Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions and legacy of Black people in our communities, across the province, as well as in our union. It is a time to recognize the importance of resistance in the struggle for racial justice. It is also a time to be mindful of the deadly perils presently facing Black people: not only the COVID-19 pandemic—which impacts Black communities well out of proportion to the rest of the country—but the equally pervasive pandemic of anti-Black racism. It is a time to renew our efforts to dismantle anti-Black racism in the labour movement and our society. And a time to tell stories which too often go untold.
Canadian unions once banned Black members altogether. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was a leader in reversing this flagrant discrimination. Born in 1918 in Toronto, Stanley Grizzle was elected president of his BSCP local and pushed the Canadian Pacific Railway to open management to Black people. In 1959, Grizzle and Jack White were the first Black candidates to run for election to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario for the CCF (the forerunner to the NDP). Jack White was also the first elected Black representative of the Ironworkers and one of the first Black CUPE national staff representatives.
Black CUPE members have often suffered discrimination in our movement, facing employment obstacles, racially motivated hate speech, barriers to leadership and staff positions, and disregard for their issues and concerns. Member activists like Muriel Collins and Livingstone Holder fought alongside others to make CUPE a better organization for Black people, which is why CUPE Ontario’s Racial Justice Award is in their names.
In 1977, CUPE developed the first affirmative action manual for locals: Equal Opportunities at Work. In 1980, the CUPE National Executive Board appointed CUPE’s first Equal Opportunities Officer. The 1981 convention pledged to fight racism, as well as anti-Semitism and anti-gay bigotry. The 1980s saw CUPE locals fighting for boycotts of apartheid South Africa. The 1990s and 2000s saw further initiatives by CUPE for mandatory pay and employment equity laws, the first-ever CUPE anti-racism conference, the addition of diversity seats on the National and Ontario Executive Boards, and support for Black Lives Matter. These efforts were led by Black CUPE members.
Despite these measures, Black CUPE members still face persistent racism. Racialized CUPE members are less likely to hold full-time work. Racialized members are twice as likely to have casual work and are more likely to work on-call or part-time. Racialized members also have a higher likelihood of having their hours reduced and are less likely to know their schedule in advance, have employment benefits, a workplace pension, or paid sick days.
The 2018 CUPE Ontario Convention mandated the creation of an Anti-Racism Organizational Action Plan (AROAP) and an Anti-White Supremacy Campaign to tackle anti-Black racism in CUPE Ontario and among our members and their communities. CUPE Ontario’s University Workers Coordinating Committee and the CUPE Ontario Racial Justice Committee are also working with others to organize campaigns to combat white supremacy on post-secondary campuses. We are also working to support grassroots anti-racism movements like Black Lives Matter and the Migrant Rights Network, and resist Ford Conservative government policies like Bill 124 that disproportionately hurt racialized workers.
Today, Black communities are facing a dual threat. While the economic and social marginalization of Black people has always been deadly, its deadliness has taken on a new dimension in the COVID-19 pandemic, where Black people are suffering and dying well out of proportion to the rest of our province. CUPE Ontario is calling on the Ford government to track demographic information about infection rates; ensure racial equity in the distribution of all forms of pandemic assistance—including targeted help for the Black community; and is advocating for paid sick days and adequate PPE for all front-line workers. We’ve also compiled a list of Black community organizations providing critical services at this time which you can access by clicking here.
This Black History Month, we are mindful of the rich history of resistance that we draw on today as we continue to build power to fight anti-Black racism. We urge CUPE locals, members, and all Ontarians to reflect on Black history and how it has shaped communities. In remembering that history, CUPE Ontario will be working to dismantle barriers to the full participation of Black members in our union, in our workplaces, and across the province.