The two trade unionist workshop panelists — Derek Fudge of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), who himself has a disability, and Maureen Morrison of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) — were a bit taken aback by the remark, and not surprisingly. It came a good 90 minutes into discussion and reports on the considerable efforts unions have been making to stimulate the limited employment equity program we have been granted in this country.
Yet the woman’s question wasn’t without significance, if only to illustrate an underlying tension that, in spite of all the good will in the world, is bound to exist between “haves” — those with jobs, trade unionists in this case — and “have nots,” the vast majority of the population of people with disabilities. And in any case, much as we can largely discount employer assertions that iron-clad union contracts effectively seal job-seekers with disabilities outside of the unionized work force, the fact remains that seniority is an extremely sensitive area for unions. Any population not always able to approach in scope jobs at “entry levels” has a certain amount of justification for initial reticence in such a setting.
Representatives of these disparate, though in many ways, similar, movements — including a sprinkling of employers, government bureaucrats and service agency personnel — constituted those present at the Manitoba Federation of Labour/Manitoba League of the Physically Handicapped’s June 2 to 4 conference, “2001: An Access Odyssey.” They came together to explore technical-sounding terms and unfamiliar concepts, to recommend continuing collaborative strategies to their representative groups and generally, to raise the profile of the need for greater emphasis placed on the establishment of accommodation standards as well as for significant employment equity measures.
Areas of cooperation between labour and organizations of persons with disabilities have increased markedly over the past two to three years. The project referred to above, which ended via the June conference in Winnipeg, is one of several similar “partnerships” that include COPHAN, CCD’s Quebec affiliate, and the Quebec Federation of Labour; the Canadian Auto Workers and our affiliate, PUSH Ontario; plus a joint union/company project involving the B.C. forestry industry that will see the establishment of the International Institute of Disability Management and Research on Vancouver Island.
CCD itself has taken on two projects. Like most of the others, both were made possible through grants from the Federal Department of Labour, since amalgamated into Human Resources Development Canada. One was a collaboration with CUPE National; the other was with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and resulted in the development of a two-day training course. Extracted from a 10-year-old, five-day course that was seldom taught, this updated version covers workplace issues relating to workers with disabilities from a human rights-based analysis. Re-designed by Yvonne Peters of Winnipeg and Ailsa Watkinson of Saskatoon, this course should prove as popular as it is dynamic and relevant.
The current initiative is by no means merely a matter of taking advantage of available federal partnership program dollars, much as they have been appreciated. For the first time ever, CLC provided CCD with the means to send a representative, this author, to its biennial congress in Toronto in May of this year. The idea of a permanent disability caucus within CLC’s actual structure is beginning to take shape and may well arrive as a fact within the next few years. Most significant of all, Vice-President Dick Martin delivered a major policy address for CLC on the subject of its commitment to an accessible workplace and social justice for persons with disabilities. His speech was made in his home town at the Access Odyssey conference’s banquet. It was frank, passionate and seemed most fitting as an appropriate expression of commitment to an audience in the midst of celebrating the 75th anniversary of the great Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.
Consumers with disabilities and trade unionists have gotten together many times in the past, most notably in 1983 around the occasion of COPOH’s (CCD’s former title) Employment and Income Security Conference in Edmonton. That collaboration, involving COPOH and NUPGE, produced the book Together for Social Change, which compared the genesis and histories of the two social movements. Even so, there were many more instances when unions appeared to be more interested in getting involved with charity boosting, even to the extent of supporting telethons, than they were in making their employers sit down at the bargaining table and hammer out employment equity provisions.
The real promise held in this most recent initiative is based on the work done by the CLC’s Human Rights Committee, chaired by another of its vice-presidents, Nancy Rich of Newfoundland. If what CLC is now pledging demands much hard work on the part of its leadership and exacts some fundamental changes in attitude on the part of its rank and file, it just as surely poses a challenge to activists with disabilities, both inside and outside of the union movement. It is up to those outside of the house of labour to cast aside old, wornout prejudices and find out what the true message of Canada’s working people actually means. And as for those inside, they need to step forward, take up leadership positions where they possess the necessary skills and abilities, and make equal access to the workplace and real employment equity provisions standard union issues at every level.