan, and many suggested strategic voting as a way to ensure the election of a labour-friendly government.
Speeches delivered by the leadership of CUPE Ontario and CUPE National, Unifor and the OFL expressed an urgency to organize around the current election: there are only two weeks left to campaign against Hudak, and we have to do everything we can to fight back!
I was a bit surprised that, despite the fact that so much of the leadership insisted on the stakes being so high, talk of coordinated efforts was coming so late.
There was significant debate about the new exclusion of the NDP from the annual CUPE Ontario Action Plan, the living document presented to the membership that directs the union through the upcoming year. In previous years, the NDP had been included specifically as the party supported by CUPE Ontario.
Other delegates expressed frustration with the lack of a good alternative to Hudak, seemingly confused about how to move forward in the electoral arena.
The draft plan excluded such affirmative support for the NDP, and many delegates took to the mic to argue in favor of putting the NDP back in the plan. Other delegates expressed frustration with the lack of a good alternative to Hudak, seemingly confused about how to move forward in the electoral arena. Ultimately, the NDP were left out of the plan, favouring language for an unnamed “labour friendly party.”
The final action plan incorporated a few notable ideas proposed from the floor by rank-and-file members. It included language around working to establish a new independent workers’ party, but also contained a directive to take back the NDP. While this left some delegates confused as to how both goals could be pursued simultaneously, the plan reflects some of the differing strategic viewpoints spewing across the union.
Delegates raise $45,000 for striking CUPE 4616
There was a huge outpouring of support for striking local CUPE 4616. More than $45,000 was raised from convention delegates on the floor through personal and union donations. The amount was then matched by CUPE National. The newly affiliated, 16-member local has been on strike for more than 300 days. Their employer, the township of Bonfield, has threatened to contract out municipal services, and has sought wage concessions.
Growth through absorption
Considering the amount of discussion from the leadership about expanding the strength and reach of the organization, such goals did not seem to be materializing on the ground.
Secretary Treasurer Candace Rennick noted in her report that the only expansion of the organization came in the form of existing locals taking on the CUPE banner, with no new workplaces organized and affiliating. Considering the amount of discussion from the leadership about expanding the strength and reach of the organization, such goals did not seem to be materializing on the ground.
Both Rennick and CUPE National Secretary Treasurer Charles Fleury suggested that the lack of success in gains for labour is not a lack of resources but a lack of boldness and ability to mobilize members. Despite such talk around member mobilization, there were no plans proposed in the budget to hire organizers or address these issues at the provincial level.
The second day of the convention began with the elections of the president and secretary treasurer. Both incumbents were uncontested, returning Fred Hahn and Candace Rennick to their positions. While the senior leadership remains firmly in incumbent hands, there were several contested elections for some of the numbered vice-president positions and a member-at-large position.
Equity-based amendments see resistance
Several of the equity-seeking caucus members of CUPE put forward a motion to add three new diversity vice-president positions onto the CUPE-O executive board. A group of rank-and-file members formed a group called “Equity in CUPE,” and lobbied for the constitutional amendment.
Opposing voices suggested that there were logistical problems with having more vice-presidents, or that the vice-presidents currently sitting could represent everyone. Proponents suggested that such arguments do not acknowledge the structural barriers to participation in the organisation’s leadership.
The amendment was defeated, but those that put it forward made it clear that they would return next year to launch the same battle. And despite the disparaging and paternalistic remarks at the mic in opposition to the amendment, the ongoing persistence of Equity in CUPE is making gains, despite a defeated vote.
An additional amendment calling for the creation of a vice-president representing Northern Ontarian workers was also defeated, although marginally. After a standing count, the motion secured 63 per cent of the vote, falling short of the 2/3 majority required for a constitutional amendment. The near victory indicates that the overall resistance to creating new diversity positions may not necessarily stem from logistical concerns alone.
Where do we go from here?
Despite some of its shortcomings, the convention was, overall, a positive experience for me as a trade unionist. The outpouring of support for CUPE 4616 was encouraging for anyone who doubts the effectiveness of large provincial labour organisations. The work of Equity in CUPE in shifting the discussion around equity, and challenging structural barriers internally, is hopeful.
The numerous speeches from labour’s leadership, while rousing, often lacked any clear path for the organization. I had the opportunity to attend the Action Caucus and the Young Workers Caucus. Both of these spaces hosted more substantive discussions around how to address some of the issues facing labour.
The Action Caucus had a invigorating discussion about power relations in the movement, and challenged the false assumption that just by naming something as an equity issue, we can transcend the real impact discrimination has in our movement. There was also talk of engaging in more direct actions – such as flying squads in solidarity with other locals – and having more grassroots influence on the organization both provincially and nationally.
With the Ontario election almost over, trade unionists in the province will soon know the nature of our relationship to the provincial government. Will it be defined by outright hostility, or a mere denial of the plight workers?
With a mandate for two years, and a desire to fight to stop Hudak, the CUPE Ontario leadership must use the strong directive provided in the action plan to fight for change from the provincial government, regardless of its political stripe, and not be afraid to use their resources to shake up the political landscape in ways that are new for the organisation.
And as one delegate said during debate, “We have been polite for too long, it’s time stop apologizing and be bold.”