When Audrey Gauthier was elected president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 4041, representing Air Transat flight attendants, on November 1 she had a sense something special might have happened. Gauthier is openly transsexual, and she knew that there weren’t many other openly trans-people holding positions of power in the labour movement.
"I am the only one in Canada?" she wondered. Gauthier went to National Pink Triangle Committee, CUPE’s LGBTT rights group, and asked them to find out. They got back to her -- not only is she the first openly transsexual president of a union local in Canada, she is the second in the world.
"I wish I could have been the first [in the world]," she laughed.
Gauthier, who describes herself as naturally outspoken, has been active in CUPE since 1996, and has already served as vice president and secretary-treasurer of her local. While she considers herself an advocate for LGBT rights, it’s just one part of why she wants to be a leader and why she’s been given a mandate from her fellow workers.
"[I was elected] because of the fact that I could unite people and the fact that I can make their voices heard," she explained.
Like many union locals, 4041 faces problems engaging its members. Voter turnout at their latest presidential election was just over 50 per cent -- a number Gauthier thinks might represent a growing negative perception of unions.
"It might be another part of what the Harper government creates," she explained. "People are so fed up with everything that has to do with unions and power; they think we are all the same after all and it’s going to be the same bullshit one more time."
However, in local 4041, the apathy also created opportunity for members, like Gauthier, who aren’t traditionally represented amongst union leaders, to take top executive spots. One of the workers Gauthier ran against for the presidency was a young worker, who lost by a slim margin.
As president, Gauthier hopes to not only engage her members -- she promises to return every phone call -- but to make sure they also get involved with CUPE campaigns. It’s important to her that the workers in her local also begin to see the good that she thinks CUPE has done for flight attendants.
She also remains involved with the National Pink Triangle Committee. Her activism centres around educational efforts to help normalize the role trans-people have in society. "I need to let people know that I’m a normal person after all," she explained. "I’m someone who works, who has aspirations and who is loved."
For Gauthier, it is a point of pride that her election had nothing to do with her being a transsexual. "I think it is a milestone -- we're really moving forward, getting accepted."
Now, Gauthier wants to create an accepting environment in her own union by building solidarity. "Workers can fraternize, they can feel together and they feel that they belong to something," she explained. "That someone is there to watch their back and their rights -- that's what the union is all about."
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