PSAC union members launch counterattack against racist reaction to training event
By Sean McNeill
Looking back at the history of Canadian trade unions, we can trick ourselves into imagining the great victories as moments of internal harmony. Of course, sociopolitical relations are of greater complexity than such reductions can account for, and the history of trade unionism is not just a history of conflict between the classes but struggles within the working class itself.
Last week, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) made history with its largest ever anti-racism training event, hosting one thousand members and non-members in the English webinar on July 20 and more than 700 registrations for the French session on July 21. It ought to be remembered as a moment of moral clarity for a union whose membership constitute a dynamic substratum in Canada’s organized working class. PSAC members are employed in all sectors of public administration, from program delivery, to integrity enforcement, to activities adjoining or directly engaged in the carcel state. They are in a unique position to passively observe, actively exploit or actively challenge the many intersections of structural oppression in Canada. It is my hopeful imagination that labour historians will look back at this moment as one small, but brave step by PSAC in the long march towards a just society.
But any assessment of the progress of organized labour must reconcile the internal reactions which have held it back and, at times, sabotaged it. Sadly, PSAC’s historic event was nearly sidelined by the reaction of a vocal minority in its own membership. In a fit of panic that they may have a personal responsibility to address the institutional racism which the federal workforce is complicit in, members lashed out at the facilitators, the supporting membership and the leadership.
On July 13, after the public announcement of the webinar on Facebook, a local union leader from PSAC’s Union of National Defence Employees component posted an open letter alleging that angry members had approached her about the course title, “An Introduction to Anti-Racism for White Folks.” The leader suggested the title was offensive to white members and a failure of PSAC to uphold its responsibility to non-discrimination. The letter has since been deleted, but in the days following it served as a rallying point for reaction against the webinar.
Had the fallout been limited to some nasty online comments, many coming from non-members, the incident may not have been noteworthy. But on July 16 Rebel News Media posted to its YouTube channel a 14-minute video, filmed on location at PSAC’s Toronto office, in which David Menzies drew attention to the course title and to the involvement of co-facilitator Nora Loreto. Rebel News has spent years cultivating Loreto as the villain in their narrative of Cultural Marxism.
Soon after, social media was flooded with screenshots of Loreto’s twitter feed, accusations of racism against white members and allegations of communist sympathies among PSAC’s leadership. As of the writing of this article, there are more than 600 comments plastered across a series of PSAC posts about the course.
It was clear to some that there was an organized effort within pockets of PSAC’s component unions to undermine the training event. Local, regional and national leaders, most uninvolved in any way with the webinar, received emails of protest with similar arguments and themes; again, screenshots of past comments from Loreto and accusations of racism against white members dominated the complaints. As the hours wore on, some members felt emboldened to make even more outlandish claims of white workers being marginalized in their union.
By the late afternoon on July 16, rumours turned to official acknowledgement – PSAC national leadership had disinvited Loreto, while affirming a commitment to the course itself. Behind the scenes the fate of the course was less clear, as the other facilitator, Haitian-Canadian activist Paige Galette, and PSAC staff involved in the course design took exception to acknowledging frivolous and disingenuous complaints.
With national leadership unable to articulate its own defence, Nicholas Thompson, President of the Union of Taxation Employees Local 00048, Vice President of PSAC Toronto Area Council and Black social justice advocate, rallied members to the cause. He invited me to join him on a live chat with Loreto and Galette. We discussed what had transpired behind closed doors and called on the membership to write directly to PSAC National President Chris Aylward and National Vice President Magali Picard. Before and after the live stream, we engaged our network of leaders and activists to publicly declare their support.
Over 2,000 had viewed the live stream by the next morning, and the discussion was taking a positive turn. We received unofficial accounts of dozens of emails being written to PSAC leadership calling for them to re-commit to the course and its facilitators.
That evening I joined Point of Privilege, a weekly live stream exploring critical issues in organized labour. We called out the regressive views among some of the leadership and explored the structural barriers that left local leaders ill equipped to respond to racist attitudes. With over 1,600 views and the second-most-watched episode in the series, it was clear that union members and leaders were paying attention and, hopefully, learning. More reports of write-in campaigns trickled in through the evening and into the next morning.
By the afternoon on July 18 we had secured victory, with a sincere and detailed apology to the facilitators from Aylward and an unequivocal condemnation of Rebel News’ tactics. Through quick organizing and a demonstration of anti-racism in action, we were able to counter a coordinated attack from inside and outside the union, and re-focus the discussion around core principles of the union and what it means to act collectively.
That evening, Thompson and I were joined once more by Loreto and Galette to celebrate the victory. I took the opportunity to call on all those who had written to PSAC to write back and acknowledge that leadership had listened, something that was as important for the leadership to hear as it was for the members to internalize. Loreto shared a fundamental truth about what had been observed: “I could have let [the issue] drop, Paige could have gone ahead and done [the course without me], but both of us just stuck to that very classic union principle of solidarity.”
Altogether, the three live streams now surpass 10,000 views, perhaps the most discussed union affair in PSAC social media outside of collective bargaining. For our union, the struggle is only just beginning. There are many barriers to overcome for racialized and marginalized members to participate and be acknowledged. This struggle runs parallel to the institutional oppressions of the Government of Canada itself. It is a struggle of just transitions, the limits of reform and the possibilities of revolutionary change. The union which comes out on the other side of it will look and act much differently, and the events of these past days provide a glimpse of the positive acts necessary to win the hearts and minds of Canadian workers.
You can view a recording of the webinar in English or French here.
Sean McNeill is the President of Canada Employment & Immigration Union (CEIU) Local 622 and the Second Vice President of PSAC Kingston Area Council. He lives in Belleville, Ontario.
(Image: PSAC website)
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