May 10, 2010

Diversity work requires ‘visionary persistence’

Workplace, union equality a long—but rewarding—road, says CUPE disability rights activist

BURNABY—Achieving equality rights and promoting diversity—both in the workplace and in one’s union—can be a long, tough road. But with visionary leadership and dogged persistence, real change does happen, CUPE 1936 vice-president and disability rights activist Sheryl Burns recently told a group of activists from the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Burns, an executive board member of the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities and former chair as well as current member of the CUPE BC persons with disabilities working group, was a guest speaker at an April 27 “Activism in a Diverse Union” workshop held as part of PSAC’s union development program.

Burns, former chair of the CUPE National persons with disabilities working group, reminded the class of about 25 up-and-coming activists and mentors that the struggle for equality becomes even tougher in times of economic instability and government cutbacks.

“When there are fewer resources, resentment against those typically marginalized increases,” she said. “Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and ableism increase when people feel uncertainty, fear and instability. When people are struggling to survive, divisions often increase. Rather than acting together in solidarity, we cling to our tiny corner of the world, fearful that it will be lost—that our jobs will be cut, other jobs shipped out of the country or taken by exploited migrant workers.”

Burns, drawing on her years advocating for disability rights, urged PSAC activists interested in equality issues to know the environment they’re working in, be aware of the arguments made against diversity, understand and appreciate the fears of those who oppose diversity measures, and know their audience when speaking to diversity issues. Such an approach, she said, has made a difference in her own pursuit of equality rights on the job and in her union.

Burns described some of the breakthroughs in CUPE BC, including a membership survey that sought information on workers with disabilities—who self-identified as such, whether they felt accommodated, and what barriers they experienced.

“We learned that over a quarter of our members identified as having a disability,” she said. “Moreover, we learned that members with disabilities had little knowledge or understanding of their duty to accommodate rights and obligations.”

The survey was followed by an accessibility checklist, to be used at CUPE BC conventions and conferences, that has since been adopted by CUPE National.

Burns concluded by noting that emotions tend to run high and people’s fears rise to the surface whenever equality issues are addressed in a union.

“As leaders addressing diversity issues, we can learn to deal with our own emotions and our own fears—our fear of being disliked, of the impact this activism may have on our careers, on our unions, of whether we are doing the right thing,” she said.

“In addressing these fears, we can find the courage to address diversity issues, even when it’s hard to keep on doing so. As Rosa Parks once said, ‘When one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear. Knowing what must be done does away with fear.’”

COPE 491