The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents roughly 630,000 workers from across Canada. Members include both blue and white collar employees of public, non-profit, and private for-profit workplaces, mostly in social and community support service sectors like welfare, education, health, and energy. CUPE members consider their union as Canada’s community union, with a majority of members focusing on social unionism over self-interested business unionism.
The focus on social unionism means that CUPE activists continually debate what resources their union will dedicate to public policy campaigns that include union rights, anti-austerity, the defense of public services, and solidarity support for marginalized groups. The hard question is how to balance support for strike actions with proactive engagement in mass public education campaigns.
CUPE decided this week to engage in a massive two-year cross-country consultation to determine how best to invest union dues. Given changes to “essential services” legislation that ban an increasing number of CUPE members from striking and the growth of precarious employment and those living pay cheque to pay cheque, the fiscal strain of striking is becoming an increasing barrier to engaging in strike actions. As such, members are being asked how best CUPE can balance these priorities.
Union organizers and activists need to establish a full analysis for members so that these questions may be answered without being taken in by the rhetoric and posturing of those who seek to exploit these issues for political gain. The future of militant action within CUPE is at stake. If the union gets it right, then it could lead to a broader change in the way unions advance change for working people.