How trade unions co-opt anti-racism resistance

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Wednesday January 27 2016




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.

  • Mark Brown said:

    With all due respect I feel compelled to respond.

    First let me start by stating who I am. My name is Mark Brown and I am a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). During my 27 years as a unionised worker I have held several elected positions in CUPW at the National,Regional and Local levels. I am also an executive board member of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist and a big supporter of Black Lives Matter Toronto movement. Just so there is no misunderstanding I am a dark skinned BLACK Jamaican Canadian man.

    I will start by stating that your article is clearly and blatantly one sided. Unions are made up of people from society. As you know anti-black racism exists through out Canada and the USA. As such Unions like any other organization can not claim to be totally free from such racism. However Unions have been a significant contributing factor towards working towards leveling the playing field. Dr. Martin Luther King recognised this in the 60’s and as such he supported the sanitation workers in there struggle for a fair collective agreement.

    Lets talk about what unions do for us today.

    1.Unions have collective agreements. Those agreements dictate the terms of employment that apply to all in the bargaining unit. Terms like the rate of pay that you get regardless of race. On average Unionised workers are paid $5 an hour more than non-Union workers. Many of the young black students that you see at York, Guelph Humber and other campuses throughout the GTA are there with their tuitions in part being paid by the wages of their Unionised parents.

    2.Unions have seniority that applies to all. Without this seniority system many of our BLACK faces would be the last ones promoted and the first ones demoted as it is in many non-union workplaces.

    3.Unions negotiate pension plans that apply to members regardless of race. Many of us who chose to retire and go back home in the warmth do so because of the pension that the union obtained at the bargaining table.

    4. Unions negotiate drug plans that allow us as BLACK people to pay for the medication for the diabetes that plagues the BLACK community to this day.

    5. Those BLACK elected union leaders that you suggest are kept in line. The line that you will find many of us in is the front lines of the demonstration supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement. Many of us are the same people who supported the Black Action Defence Committee in the 90’s and are still in the game today.

    I could go on forever. Unions are not perfect. Yes today in 2016 anti-black racism does exist along with glass ceilings. However glass ceilings are made to be smashed and that is what is happening. Recently my union CUPW elected the first black woman Sister Jan Simpson as our 1st National Vice President, Sister Megan Whitfield the first Black women elected as the Toronto Local President, Abdi Hagi Yusuf as the first Somalian worker to the Toronto Local executive board and myself the first Black National Director for the Toronto Region and as such the first Black man to sit on the National Executive Board.

    The trade union movement has come a long way since the days of segregation and any truthful trade unionist will admit that we still have a long way to go to reach equity within the movement. However overall the Black community as a whole benefits greatly generation to generation for every unionised job.

    In solidarity
    Mark Brown

    Friday January 29 at 12:33 am
  • Ajamu Nangwaya said:

    Greetings Comrade Brown,

    In your discussion of the great experience that individual Afrikans and other racialized workers are having in the house of labour, it might be useful for you to seriously and rigorously examine the group experience of these union members.

    1. Unionized racialized workers have lower unionization rates than their white counterparts.

    2. Unionized racialized and Afrikan workers earn lower income than unionized white workers.

    3. Unionized racialized workers are usually concentrated in the lower job classifications system.

    4. At provincial and national conventions, the delegates are overwhelmingly white.

    5. The members of provincial and national executive boards are predominantly white women and men.

    6. The national committees, except for the reacialized workers or human right committees, are largely composed of white women and men.

    Check out the National (White) Women’s Committee in your union (CUPW):

    Look at the faces on CUPW’s (White Members) National Health and Safety Committee:

    CUPW’s National Human Rights Committee looks like the face of Canada (very diverse):

    7. In the labour movement we have two concepts that describe the ways many excluded members respond to the power structure:

    a. Suck and blow (at the same time):

    They act like they are fighting racism or sexism, while obediently following the dictates of the power structure.

    b. “fake it ’til you make it”:

    Play the role of a collaborator until you get into powerful positions and then assertively fight for equality and justice. It would be hard to a few cases of this happening with racialized workers.

    Comrade Brown, the issue of racial justice or white supremacy in the Canadian labour movement would be an ideal one for a public meeting, conference or workshop.

    I am willing and able to serve as a panelist, guest speaker or facilitator in a gathering that is devoted to this topic.

    Are you ready to help organize such a gathering where a frank discussion and the crafting of a principled and muscular anti-racism plan of action will take place?

    In solidarity,

    Ajamu Nangwaya

    Wednesday February 03 at 7:26 pm
  • Pbailey said:

    Mr. Brown, I congratulate you on the experience and success you have had, however, I am more aligned with Mr. Nangwaya for a number of reason(s) but really, this is NOT the place for this discussion and I agree with Mr. Nangwaya about the need for a public forum, not just relative to Trades Unions but also every fabric of the Canadian Economy. Some of us might have come a long way, achieved a litle succes(generally speaking) but the overwhelming majority have been at the bottom of the mountain; just look at the government and their makeup; any resemblance of African/Caribbean? Look at all the overwhelming support and financial handouts being directed to the Syrian People then look at some of the neighbourhoods in the GTA, the businesses, service centres and the faces of the people providing service. Any resemblance of African/Caribbean??
    True, WE as a people don’t do ourselves any justice by the way we treat and interact (not) with each other but again, this is NOT the place for this. In the meantime, I just believe that government, businesses, services needs to be reflective and representative of the communities in which they operate so that the youths will have someone to look up to, to emulate and build confidence and self worth…What are their options these day, BET, guns gangs?
    So many issues, but there is hope and I hope that we can at least try to do a forum on some of these issues..

    Friday April 22 at 12:09 pm

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