No man is an island, but Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) president Paul Moist hopes no trade union is either. As one of the speakers at the Common Causes teach-in, coinciding with the Conservative Party’s convention in Calgary, he’s joining a panel that includes famed environmentalist David Suzuki, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation and Council of Canadians national chairperson Maude Barlow.
“Labour cannot be isolated,” explained Moist. “One of my messages on Friday night is that none of us can afford to be isolationist and none of our issues are more important than anyone elses.” Moist, who is also the vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), is moving forward with an aggressive plan to build coalitions and change the public perception of unions.
I sat down with Paul Moist and this is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Have coalitions become more important for CUPE or has your union been working on them for a long time now?
I think CUPE has a pretty long track record of being involved in a whole bunch of very worthy groups from a broad cross section of society. Today the stakes are getting much, much higher for de-unionization in Canada. We’re increasingly seeing emboldened governments speak about rolling back the clock on our framework of rights to form trade unions, to organize members and take dues and use them for reasons determined democratically by our members.
I see more unity within and amongst trade unions now. The CLC Fairness Works campaign is a collective effort. And every single one of the CLC’s 55 affiliate unions has admitted there is a bit too much space between elected leadership — even at the local level — and rank and file members. We need to bridge that gap.
Do you feel like unions have to mount a PR campaign right now? Do people have the wrong impression about unions?
I think the campaign is an admission that for far too long we’ve let some of our opponents define us. I lead a largely public sector union — the largest one in Canada — and you’ve all heard about so called gold plated public sector pensions or public employees who allegedly have jobs for life. Neither of those two things are true, but to some degree we’ve allowed our opponents to define us.
The Fairness Works campaign is designed to project the image of the labour movement that we believe is accurate. We have fought for things like pensions, parental leave, vacations and benefits. Those are good things in society and many of those things have translated to workers who are not covered by unions.
But how do you reach the new class of worker that is precarious and not easily organized?
We actually need to reach Canadians with two or three jobs and we can’t be xenophobic regarding temporary foreign workers. I personally believe that temporary foreign workers are an extremely exploited class of workers. It is up to the trade union movement to expose the exploitation.
By that I mean, why are temporary foreign workers required to pay into EI if they are laid off? Why are temporary foreign workers denied basic trade union rights? Why is this program being used, not for specialized skills that we don’t readily have available in Canada, but for the services sector? Why don’t they give people a raise and attract unemployed or under employed Canadians?
We need to be a trade union movement that is responsive beyond our own membership base to people who are struggling with two or three non-union jobs.
Now, 25 per cent of CUPE members are something other than permanent employees. We are negotiating, with some success, the right for part-time workers to access a pension plan. We just gained that right for all public employees in New Brunswick and we gained it six or seven years ago for health care workers in Ontario. Today we have over 25,000 part time health care workers — but they are only part time in name because many of them have three jobs that add up to a full time job. They now have the right to participate in the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan.
Since you’re going to be just outside the Conservative party convention, I wanted to ask you about Bill C-377 which is now going to have go back through the Senate. Are you concerned it may not make it through with the changes that were added to it last time.
We worked very hard in speaking with all members of the Senate and we’re hopeful that the Senate has similar scrutiny this time. There is only one reason they are doing this — because they think they can get away with it. We’re an easy target. But audited financial statements are on our website, and the whole world can look at them
We’re pleased that all three opposition parties have said this was a complete waste of time, effort and money. If it ever sees the light of day it might have a short life. But CUPE is not fixated on what Prime Minister Harper’s doing in bashing unions. We’re more fixated in reaching our members, educating them and reaching our to other groups in society. We cannot afford to just chase Bill C-377.