By AJAMU NANGWAYA
Trade unions are adept at co-opting active racialized trade union members. The effectiveness of the co-optation tactics is very much tied to the carrots that are doled out to compliant activists. On the other hand, principled, anti-racist opposition is given the big stick across the back.
Trade unions are active promoters of racism. Labour organizations have no problem with limiting the full participation of Afrikans and other racialized peoples as well as denying them the benefits of being members. On the matter of the exploitation of Afrikan and Chinese workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the White capitalist employers and the White trade unions entered into an unwritten pact of collaboration that imposed a marginalized status on racialized workers. Trade unions inserted restrictive White-only clauses in their constitutions that barred membership to racialized workers.
The White-only Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees (CBRE), which was formed in October 1908, was the trade union that pushed railway employers to establish racist Jim Crow practices. Sarah-Jane Mathieu captures the unholy alliance of the Canadian government, employers and the CBRE in her book North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955:
“… during his forty-four year tenure as president of the CBRE and the Canadian Congress of Labour, Aaron Mosher set much of the tone for race relations in Canada’s labour movement, lending his union’s full-throated support to white supremacist dogma. Working in concert with the Department of Labour, railroaders and railway executives banded together around the notions of white manhood and white supremacy, ultimately embracing Jim Crow as an easier concession than higher wages or safe working conditions. More important, by the outbreak of the Great War, the Department of Labour became the second branch of the federal government to make segregation official national practice.”
Afrikan railway workers and Chinese workers actively fought the racist employment practices of the government, trade unions and employers. In 1917, Afrikan workers created the Order of Sleeping Car Porters in order to organize against the racist employment system. Salome Lukas and Judy Vashti Persad in their booklet Through the Eyes of Workers of Colour: Linking Struggles for Social Justice highlight the organized resistance in the early 1900s of “Chinese workers (who) also formed their own unions, including the Chinese Railroad Workers and Chinese Labour Union in 1916, Chinese Shingles Workers’ Union in 1919, Chinese Cooks’ Union in 1920, and Chinese Restaurant Workers’ Union in 1920.”
By the 1930s, trade unions, including the CBRE, started the process of removing the White-only clauses from their respective constitutions. Some trade unions participated in campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s that advanced human rights laws across Canada. However, the fight against covert racism in unions and the workplace did not emerge as a priority.
In the 1980s, racialized workers engaged in organized resistance inside their unions and apex labour organizations such as the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress. Ronnie Leah’s article Linking the Struggles: Racism, Sexism and the Union Movement documents the anti-racism and anti-sexism organizing of racialized women and the Ontario Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in Ontario. It also examines a successful campaign by CUPE Local 79 in support of nursing home workers with a majority of them being Afrikan and Asian women.
In spite of trade unions’ anti-racist resolutions, anti-racist policy documents, workshops on racism and equity, and equality statements read at union meetings, white supremacy is still blocking the full participation of racialized members. In the article Racism/Anti-racism, Precarious Employment, and Unions Tania Das Gupta acknowledges improvement in trade unions’ representation of racialized workers when compared with the recent past. However, in her interviews, racialized trade union members “spoke about problems of co-optation, tokenism, harassment of women of colour, and their silencing” as ongoing barriers.
What are some of the co-optation tactics that are used by unions?
Trade unions use the prospects of getting well-paid staff jobs with excellent benefits packages to keep anti-racist resistance within acceptable limits. The overwhelming majority of union staffers are recruited from the membership. Compliant activists or members who are not too rebellious, especially around white supremacy, are more likely to win one of those coveted lottery-like jobs.
Racialized members who are vocal about racism in White-majority trade union locals will find it almost impossible to get elected to attend provincial or national conventions where policies are made by way of resolutions or constitutional amendments. The White leadership might run a slate of candidates for the delegate spots and include well-behaved racialized members on its ticket. One must be a delegate to the convention in order to get elected onto the executive board or to run for a position on representational bodies such as the LGBTQ Committee, the Women’s Committee, the People of Colour Committee or the Young Workers’ Committee.
In a union such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the members of the national representational committees are selected by the national president. He or she tends to not select racialized members who are seen as radical anti-racist activists. I have seen racialized members soft-pedaled their opposition to racism in order to increase their odds of getting appointed. One’s participation on these committees will increase one’s chance of getting a gold-plated staff job.
Radical anti-racist members are likely to be opposed in their bid to get elected to the executive committee of conservative locals. Racialized members who do not rock the boat might get the endorsement of the White leadership. A clear message is thus communicated to racialized members – assertive anti-racist advocacy will not be tolerated.
Trade unions deploy book-offs or reimbursement of wages that the employers pay to workers who are away on union business to reward submissive behaviour. Most workers would love to be away from the routinized, rigid and abusive experience of the workplace. Sellout racialized members are more likely to get the sought-after book-offs than anti-racist radicals.
Successful organizing against White supremacy will come from organizing inside the local, which is the basic unit of a trade union. Most members are not active in their locals and many of them have grievances against the entrenched, top-down leadership. An inclusive anti-oppression, self-organizing and class struggle resistance is the best way to end racism and other forms of oppression inside trade unions.