CUPE Ontario Convention 2016: A Reflection
I recently attended the Canadian Union of Public Employee’s annual Ontario Convention as a delegate of CUPE 3903 from York University. As a delegate, my primary mission going into the convention was to get a resolution passed support the campaign against the 15 Years of Imperialist War in Afghanistan. This goal need up completely overwhelming my comrade and I. We also helped in mobilizing for a resolution submitted by my union, CUPE 3903, to begin the conversation on sexual assault within the union. What follows is a reflection of my experience.
Analysis is necessary to understand the contexts of this convention. In order to make change, we need information and analysis of the situation to respond properly and push forward. This write-up is an attempt at assessing the situation and proposes changes for the future.
Baptism by Fire
Within my union, there was no coordination or planning before entering the convention. While I received a few emails on the basic logistics of when and where the convention was taking place, as well as the action plan that would be debated, my comrade and I, as first time delegates, were not adequately prepared for how the convention worked, nor the racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and other prejudices that would be actively expressed by other locals throughout the conference. Without such coordination, such vitriol was a shock to our system, and extremely psychologically traumatic. We found solace in other solid members among locals within the university sector.
Without solid coordination before hand, various comrades were separated from each other in the room. Key delegates from my union were seated by the doors across the room from the rest of the union, so as to protect sanity and step out when vitriolic language was expressed on the floor. But this also meant the union delegates were stratified, and such physical distances no doubt put a strain on the coordination at times.
Many delegates were not actively involved in the mobilizing to support resolutions submitted by their own local. Like many of the delegates attending, the primary reason for going to the convention is for the per diem given and the time away from the working with the excuse that they are hard at work representing the union. For many locals, the CUPE Ontario convention is a vacation, a way get away from work with minimal responsibility and explore Toronto in the evenings. Within my union, a good number of delegates were not involved with the hard work of getting Resolution 14, a resolution beginning the process of getting sexual assault policies in place, passed.
All delegate positions were acclaimed in the election, as my union gives a small amount compared to even other local unions. Elections for delegates should actually be significant in terms of representation, but because the convention never seemed to be a priority for the union, the election of delegate was largely an afterthought to other pressing matters in GMMs. For good political mobilization, it’s clear we need delegates knowledgable and experienced with political mobilization and public speaking. Perhaps raising the per diem from $25 a day (a paltry amount for the amount of psychological abuse one must suffer through at the convention if you are politically mobilizing in any way) and demanding certain obligations from delegates will improve the slate for next year as we plan and mobilize to push forward. Coordinating to take over an entire back table for solid delegates to stay together, while having the option to quickly leave the room, would also be key for physical presence within the convention.
Coordination with delegates from other locals was key in getting the sexual assault resolution passed, a resolution two years in the making. However, this planning was done ad hoc throughout the convention, and much of the legwork involved was done by solid members of Local 3902 at University of Toronto, including the design and dispersal of an information flyer about the resolution. These comrades were willing to flood the pro mics with speakers, asking the CUPE Ontario president to speak in favour of the resolution, and coordinating with speakers in line to counteract the regressive politics displayed by con speakers.
I felt alienated by certain members of my union, including fellow executive members. Aside from some being physically being separated from them, unable to join them where there were due to lack of chairs, I was saddened to realize I was also not privy to their activities. Certain members who were there to speak to the resolution did not come intending to coordinate with other solid delegates, who instead stepped up of their own accord to support the resolution passing. This is what I was able to ascertain. As we tried to organize to have a full debrief on the events after the convention, certain delegates often seemed to walk away, unknowing or unwilling to participate in debriefing with the delegates who helped their motion get passed. Uniting with fellow delegates did not seem to be a planed priority, and I found myself, as an executive of the union, acting as an in between to try and corral people together so we could have a successful debrief, all too critical for moving forward.
I was also incredibly alienated by a fellow executive member and delegate at the convention from my union voting against Resolution 14, astonishing myself and other union members. This act contradicts this member’s previous endorsement of the resolution in our union spaces, and will continue to be a contentious issue for the executive going forward. This contradictory action also highlights the split view of the role of delegates. This write-up endorses the position that delegates, particularly in the University centre (who tend to be the most radical), should politically mobilize to push and support progressive resolutions. There are many within the union who view the role of delegate as a easy paycheque, earning through partial to minimal attendance of the convention and passively voting for resolutions. This view coincides with the position for many delegates across CUPE Ontario that the convention is a union holiday. We mush push back against these regressive tendencies, and mobilize the election of delegates for true progressive, political action within our union.
This action also illustrates the importance of education in pushing resolutions forward, as well as the limitations of the union at large. Again, a union is united by employment, not politics, so pushing progressive resolutions will always receive resistance from conservative members of the union, of which there are many. Strategy is key in all areas, from how one occupies the space of the convention, to how one articulates pros or cons at the mic, etc etc.
In a fellow comrade’s analysis of CUPE 3903’s 2008 strike, he pointed out how a union in not united politically, but rather through the workplace. This leads to a plethora of political positions held by union members that clash within and between locals. The fact that a resolution against “unjust war” failed at CUPE Ontario illustrate the discrepancy between locals in terms of political lines. As CUPE Ontario is made up of union from across the province, many come from different occupations that influence their political lines as well. Paramedics in smaller towns will be much more supportive of the police that unions in the university sector, for instance.
This is seen when in a resolution against “unjust war” was pout forward on the floor, it took only one delegate at the con mic to deflate the entire resolution by saying “…and I’m a Canadian veteran” in her introduction. Before saying anything else, she received a standing ovation, solely based on the rhetoric of identifying as a veteran. What she said next didn’t matter, the overall intention was to block anything that could be remotely anti-military. The resolution itself, extremely watered down in terms of language, failed on the floor twice, to great surprise by many of the delegates. This individual responsible for mobilizing reactionaries in rhetoric of “support our troops” stood again against a resolution proposing CUPE Ontario pressure Canada to pull out of NATO, stating that NATO was founded as a peacekeeping organization. While I spoke in criticism of NATO being seen as a peacekeeping operation, this resolution failed as well.
This leads to the resolution I was primarily mobilizing around, that of endorsing the 15 Years of War campaign. Submitted as an emergency resolution, as the campaign had launched officially after the resolution submission deadline, the resolution was submitted by the International Solidarity committee. What followed through the convention was no information or communication from the convention committee or staff, leaving my comrade and I in a state of distress for days. The specifics of all the various inquiries we made aren’t worth detailing, but suffice it to say we only got a concrete answer of what actually happened to the resolution and what we could do next after the convention had finally ended. It is worth noting however that when in conversation with one of the executive board members, when mentioned that the chair of the international solidarity committee had been sick the previous day (due to exhaustion and dehydration from working so hard at the conference), the executive took this as an opportunity to blame the chair as the weak link in the lack of information. We were also told by this executive that because the war has been going on for 15 years in Afghanistan, the resolution couldn’t truly be considered an emergency. In short, likely due to the immediate deflation of the most milquetoast resolutions against war, CUPE Ontario executive took our anti-war resolution and buried it, preventing it from getting onto the floor, to save face in case another anti-war resolution getting vote down.
As convention delegates are majority white and male, certain propositions are much more difficult to pass, particularly as many delegates need basic training on issues such as sexual assault, imperialism, etc. This is why delegates supporting a particularly contentious issue, even as basic as “we need policies on sexual assault in our union”, need to be prepared to not only put forward why to support such a resolution, but also defend it from criticisms. This also means proper mobilization on the floor itself is necessary to equip speakers in line with good talking points refuting reactionary arguments. As a speaker at the con mic argued against Resolution 14 because “we are not adequately equipped to deal with the issue,” when the whole point of the resolution is to make the union better equipped to deal with sexual assault. Often it means pointing out the most basic contradictions, while playing to the audience’s basic points of political unity, such as solidarity with workers.
I did not know going in what actually took place at the convention, aside from knowing people would speak at the mic to help push resolutions forward. What occurred was carefully controlled chaos. few resolutions got passed, with the majority of them being sent to be approved by the executive committee. Instead, precious time was wasted on speakers, including a surprise speaker from the NDP party, that was not scheduled on the agenda. CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn denied that CUPE Ontario was a slave to the NDP, but its clear he and other executive members are in favour of kissing the NDP’s ass whenever possible.
Speaking of Fred, I was disturbed by the cult of personality that surrounds him at the convention. Of course, this power can be channeled for good, as it was for Resolution 14, as a delegate asked him personally to speak for the resolution. But his presence also allows CUPE Ontario to pat itself on the back for how progressive it is in having first opening gay president in CUPE’s history, while progressive measures are voted down or prevented from reaching the floor. Of course, cognitive dissonance pervades the space as well, as delegates often do not hold a clear, consistent political line, but rather have opinions tethered to specific issues.
CUPE Ontario holds a position to prevent any and all criticism of the union, even when it is accurate and comes from members themselves. As CUPE members helped Unite Here Local 75 flyer about their ongoing issue with self-determination, executive members took swift action against Unite Here, ignoring the issues Unite Here presented. Fred Hahn asserted a baseless accusation that Unite Here pulled the fire alarm in the Sheraton hotel where the convention took place, when the fire alarm had gone off the day before in response to a restaurant mishap. Has Unite Here Local 75 been blamed for that as well?
The space was also very inhospitable for people with disabilities. It was a tight squeeze in between tables and chairs, making it very difficult for anyone to get in and out. The loud yelling by certain delegates when trying to motivate a resolution that would have already passed unanimously genuinely frightened my comrade and I, as a man literally argued for the criminalization of mental patients in trying to argue for protections for nurses injured on the job. Sitting in that space means being bombarded with noise, from applause to the slamming to tables by fists or open palms. While there is a ‘quiet room’ within the convention hall, removing yourself from the main room also means you are unable to vote or speak on a resolution.
If I had known what would happen, would I have gone to the convention? The answer would have been yes, not because it was a fun or enjoyable experience, but because there is so much work to be done. In this case, it was coordinating with other solid delegates to begin the process on addressing sexual assault within the union. This means being prepared in the organizing and mobilizing around resolutions worth fighting for. It means knowing whom to trust, both within nearby locals, and on the executive board. It also means knowing the schedule and understanding when and where to strike, as well as when to rest. (There was some discussion of sharing a hotel room among delegates for both rest and political planning, a delicious idea.)
While fighting for resolutions that directly impact one’s local, it’s questionable to what extend CUPE Ontario is worth working with outside of the union for such things as endorsements. I came from the convention exhausted, glad that a resolution of sexual assault two years in the making passed, but frustrated that our resolution to stand against imperialist war was essentially buried by the executive committee, though there is still hope that it may be passed in June.
For the sake of progress within the union, as well as good mental and physical health, proper planning and mobilization is essential. But to what extent these efforts are worth one’s time is debatable.
This is a working document, and will likely be edited in the future to add more criticisms and details. I will note changes accordingly.
Edit: June 1st, 2016, information about union member voting against Resolution 14 added.