Building Worker Power; CUPE Saskatchewan hears from panellists

The delegates gathered in Saskatoon for CUPE Saskatchewan’s convention heard about the importance of political action for union members from three of CUPE’s best. Nathaniel Teed, a CUPE member now serving as NDP MLA, Cara Stelmaschuk, the recording secretary from CUPE 882, and Gina McKay, the President of CUPE Manitoba, shared their experiences and took questions from the floor.

Nathaniel, who is Saskatchewan’s first openly gay MLA, spoke about coming to politics through his labour activism as a CUPE member. He saw Scott Moe and the Sask. Party tearing down the healthcare system that Saskatchewan built, undermining public education, and dismantling the social supports meant to help people get back on their feet, and knew he needed to get involved. His stressed the importance of representation. “When you see yourself in your leaders, you also see yourself in those positions.”

He is proud to stand with CUPE activists and other labour allies fighting back against Scott Moe’s attacks on Queer and Trans children. “It was only possible because of community engagement.” He encouraged the delegates to step up and get more engaged with their local communities, and even run for office. “We need more diverse, progressive, labour friendly union members (in the legislature).”

Cara came to the convention fresh off the front lines in Prince Albert with a message of warning for the delegates; complacency is a danger to our union. Her local, 882 fell prey to this danger in their last round of bargaining, which resulted in an 85-day strike and ongoing labour disputes. This complacency came first from the incorrect assumption that the local would always enjoy the same positive relationship they had previously held with the employer.

The local hadn’t done much in terms of educating and engaging their members ahead of the bargaining process, or even through it, assuming that it would be smooth sailing on calm seas like it used to be. Then the financial conversations started, and reality came knocking. The mayor, a notorious bully, and the new city manager started the financial discussion with a low-ball final offer. They expected Cara and the members of 882, who are mostly women, to settle for crumbs and meekly get back to work. “Nobody expects women to fight back, but women can get mad.”

Cara and the Prince Albert inside workers won their strike, but it took a lot of work. The City laid off 5 workers immediately after the strike and continue to create a hostile work environment. The lesson, says Cara, is that complicity kills. “Get every member informed, get them giving feedback, before even starting negotiations.”

Gina McKay then spoke, sharing the successful model CUPE Manitoba used to elect Wab Kinew and the Manitoba NDP. Gina detailed the strategy and tactics that saw the NDP sweep away the Conservatives and establish a labour-friendly government in the province. Modeled after the campaign run by CUPE Alberta, the path to victory in Manitoba started with a well focused ad campaign, taking on core issues which got to the heart of Manitobans. They then mobilized their members to volunteer for door knocking and building capacity for local NDP campaigns in their communities.

As the election got closer, they ramped up their presence. The CUPE Votes campaign built a small army of volunteers by educating and training engaged union activists to volunteer with local NDP campaigns. They targeted key ridings, and built relationships with the new prospective MLAs, community groups, and other labour unions. Their efforts yielded a strong, pro labour government, which has already begun advancing pro-union policies, and undoing the damage done by the previous government’s austerity. Gina finished by encouraging CUPE Saskatchewan members to get involved with political action, through CUPE Saskatchewan’s Public Service Voter campaign at:

“I truly believe movement building is organizing our CUPE members with solidarity at the heart.”