I was raised by my Jamaican parents, who immigrated to Canada in the late 70’s. Shortly upon their arrival they both had to start working to make ends meet. My mother got a job working at a downtown hospital and my father learned a trade and started work at General Motors. Both of my parents had unions to represent them.
Growing up in Scarborough Ontario, I was lucky to have friends from a variety of backgrounds; most sharing similar stories of how their parents came from another country to seek greener (and often much colder!) pastures.
My friend Wilma’s parents came from the Philippines. Her Mother was a nurse and her Dad worked for the TTC; both unionized positions. My buddy Jeff’s parents came from Taiwan and his parents worked at a toy factory so he always had the latest gadgets. Jeff’s parents spent long hours on an assembly line putting together these toys. Luckily, they had a unionized job that provided solid health benefits so that they could have safety shoes with orthopedic insoles to make the work less painful.
Many immigrants who came to Canada during that period salute Pierre Trudeau for his work for opening the Canadian border and making Canada the diverse country it is today. But with all these minorities who have been putting in years of service in their unionized positions since the 70’s, one would think that it would only be a matter of time before these workers became more involved within their workplaces and take on a role within the union.
Sure, the Canadian labour movement has undergone several fundamental changes in response to demands for greater inclusion and representation by women, visible and sexual minorities, and people with disabilities. But we are barely scratching the surface. We need a labour movement which engages and includes all our members, and that celebrates the diversity that defines us. The labour movement must recognize the value of these groups and create full space for their participation.
For unions to succeed in the labour world, they must make the most of the full range of their people. Unions, just like any other employer, must attract and retain the right skills, the best minds– including a diverse representation.
Growing up, my mother was a union steward at SEIU. Though I never really knew what she did until I was much older, I thanked the union every time I got to go into the CNE for free after walking in the Labour Day parade; I was aware of the union.
My father would leave Canadian Auto Workers newsletters from General Motors around the kitchen table after coming home from night shifts. I’d wake up for school the next morning and eat my cereal while reading blurbs about possible strike dates and newest model additions to the productions lines.
It’s amazing the level of influence that environment plays in sculpting a person’s views and opinions of the labour world. My parents exposed me to the labour movement without being forceful- but these little glimpses, created awareness within me.
So it begs the question, why aren’t more unions engaging these visible minorities to be involved in what is going on within the labour movement? Or maybe the better question is why don’t more people of colour, women, disabled and sexual minorities get more involved in the labour movement?
During my time at SEIU Healthcare, I’ve been involved with numerous events that celebrated diversity within the membership, as well as played a key role for the neighbourhood in which the event was held. From Chinese New Year celebrations at the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, to marching down Yonge Street during the Pride parade, SEIU’s member’s interests reflect those of the community, as diverse as the globe.
Let’s keep the lines of communication open on both sides. The more the union does to connect with the diverse membership, the more those diverse members can inform the union of their interests and needs. It’s also a way for the labour movement to infiltrate and transform the minds of these new generations who are growing up without a connection to labour. There is also a great opportunity and need for union members of all backgrounds to educate their friends and family about the important role that unions play in their lives; this will slowly dispel the taboos associated with unions in many cultures.