February 1 marks the beginning of Black History Month, a month in which we celebrate Black excellence while also reflecting upon the difficult and often violent conditions that surround this excellence. We celebrate the contributions that people of African and Caribbean heritage have made to Canada and the labour movement in spite of tremendous obstacles.
Black workers have a long history of building the Canadian labour movement and fighting for social change. During the 1920s, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), North America’s first Black railway union, combatted Jim Crows laws and segregationist employment policies to improving labour conditions for Black workers on Canadian rails. 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. The porters made these important contributions while the American Federation of Labour refused to charter the all-black union as a full-fledged international organization.
Later, 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.
During the 1970s, the Coalition of Black Trade Unions successfully fought for equity seats and better representation at the Canadian Labour Congress and Ontario Federation of Labour. Yet, to this day, Black Canadians remain over-represented in precarious, temporary and low-wage employment, earning 75.7 cents for every dollar a non-racialized worker earns. Every day, Black Ontarians perform essential frontline work in long-term care centres, hospitals, and other congregate settings while facing countless health inequalities including higher rates of restraint and confinement under the care of the mental health and addictions system.
Despite these immense barriers, Black people have persevered.
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. Through their activism, leadership, and resilience, Black trade unionists have successfully organized to pass laws and win collective agreement language that fights racism and promotes equality in our workplaces and communities.
And, while much work remains to be done, great progress has been made.
In November 2021, CUPE Ontario elected a new Secretary-Treasurer, Yolanda McClean, to represent 280,000 members working in the public sector. Yolanda is the first Black woman to be elected Secretary-Treasurer of CUPE Ontario, our provinces’ largest union. Her decades of labour activism and organizing experience have broken new ground at CUPE Ontario that ensures our leadership better reflects our membership, and that our labour movement serves and reflects the specific and unique realities of everyone.
Today, as we mark the beginning of Black History Month, we encourage you to both celebrate Black excellence and to consider the ways that you can eliminate the many barriers and systems that attempt to stifle this excellence. For more than a century, the brilliance and determination of Black labour activists have improved working conditions not only for Black people but for all people.