Tackling the issue of anti-black racism within the labour movement
By Neil Armstrong
African Canadian workers attending a recently held conference organized by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in Ottawa addressed the pressing issue of anti-black racism within the labour movement.
The CLC, the national voice of the labour movement representing 3.3 million Canadian workers, held its second national human rights conference from Oct. 20-23 under the theme, “Rise Up 2016: Live The Change.”
Sonia Ellis-Seguin, executive officer with the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT) and Nancy MacLean, health and safety officer of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC)-Halifax were among those who attended the workshop, “Working While Black,” which explored the systemic barriers faced by black workers in the workplace, union, and community.
“I was outraged in the sense that so many of us are experiencing the same thing and we were clearly coming from different parts of this country,” said Ellis-Seguin.
One of the activities involved writing on a wall words in captioned boxes of what anti-black racism looked or felt like from personal experience.
“Some of the comments were: being faced with being perceived as the angry black woman or man versus passionate, being perceived as “too black” or ‘I’m not a racist, I have black friends’ – these are the lived true experiences of black people as workers in their respective professions.”
Ellis-Seguin said the added layer to this was that all the participants were black unionized workers experiencing the systemic racism that exists within their workplace.
She said this begs the question – what are the local unions doing about what their members are experiencing.
“That spoke volumes,” she said, noting that a participant spoke about racism within the union and what is not happening.
Ellis-Seguin said one of the things they were conflicted with was pushing for designated seats within their unions to advance these issues.
There was no clear answer, except where possible to push for designated seats because without it, it will make it even that much more difficult, she said.
The workshop highlighted the need to continue to advocate for black workers within the union.
“To be in a room at the CLC with well over 20 or 30 different black leaders, which were clearly across the country, it was great, it was motivating and inspiring,” she said, noting that it is sad that in her profession there are so few but that is the reality for other unions.
Individually, black elected leaders in the union are far and few between but when pulled together they become more.
The ETT is structured with a provincial body and local chapters reflecting the different cities and areas across the province connected to school boards.
They come together as a collective body provincially once a year and this is where resolutions can be put forward to direct the organization and potentially impact change.
For the last six years, she has organized a black members and allies caucus and she has seen its growth over the years.
“We have tried year after year to encourage the members that are there to go back and bring somebody else. Try to get anther person of colour, another black person involved so that our presence and our agenda can move forward.”
She said a couple years ago in one of the caucuses they spoke about the need for the union to identify and address white privilege.
It took them two years but the motion passed and the organization had to create a workshop to educate members about the issue.
There was also another motion around culturally relevant pedagogy, and this year there will be another resolution to try to push the organization to create material specifically on anti-black racism.
“These types of motions and directions to the organization isn’t coming from the elected
leaders within the organization. It’s coming from us, the people, identifying the need for it and then having to bring it to the floor for debate to then be approved. But if we weren’t there, if this caucus didn’t exist, I couldn’t tell you that our organization would be taking up the cause.”
Ellis-Seguin said she is grateful for the space to have the caucus because she knows that if it wasn’t for the work of its members some of the work that the union is involved in wouldn’t have happened.
She said in some unions it is not easy to create that space for the rank and file to have their voices heard. This was apparent at the conference.
“Really knowing your union and understanding the processes that are in place to impact change is critical. And once knowing that you have to organize.”
She said journalist, Desmond Cole, who was one of the speakers reminded them that they are not calling individuals racist, the system is racist and it is important to acknowledge that and do something about it.
“I can attest to that within my own union, I feel as though when we talk about anti-black racism, when you talk about the need for calling out racism, they don’t want to be associated with it.”
There was also a lot of talk about decolonizing oneself first before even being able to move on.
She said change has to come from the grassroots members because she has not seen it come from the elected officials or the staff on their own.
She said activism is tiring and there are days when she feels like why bother, the struggle is too great.
However, the conference provided her with the rejuvenation that she needed knowing that there are others trying to make their union and their profession more aware of the issues facing black people and addressing anti-black racism.
“My experience is that while we talk the talk, we have not been able as an organization to walk the walk. And I find that with a lot of even provincial labour organizations, labour unions and also national organizations as well, you know we talk to people and other national organizations, like CUPE and Unifor, even the terminology “anti-black racism” is new,” said MacLean.
She noted that some have said: “We’ve been hearing about racism, now what’s this whole thing around anti-black racism. Now you’re adding something more to it. And now you’re frightening me even more.”
MacLean thinks labour organizations have not been able to address these things internally because of the systemic and institutional barriers within.
She thought that through the “Working While Black” workshop the goal was to try to come up with some recommendations specifically for the CLC but that did not materialize.
However, through other workshops they also talked about anti-black racism.
She said the terminology was new to a lot of union activists but people were thoroughly engaged and there were recommendations.
They said people need more education and training and they are looking for the CLC to develop a course around this and to develop a leadership course that would focus and engage members around anti-black racism.
“They wanted the CLC, as a national labour organization, to actually do more, and they didn’t say the word ‘campaign,’ per se, but utilizing what’s going on here in Canada, particularly around the Black Lives Matter movement, to do more work, in terms of a campaign, to bring greater awareness around anti-black racism, not just in the formal setting but also in the informal setting.”
The recommendation is to do campaigns or more engagement at the local level and try to get that filtered down to the federations of labour so that it can reach people at a greater level.
MacLean recently settled a Nova Scotia human rights complaint against her employer on the basis of racism.
Within the complaint process, she cited several examples such as: a supervisor asking her in a staff meeting ‘what would Kunta Kinte say?’ when she expressed being tired because she watched the new televised movie series, “Roots,” and being affected by it.
Other examples included being asked to go fetch coffee and to deliver it, and MacLean cited that, in terms of discrimination, because she was made to feel like she was the maid, she said.
She was also accused of stealing something out of a kit bag being assembled for a conference. She was the only black staff member helping.
“When an item went missing I was the one that was bluntly accused of stealing that item when, indeed, it had been somebody else, so I’ve experienced a number of different issues around racial discrimination in my own workplace hence I filed the human rights complaint and we settled it at a resolution conference two weeks ago with a number of other grievances,” said MacLean who spoke to me
One of the things that she addressed in the resolution conference, as part of a settlement, was the issue that in 2004 there was a recommendation for her organization to have anti-racism and anti-oppression training for elected officers and management.
MacLean said this never happened and later in 2009 a major event happened in the workplace. Thirteen grievances were filed from it, including one on racial discrimination, “where we were called miserable niggers in our own workplace.”
She said the grievance took five years to be resolved because their employer told them that they had to prove that it was racism.
MacLean said a big investigation took place and they ended up in arbitration and after almost 18 months, they initiated a settlement.
“One of the settlement items again was around mandatory training. The employer signed off on that as part of an arbitrated settlement. It never transpired; that was two years ago. Nothing in relation to training or education or development for the union, as a whole, happened. And we signed off on it as an arbitrated settlement.”
She said two years later, which is 2016, she found herself asking for it through the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission that is now mandated to ensure that it happens.
“That’s the only way that I felt I could get what this organization needs. When it comes to anti-black racism, really they just don’t get it. They talk about racism but they talk about it as a kind of a global sense and now the talk about, specifically, anti-black racism, that’s going to make people feel uncomfortable,” says the union representative.
Part of her portfolio includes doing human rights work so she has two human rights committees and she does all the human rights courses, including anti-racism.
Recently, she held a workshop on representing and advocating against workplace racism and she informed her employer because many times she felt like a hypocrite at work.
“I’m singing from your songbook but the songs aren’t playing out for me. It’s not playing out for me in my workplace but I am singing from your songbook because I’m paid to do so. It really impacts us, particularly as black staff when we know that we’re treated in such as way, and that racism perpetuates itself every single day in our own workplace and nothing is done, ” she said.
The PSAC’s human rights policy statement and constitution “clearly outlines that we do not condone discrimination and that we will be vigilant in challenging discrimination in our workplaces.”“Human rights are protected in law – through human rights legislation, labour legislation and health and safety legislation to some extent. Collective agreements also protect human rights,” notes the union’s website about grievance and complaints involving human rights.
MacLean believes things have to start at the top of the organization where the decision makers are and she thinks what the union can do is to start to engage the grassroots members.
She said all unions operate under a political structure. There are elected officers, which means a lot to people who are elected, and if they want to maintain their positions then they have to do what the grassroots members want them to do.
She said the union needs to get more thoroughly engaged with coalition partners at the community level who will help to strengthen the organization at the grassroots level to “make sure that they force the elected officials to do that work.”
MacLean said things need to be taken to the grassroots members to make sure that they have a greater awareness and understanding.
“We have a lot of allies and we have a lot of friends at that level and that’s the community level that can impact that change. If we’re going to make that happen, I think we need to go to those, back to the grassroots membership and make sure that they are organized enough and that they’re supported enough to make sure that those people who are in elected leadership positions, be it individual unions or the Canadian Labour Congress, are doing that work.”
MacLean singled out the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) which, she says, has been instrumental, in terms of partnerships, and is doing some great stuff.
She said the coalition will be working on a project of talking more and trying to engage more union activists around anti-black racism.
The CBTU Ontario Chapter will celebrate its 20th anniversary on November 19 in Thornhill, Ontario.
The organization challenges systemic forms of racism within the labour movement itself by promoting access and opening doors for black workers and workers of colour within their unions.