Editor’s Note: This story contains descriptions of sexual harassment. Names with an asterisk (*) have been changed to protect the privacy of some individuals interviewed.
An investigation by Cole Rockarts
Over the course of the past six years, at least six women have documented accounts of sexual harassment within the Winnipeg labour movement.
Among the concerns shared by the eight union members interviewed for this piece, there have been reports of intimidation and threats towards women who would not vote with their locals.
There are accounts of union members making remarks that women faked sexual assault claims against male union members. There is an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness regarding equity issues.
Here are some of their stories.
Names marked with an asterisk (*) have been changed to protect them.
CUPE Manitoba president is arrested
On January 21, the Brandon Police Service arrested former CUPE Manitoba President Abe Araya on a single charge of sexual assault. The reported incident has not been proven in court. Araya has since been released from custody and is scheduled to appear in court in Brandon on April 1.
According to the CBC, police opened an investigation into an incident alleged to have occured in Brandon during a work trip in February 2019.
Nine months later, on November 14, at the 56th CUPE Manitoba Convention, Abe Araya was elected president of the provincial union. Before his election, he served as CUPE Local 110 President, representing custodians, maintenance workers and painters at the Winnipeg School Division.
In the summer of 2020, a grievance was filed against Araya. According to CBC, Araya’s attorney states that Araya had been involved in a “comprehensive and intense internal investigation, which resulted in him being exonerated.”
Karine Fortin, spokesperson for the CUPE National office, responded to a media request from Rankandfile.ca, stating: “The grievance has been resolved and we won’t be commenting on the details of it since labour relations matters are confidential between the union and employer, and the privacy of individuals involved is a priority.”
Winnipeg Labour Council
In May 2018, six unions wrote to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to raise concerns of “perceived incidents of intimidation and harassment brought forward by members of CUPE” at the Winnipeg Labour Council.
The report, signed by six delegate unions, stated that CUPE members had a history of undermining the democratic process, as well as harassing and intimidating other union members within council executive, committee and general membership meetings.
On March 19, 2019, Basia Sokal resigned as president of the Winnipeg Labour Council.
“My decision is due to the systemic issues of bullying, harassment and the undermining of democracy in progressive movements.” Sokal said in a statement on Facebook.
Dave Sauer (Former President of Winnipeg Labour Council), Terry Egan (Former President of CUPE Local 110 and Former President of CUPE Manitoba), Gord Delbridge (President, CUPE Local 500) were among those named in a subsequent October 2019 Canadian Labour Congress report investigating a sexual harassment complaint against Sokal during Labour Day Picnic in 2018. Although the report stated the sexual harassment allegation could not be corroborated, it noted that the “environment at the WLC was quite dysfunctional and not always ‘safe’ for women’s full participation.”
“It was very clear that there were a few who had it in for Basia,” said Rachel*, former Winnipeg Labour Council delegate. “One brother in particular was constantly nitpicking and questioning everything. Especially finances — to me, it seemed like he was trying to make people believe something sketchy was going on and implying that Basia was misusing funds.”
“It was exhausting to listen to at every single meeting. Shockingly, after the financial audit came back, nothing untoward was found. He still wouldn’t let it go.”
“The CLC investigation found nothing,” said Don*, a former CUPE member, of the CLC report. “Meanwhile, did I hear demeaning stuff, harassment, stuff like that? Oh yeah, absolutely,”
2018 was an election year for Winnipeg. Sokal wanted to start to engage union members on municipal issues, and brought in the CLC to help with the process. Some of the WLC Executive proposed a candidates’ forum and meet-and-greet with members. According to Sokal, CUPE Local 110 and 500 delegates shut her down and pushed the CLC representative out of the process.
“We already know how to do this because this is what we do. If I didn’t listen to them [CUPE delegates Delbridge and Egan], I was told I was going to be responsible for people losing their jobs if their candidates didn’t get elected,” said Sokal in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “The [CUPE] local already had their list of candidates they planned on endorsing.”
The conflict came to a head over the endorsement of a candidate in the Daniel McIntyre ward located in west-central Winnipeg. Cindy Gilroy, the incumbent, had no connection to labour and had voted against public housing and expansion on transit. The second candidate was Josh Brandon, a community activist and anti-poverty organizer. CUPE locals had already endorsed Gilroy, while Sokal and other delegates promoted Brandon.
Sokal says a few hours before the endorsement meeting, CUPE Local 500 President Gord Delbridge came into Sokal’s office and said “This has become a shit show. You’re an embarrassment.” When Sokal said that delegates would vote for who they wanted, he responded: “If you think there’s democracy in the labour movement, then you must be joking.”
According to Sokal, Delbridge threatened to pull CUPE Local 500’s dues if the vote did not go the way they wanted, essentially pulling the majority of funding for WLC work. “We’ll cripple you,” said Delbridge.
Rose*, a Winnipeg Labour Council delegate, says, “In my experiences at these two meetings, and when I have volunteered performing interviews as an alternate member of the PAC, I have witnessed multiple instances of CUPE official representatives attempting to railroad process, disregarding other unions opinions, and on one occasion threatening “political consequences” for the WLC if procedure wasn’t changed to allow specific incumbents who hadn’t met the endorsement submission deadline to schedule interviews for endorsement.”
Mr. Egan and Mr. Delbridge did not respond to requests for comment via email or facebook.
CUPE Local 110
Claire Friesen is a member and former education chair at CUPE Local 2348. The local has over 700 members in Manitoba and represents workers in the social services sector.
During a 2016 union training workshop, Friesen says at least a dozen members gave feedback about being “uncomfortable with the culture of heavy drinking, of the hostile t-shirts (many 110 members dress in biker gang attire, have local 110 tattoos, and leather vests) that Local 110 members were wearing, and said that they would not return to future education workshops because of the culture of hostility and intimidation.”
Friesen says she had raised issues of harassment regarding CUPE Local 110 with both CUPE Manitoba and CUPE National, but there was no follow-up.
Terry Egan of CUPE Local 110 was the subject of Basia Sokal’s sexual harassment complaint documented in the CLC report. The report notes that both Sokal and Egan were interviewed. Egan is quoted in the report: “I did not say what she said, and if I made any comments like that at any time in my life — which is possible — I definitely did not make them in her presence, or to, or about her.”
Valerie*, a CUPE member, shared a story of one of her first interactions with Local 110, which occurred at the April 2015 CUPE Manitoba Convention.
“Terry Egan made overt sexual comments about my body,” said Valerie, noting the incident happened in front of about 50 people. “CUPE staff, the executive and other members were present. No one in the room said anything.” The member says she responded to Egan by citing the CUPE Code of Conduct and saying his language was not acceptable.
Valerie describes her experience with Egan and Local 110 members at the 2016 training as “intimidating”. It was brought up to the ombudsperson at the event in hopes that the environment would be addressed, but it never was. “Instead of removing Egan from the room, he was allowed to continue the behaviour of intimidation,” she said. According to the member, it was never followed up on by Manitoba staff.
“I couldn’t believe what went on at CUPE functions,” said Marie*, who was formerly involved in CUPE Manitoba, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “I would see more and more people (staff reps and members) hooking up with each other but also knew to stay clear of Local 110. Their reputation and past stories indicated this. It’s interesting because they’re always willing to help out at any event, but they take that for granted. It’s known that if they offered their help you would have to owe them a favour”.
According to Friesen, Local 2348 executives discussed how to address the sexist and misogynistic culture allowed inside CUPE Manitoba. Local members and the executive felt that instead of formalizing their complaints and putting members through the grievance process, it would be better received for the tone to be inviting, in hopes that the culture could be addressed and things could move forward.
“It wasn’t the culture CUPE Manitoba wanted to talk about. They wanted names, dates, and times. They were pushy about it,” said Friesen. Instead of disclosing other member’s stories, she shared her own with two CUPE Manitoba staff members. Instead of investigating the complaint, Friesen reports that the two staff “took Terry Egan out for lunch, where they disclosed everything I had discussed in the meeting.” The hostility towards Local 2348 increased, and Egan was then endorsed by the provincial body.
“After bringing what I felt was a serious complaint forward, for Terry Egan to be elected, let alone endorsed by CUPE Manitoba — it just felt like a huge slap in the face” Friesen said. “Two years after that, Egan’s successor was Abe.”
Mr. Egan did not respond to requests for comment via email or his personal and public facebook profiles.
CUPE National’s role
After Araya’s arrest, CUPE National asked Araya to step down. Araya refused. The national body held a meeting with the 17-person Executive, resulting in a decision to put CUPE Manitoba under administration and dissolve its executive board.
CUPE National President Mark Hancock released a statement regarding the charges on February 2, followed by another update for members on February 4. CUPE National says they took immediate action after becoming aware of the criminal charges against Araya, but made no comment about any prior knowledge of the accusations against him.
Barb*, another CUPE member said that she had wanted to reach out to CUPE National’s executive about her own complaints, but felt there was too much of a connection with Local 110. “Why bother? They’re a tattooed brotherhood.”
“I feel like [CUPE National] have known things for years now. They tried to sweep it under the rug, and I feel like that’s what they tried to do with my complaint”, said Marie.* Marie hesitated in coming forward because of the culture of men protecting one another. “[The connection] definitely impacted how my complaint went. More could have been done, and should have been done.”
Two years after her conversation with the two CUPE Manitoba staff, a CUPE National representative reached out to Friesen and asked if she would like to formally send in a Victim Impact Statement to CUPE National. She did so on March 25, 2019. It was never followed up on. “I didn’t receive an email, I didn’t receive a phone call, no one asked me for specifics, no one asked me how I was doing.”
“We continue to be told that there is a process, but when there’s zero followup when there are complaints brought forward to our union, we don’t see any action within that process,” said Friesen. “The pace at which we are moving is too slow. When [unions] continue to silence people, there’s no way for us to move forward.”
“The biggest take away from this entire situation is that people shouldn’t be afraid to come forward, as a union there should be support in place.” said Marie. “The amount of male dominance in CUPE affects the way people speak up, if at all. That environment needs to change and it starts at the top of the organization”.
The CLC’s role
In January 2019, after the municipal election, a Canadian Labour Congress representative flew into Winnipeg and held an affiliate meeting, where documentation was provided by the ATU Local 1505 about what was going on at WLC.
“Everybody was able to air their grievances,” said Sokal. “The rep promised to come back to us with takeaways and solutions about how to address it. Nobody got back to anyone about anything. We never heard anything.” In March of 2019, Sokal was interviewed by a CLC representative. Sokal described the CLC investigation as “a complete joke”.
Sokal made a Facebook post about the lack of action, and a week later the CLC report was published without reaching out to Sokal. Nine months later, Mariam Abou-Dib, the author of the report left for another job. “It went away and nothing happened. So many women had wanted to speak up and tell their stories about what they had faced, and nobody called them,” said Sokal. “The CLC lied when they said they didn’t know. They had flown to Winnipeg. They lied when they said they reached out to me — I never heard from [the rep]. She left, and it died.”
Sokal says that after she left the WLC in 2019, the CLC never contacted her. Dozens of union members and Winnipeg Labour Council delegates wrote to the CLC about how they had been mistreated. At that point, Sokal had spent more than 20 hours on the phone discussing the issues. “I gave the CLC a list of 50 names and phone numbers of women alone and 10-15 men who said they would give supportive statements and back me up.”
Her supporters reached out to her, asking Sokal if she had given the right contact information. “Not one person was called on that entire list. Not one person. That’s when I realized the CLC wasn’t serious.” Citing confidentiality, Sokal would not provide the list of members.
The CLC did not respond to email, telephone, and text message requests for comment.
“I can see why our labour movement is failing — when you feel you don’t have a place because the processes put in place don’t even allow for respectful conversations. Lots of people wanted me to run because no one had ever challenged their status quo. When you have a huge union being able to bully people with just their presence, their tattoos and their leather chaps and their vests. It’s no surprise that people don’t want to go to a meeting.” said Sokal.
Sokal said she could no longer deal with the toll the harassment and culture was having on her mental health. “I woke up one day and was so upset that my life was so different than before [I ran for Council]. I didn’t want to get out of bed and fight with people who were supposed to be on my side.”
There are many examples of how harassment is persistent in the Winnipeg labour movement; however, pointing to systemic issues does not mean that there are not people in positions of power that are directly responsible for allowing this behaviour to persist, whether through preserving relationships with perpetrators of violence or staying silent.
Those in the upper echelons of the labour movement must act immediately to ensure that all staff, members, and executives will not tolerate harassment and no longer protect people that abuse their power. CUPE National and the Candian Labour Congress must ensure justice and accountability are upheld in Manitoba. Educational workshops, policies, and anti-harassment campaigns are not enough. The CLC and CUPE National must do more to ensure the safety of its employees and members.
If you are experiencing sexual violence at work or at home, and are located in Manitoba, you can recieve support at the 24/7 Sexual Assault Crisis Line by calling Toll free: 1-888-292-7565
If you are outside of Manitoba and seeking support for abuse or violence at work or home, please click here.
*Names and identifying details of certain individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.