Every General Membership Meeting of our local begins with the reading of the Equality Statement. These words should never be taken lightly. Equality remains a goal within our local, but it is not the current reality. As union members, we must collectively and individually struggle to move towards this goal. That means recognizing, naming and speaking out against all forms of inequality whenever they appear.
Our local exists within a society permeated by systemic racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and discrimination. Our local exists within a society characterized by persistent forms of male privilege, white supremacy and settler colonialism. As a local committed to social unionism and progressive ideals, we are not immune or isolated from these systemic forms of oppression and privilege. They are regularly replicated in our behaviour and interactions with one another. This reality continues to be an ongoing issue in the union.
In the course of the last week, a series of events in the local have demonstrated the depth of these systemic problems – both the events themselves and the deeply troubling responses that followed them. Events that took place on Wednesday, February 4 among members at a Bargaining Team meeting have given rise to various unfounded and highly destructive rumours. This statement is an attempt to dispel those rumours and to express our serious concerns about the context and culture of our local that allowed these rumours to circulate so freely, so widely and for so many days in union spaces and online.
So what happened (and what did not happen) on February 4?
After a long day of bargaining, there was an angry verbal exchange between one member of the Bargaining Team, who arrived at the meeting late in the afternoon, and a member of the Executive Committee, who had been present most of the day, over bargaining strategy. Other members of the Bargaining Team attempted to reply to a series of allegations made against them by the member who arrived late. As the argument escalated, the member who arrived late interrupted, spoke over and silenced a female-identified and racialized member of the Bargaining Team, which led to an angry response by an Executive Committee member, who condemned the sexism and racism inherent in such behaviour. In an attempt to de-escalate the situation, two members of the Executive Committee left the meeting.
At the following Bargaining Team meeting on Friday, February 6, on union list-serves and on social media, some members of our local began to circulate completely unfounded allegations and rumours that the Chair of our local, Faiz Ahmed, had behaved violently in the Wednesday meeting, had thrown a chair, and had to be forcibly removed from the meeting.
Let us be absolutely clear: these allegations are categorically false. Not only that, they are racist and defamatory.
The spreading of these rumours within our local is alarming and problematic for a number of reasons. On a basic level, the spreading of rumours, gossip or innuendo about a member is completely unacceptable. It is a clear violation of the Equality Statement and the national bylaws of our union. And it must stop immediately.
More fundamentally, these rumours fed into and reinforced an overtly racist discourse that has consistently served to undermine the Chair of our local, Faiz Ahmed, and that has uniquely and repeatedly attempted to defame his character. Rumours in general, but more seriously racialized rumour-mongering among our membership, must be confronted and challenged. This kind of behaviour is simply not acceptable.
That these rumours were allowed to spread in union spaces and online for several days – with hardly any public opposition to them – is also evidence of systemic racism in our local. When members of the Trans Feminist Action Caucus (TFAC) raised these allegations during the Bargaining Team meeting on February 6, even though they were not present at the meeting on February 4, other members clarified what actually happened and asked that the rumours not be repeated. Sadly, the rumours continued to spread for several days. TFAC members and other members of the Executive Committee, who were witness to and participated in these online discussions, failed to intervene to dispel these rumours, despite knowing that they were false.
By their silence, bystanders to racism, sexism and oppression become complicit in it.
To their credit, some racialized members of our local attempted to call out the racist nature of the online discussions that primarily targeted our Chair, but they were met with dismissive, sarcastic and condescending responses – mostly from non-racialized men. In one particular response, a member compared the Chair to Bill Cosby, dismissing calls for evidence of the claims against the Chair. Regardless of its intent, this comparison both reproduces and relies on a racist trope about racialized men that equates the claims against the Chair with those against Bill Cosby, and that contributes to a pattern of racialized rumour-mongering against the Chair.
Worse still, the focus on these unfounded rumours completely overshadowed the highly problematic nature of the aggressive intervention that, in the first place, silenced the female-identified and racialized member of the Bargaining Team. In essence, her lived experience of sexism and racism has been totally ignored and devalued once again. As a consequence, its erasure has facilitated the spreading of rumours that focus exclusively on the Chair of our local, the only person who came to her defence in the meeting on February 4.
As our Equality Statement points out, “Union solidarity is based on the principle that union members are equal and deserve mutual respect at all levels.” Racist and sexist behaviour undermines union solidarity and weakens our local. Racism and sexism divide our local. We should never fall into the trap of thinking that a discussion of the problems of racism and sexism is itself divisive. We need to acknowledge, discuss and confront these and other forms of discrimination if we are to move towards real forms of solidarity.
We strongly encourage those members who participated in these discussions, especially those who repeated the unfounded allegations against our Chair, to make every effort to dispel these destructive and racist rumours, and publicly apologize for their behaviour. It is not enough to simply name oppression when we see it and expect absolution afterwards from the persons harmed. We have to own it. We have to correct it. And we have to end it.
We believe that this is the only way to move forward together, to transform the culture of our local and to build a stronger union. Especially in this moment, as we move ahead in the bargaining process, and towards a possible strike, we need the greatest unity possible among each other and our wider membership – the people whose interests the union is committed to serve.
The Executive Committee