Peaceful protest and freedom of speech are fundamental to our labour movement. They are some of the most powerful tools we have to advocate for our rights and we will defend them wherever people seek justice.

That’s why CUPE Ontario was on the University of Toronto campus Thursday. We were there along with members from many CUPE locals, including Uof T academic workers – who are also students on this campus – and other unions and allies. We were responding to students’ call for supporters and witnesses at the pro-Palestine encampment at UofT. Our members were there, and we were there, to defend freedom of expression and freedom of association at our universities.

Exercising the rights to protest and to free speech is always a balance act between asserting them for our ends and assuring the rights of others, including their right to safety and security.

Ensuring health and safety is one of our primary responsibilities as a union. We know other actors, however, try to use concerns about safety as pretexts to override other fundamental rights. They use these same arguments in their efforts to shut down our picket lines and rallies.

Inconvenience and discomfort are not safety concerns; hey must not be used as excuses to interfere with fundamental rights. This was confirmed in a recent judgment that rejected a injunction request from two McGill University students who wanted to limit where protesters could go on campus.

The encampments also raise the question of whether universities are places of private property. We must challenge that assumption: universities are not private property; they are part our commons, places that must be accessible and available to all. As public institutions, universities receive funding through our taxes and students’ tuition. As a public sector union, we cherish and protect what’s in the realm of the public sector and stand with those who defend the principle of the right to peaceful protest on public property.

CUPE Ontario will always defend the right to use civil disobedience and protest to further our cause; this is literally how our union, and every other union, was built and is sustained.

We send solidarity to those engaged in this historic and vitally important set of actions in Ontario, across the country, and around the globe!