June is Indigenous History month in Canada, and also the kick off to Pride season. Summer is a season for celebrations and festivals, but these events are also important for promoting awareness and encouraging all of us to reflect on the paths that brought us to where we are now.
Most unions have a long history of promoting inclusion. Strength in numbers is a main principle of the labour movement. To maintain that strength, all members must have a voice and representation.
When we look back on the history of unions and equity, there are high points and low points. Throughout the ongoing struggles for workplace rights, some groups of workers have been overlooked or purposely left out.
Modern unions need to acknowledge mistakes of the past and present so we can avoid repeating them and work toward a better future for all members.
The history isn’t perfect, but it does show our progression. As attitudes and understanding in society have changed over time, unions have often supported the fight to have those changes enshrined in laws and labour standards.
Same-sex marriage is one example of a human rights victory that had a huge impact on workers.
Up until the early 2000’s, most Canadian workers’ rights and benefits achieved through collective bargaining were only available to a worker’s legal spouse. Things like extended healthcare, dental care, and pensions were not accessible to a worker’s partner if they weren’t legally married.
Canadian unions stood in solidarity with hundreds of social justice organizations, to pressure the Federal government to redefine the definitions of common-law partnership and marriage, which would then provide the legal basis for ensuring workers’ benefits extended to their partners, regardless of gender.
It’s also a great example of how inclusion does not come at the expense of one group, but instead raises everyone up.
But being treated fairly – especially in the workplace – is about more than equal rights. Unions also advocate for equity, which is about ensuring that workers with different requirements get what they need to be on the same playing field as everyone else.
Social justice is another key principle for unions and is about removing barriers that prevent workers from participating in the first place.
Equity and social justice working together is how we can move towards inclusive workplaces where everyone can succeed, and everyone feels supported.
Here in the north, you’ll regularly hear the term “affirmative action” used when talking about improving diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace – particularly for Indigenous residents. It is important to understand that affirmative action is an employer policy, it is not legislation.
In a territory where just over half the population is Indigenous, only 29 percent of its territorial public service employees are Indigenous. While affirmative action was originally a progressive concept, over the years it has failed to achieve the goals it was intended for, and our public service does not currently reflect the population it serves.
Affirmative action is based mostly on the principle of equality and setting quotas for hiring to create a diverse workforce. While it can make jobs more accessible to some underrepresented groups, it fails to address barriers that workers experience once they’re in a workplace.
It also doesn’t address the issues that make these jobs less attainable to some people in the first place. These issues include – but are not limited to – poverty, access to quality education, social stability, cultural differences, and systemic racism.
In many ways, affirmative action sets workers up to fail, which affects staffing and workloads, morale, and the overall health of a working environment.
As an organization that fights for equity and social justice, the UNW strives to provide a collective voice for those who are still underrepresented or discriminated against in workplaces. To do this, the union needs to be reflective of all members.
One way to work towards this is through the position of an Equity Vice President. The UNW Equity VP is a member of the UNW Executive and is elected by and from union members who identify as belonging to an Equity group.
Through the Equity VP, the Union of Northern Workers works to protect and expand the rights of Equity group members who often face barriers in the workplace.
The UNW Equity VP also monitors equity programs and chairs a UNW Equity Committee, which provides a place for equity group members to discuss, identify, and strategize how to best address issues of concern to them.
We hope everyone has a chance to get out and enjoy the warmer weather and the many events taking place this summer. Yesterday we celebrated National Indigenous People’s Day, and we look forward to the various Pride events happening across the NWT over the next few months.
Let’s also use this time to reflect on the role we all play in making our communities and our workplaces safe and inclusive for everyone.