A Letter of Response and Support from the Executive to Silence is Violence

On May 6, 2015, the working group Silence is Violence released an open letter to CUPE National condemning the lack of response and policy surrounding sexual and gendered violence both in our local and our entire union. CUPE 3903 has failed its members and the broader community by failing to establish a comprehensive policy regarding sexual and gendered violence in our local.

While the local should provide assistance to survivors going forward with criminal charges, we also acknowledge that the legal system is woefully inadequate and often harmful in its dealings with sexual violence. This is especially true for racialized people, disabled  people, LGBTQ people, people with precarious immigration status, or any other systematically disadvantaged group. We acknowledge that sexual violence disproportionately affects women-identified people. As a social justice union, we cannot wipe our hands of responsibility by directing our members to the court system. Our responsibilities include survivor-centric policies and support mechanisms, guaranteeing a safer work environment, education that confronts rape culture, and a long-term commitment to battling misogyny in all its forms. Without action on these things we are not serving our members, or the wider community, in addressing issues of sexual violence at systemic levels — let alone individual ones.

Sexual violence does not happen to women because of what they wear, or where they go, or who they trust. Sexual violence occurs because perpetrators commit these acts. Most importantly, sexual violence occurs because we, as a society and as a local, allow misogynistic beliefs and behaviours to thrive, and we expect women and women-identified people to “cope” with or address them privately. We see those beliefs at play in York University’s use of a quasi-judicial tribunal process as the only recourse in cases of sexual violence, putting this kind of violence on par with such offences as academic misconduct. They are also evident at the level of CUPE National, where there is a code of conduct which includes harassment, but not sexual violence. This shows to what extent the institutions we are a part of conceive of sexual violence as a problem between two individuals, rather than a systemic problem which permeates our society and is bolstered by the rape myths we all participate in when we refuse to acknowledge they exist.

Sexual and gendered violence are real. We have a duty to address not only how we handle cases in which it has occurred, but also to put in place policies that contribute to lessening the frequency of such violence.

At our Annual General Membership Meeting on April 22nd, our membership voted to allocate $20,000 to the Trans Feminist Action Caucus, earmarked for sexual violence response. Clearly, this issue is of the utmost importance for our membership, and the executive looks forward to facilitating this most essential work. We are looking to collaborate with Silence is Violence, TFAC, and the Tri-Campus Coalition to Stop Sexual Violence.

CUPE 3903 will be pushing for reforms to our own by-laws, as well as changes to the National Constitution and Code of Conduct. The current Code of Conduct does not name sexual harassment; only harassment, and is completely silent on the larger issue of sexual violence. It also has a limited reach as it only applies to behaviours occurring within CUPE events. We seek to displace the CUPE National’s trial process with an accountability measure that is survivor-led and addresses the trauma that survivors of violence must endure. We also seek to make a clear distinction between sexual harassment and sexual assault. While they are both on a continuum of misogyny, conflating the two is synonymous with refusing to acknowledge the true nature of the violence committed against women. Adequate naming practices are an important part of addressing not only events between individuals, but also the whole range of systemic forces which enable these events to occur. As such, it is imperative that we name these behaviours as what they are: sexual violence.

Improving our support to survivors is not sufficient: both CUPE 3903 and CUPE National need broad-based educational campaigns as well as long-term research to ensure that the educational efforts and having the intended results and help us fine-tune and target our efforts to end sexual and gendered violence.

We are looking forward to CUPE National’s response to our request for money and time to develop a proposal which would then be placed on the agenda at CUPE National. National claims it is currently reviewing its policies. We strongly encourage National to involve locals in this initiative; CUPE 3903 particularly strongly desires to be a part of this process.

CUPE 3903 and CUPE National have an important opportunity at present to lead the way in creating functional and adequate policies to address sexual violence. Trade unions played a large role in increasing women’s role and status in the workplace – it’s time to build on that tradition.