“It’s time to stop segregating the race problem as one that harms only minorities. A deeper conception of how racism structures politics, government and the economy connects minority concerns to the issues faced by all workers. This approach makes clear that when racism triumphs, all workers lose”. Ian Haney Lopez
Racism is a sensitive subject, full of misunderstandings, denial, and intense emotions. Given the pain and indignity, and in some cases physical danger, it brings to those who bear the brunt of this form of hatred, it’s not surprising that this is a very difficult discussion to have. I hesitate to write about it myself, given that I am writing from the perspective of a white, relatively privileged worker. However in these times when neo-nazis and white supremacists feel confident enough to march in the broad daylight shouting their hateful slogans, it is imperative that those who want a world free of all the ‘isms’ speak up.
I also write this from the perspective of a union activist and educator. For unions, the solidarity of members of individual unions, and the solidarity of the labour movement as a whole, is crucial to our existence. Without unity and a sense of common purpose, unions could not exist. So anything that weakens or destroys that solidarity is harmful and needs to be dealt with.
Unions have a checkered history when it comes to racism. The Knights of Labour, one of the earliest union organizations (circa 1880’s) while welcoming black workers in its ranks, was also one of the prime supporters of the Asiatic Exclusion League. Most unions up until the post WW2 era were exclusionary of non-whites. There were exceptions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the original Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After the war there was a gradual shift that coincided with the Civil Rights movement in the US. Many of the actions to combat segregated unions and open workplaces to people of colour were halfhearted and/or ineffective but by the late 1980’s most unions started taking seriously the problem of divisions based on racism and sexism. Human rights committees were established, the idea of equity seats were debated, and unions were making alliances with anti-racism groups in the community.
The changes came about for a number of reasons. One was the shift in society, with the work of civil rights activists and politicians who were able to get legislation passed that gave some teeth to human rights legislation. The other was the changing demographics of union membership. With legislation opening up workplaces, people of colour were able to obtain previously excluded jobs and, because of their precarious position as marginalized people, they sought the kind of protection a union can provide. Once in the union they began to demand to be represented in the leadership and to have attention paid to issues that directly affected them.
My union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), has long been involved in supporting anti-racism work whether in the workplace or globally. We supported organizations that struggled against apartheid in South Africa. In the Vancouver Post Office, where almost 20% of the workforce was Chinese Canadian, the Local had to intervene with both management and with our own members over racist remarks and discriminatory actions.
However it wasn’t until 1996 that a National Human Rights Committee was formed. Comprised of four different equity seeking groups – people of colour, aboriginal people, people with disabilities, and gay, lesbian and transgendered people, this committee meets annually and makes recommendations to the National Executive Board about issues both within the union and in society as a whole. It also pushes for specific changes to the collective agreement. While there have been bumps on the road, the HR Committee has worked effectively for the most part.
Education of our own members is a major component of that work. Our members are no different than anyone else. The racism that is such a part of Canadian society influences their attitudes and perspectives. We have regular workshops and we try to integrate anti-racism work into all aspects of the education program whether in shop steward training or health and safety workshops.
One of the practices I brought to our education program, not only around anti-racism work but the whole gamut of union education, was to ensure people could express their real views whatever they were. This would entail ensuring there was a safe place in the workshop for them to do that. It was imperative that this space be safe for all, including people who could be offended or hurt by those views. It was important because we were trying to change people’s beliefs and unless you know what they are, you can’t change anything. I have seen some educators humiliate attendees for expressing racist opinions but then that person shuts down and often never goes to another union function again. They are lost to the union. The facilitator, and the rest of the attendees, certainly should challenge racism but in a manner that allows that person some dignity. It is not easy at times and educational workshops are not actions on the street, where this approach may not work because of lack of safety.
One of the principles we used as a yard stick for people to grasp, for themselves and for our society, was ‘tolerance, acceptance and celebration’ We wanted people to move beyond tolerance or just putting up with people’s differences. We wanted people to accept other people as ‘normal’, as part of their everyday life. The best of all possible outcomes was to celebrate those differences, to welcome them, and understand that they make us all stronger. It is a bit of a paradox that welcoming of diversity would strengthen our unity and solidarity, but it is true.
The CUPW Human Rights Committee in their report to the 2015 Convention concluded with “As we look back to 1996 when this committee was formed we see that change has never been fast, simple or without controversy but it is rather achieved through persistence and determination.”