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International union moves to diversify executive board

Diversity was the big issue at the convention of the Communication Workers of America, the parent union of the Canadian Media Guild. This was the 69th annual meeting and it seemed appropriate that the labour leaders talk diversity at the most diverse city on the planet. The convention was in Toronto on July 16 and 17.

The issue was the lack of diversity on the executive board of the CWA, a union where four out of ten members are women and two out of ten are members of minority groups. Yet the executive of 19 people has only four women and one black person, a man. The resolution before the convention was to add four people to the board to represent this under-represented constituency. These are positions with full voting and decision making rights but without the full-time salaries attached to the other members of the board.

There was some concern that this issue may be controversial and may even fail at the convention but the supporters were numerous– overwhelming, actually. The demonstration of this support was educational.

The CWA has a tradition of having a microphone for people supporting a resolution on the floor and another for those opposing it. When the diversity issue came up on the floor the supporters lined up behind yes microphone, a line-up that snaked around the huge convention hall.

The slogan of the yes campaign asked “if not now, when?” The overwhelming answer, when the vote was called was Yes. The time is now. For the first year, the executive will appoint the four members. Next year, they will be elected. The CWA website (http://www.cwa-union.org/) has more details about the appointments.

The CWA convention was a demonstration of democracy in the union movement. Like the other participants, I had to be elected by the membership of the CMG to attend a meeting across the street from the place I work, the CBC Broadcasting Centre; had to be elected in effect to cross the street.

The CMG delegation (from left to right): Scott Edmonds, Lise Lareau, Greg Taylor, Michael D’Souza, Barbara Saxberg, Marc-Philippe Laurin

One of the issues the convention dealt with was appeals from members to take grievances to arbitration; instances where they felt their employer had broken the collective agreement but their union was not willing to fight the issue. In two of the three cases brought before the whole convention, the assembled representatives voted against the leadership and sent the issues to arbitration. And again, as in the case of the vote on the diversity issue, people lined up behind microphones to show their support and opposition to the matters and the questions from the floor were probing and exploratory, coming without rancour. All that added up to decisions based on intelligent information.

The convention also pointed out fundamental differences between the labor movement in the United States and the labour movement in Canada. Unions represent about one in three workers in Canada; in the U.S., the number is closer to eight in one hundred. We pretty much take health care for granted, even with all our complaints about its inadequacy; across the border, it is a hard-fought contract issue.

But, even in the face of our differences, the meeting in Toronto made it very clear that we are together working to make our places of employment safer and better places to work and making sure we get a fair wage for our labours.

Michael D’Souza is a producer for CBC television news and director of human rights for the CBC branch of the CMG.

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