Canadian Union of Public Employees

From Academic Kids

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is a Canadian trade union serving the public sector - although it has in recent years organized workplaces in the non-profit and para-public sector as well. With more than half a million members across Canada, CUPE represents workers in health care, education, municipalities, libraries, universities, social services, public utilities, transportation, emergency services and airlines. CUPE is the largest union in Canada. Over 60% of its members are women, and almost a third are part-time workers.


CUPE was formed in 1963 by merging the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the National Union of Public Service Employees (NUPSE). The first national president was Stan Little, who had previously been the president of NUPSE. Having led public sector unionism through a period where almost no workers had the right to strike, Little has been credited with bringing public sector unions "from collective begging to collective bargaining." By the time of Little's retirement, CUPE had already grown to 210,000 members and had eclipsed Steel as the largest affiliate to the Canadian Labour Congress.

Little was followed in 1975 by Grace Hartman, a dynamic feminist activist who was, at the time, the first woman to lead a major labour union in North America. Hartman led CUPE to involve itself in broader struggles for social justice and equality, and strongly emphasized the role of social unionism, as opposed to the more conservative business unionism practiced by many North American unions. Never afraid to be confrontational, she was arrested for leading Ontario hospital workers in defying a back-to-work order from the Ontario Supreme Court in 1981, and the 62-year-old grandmother was sentenced to 45 days in jail.

From 1983 to 1989, CUPE was led by Jeff Rose, a Toronto city worker. Rose's time as president was marked by fights against the Mulroney-era cuts to public services. It was during Rose's tenure, as well, that CUPE began to promote the idea of a day of remembrance for workers killed or injured on the job. In 1984, CUPE declared April 28th to be a Day of Mourning -- a day that is now recognized around the world as the International Day of Remembrance for Workers Killed or Injured on the Job.

In 1991, Judy Darcy challenged Rose for the presidency, and became the defining face of CUPE. One of Canada's most visible and colourful labour leaders, Darcy was a vicious opponent of privatization, two-tier health care, and free trade agreements. Darcy was firmly committed to the union's involvement in broader social issues, and under her tenure CUPE strongly attacked the invasion of Iraq, condemned Canada's involvement in ballistic missile defense, and spoke out loudly in favour of same-sex marriage. Darcy stepped down in 2003 after 12 years as president, and was replaced by Paul Moist.

Internal Organization

CUPE has an extremely decentralized structure, in which each local elects its own executive, sets its own dues structure, conducts its own bargaining and strike votes, and sends delegates to division and national conventions to form overarching policy. Advocates of this system claim that it places the power in the grassroots where it belongs; critics believe that it makes it difficult for it to organize concerted action and leaves the union highly balkanized with policies and strategies varying widely from local to local and sector to sector. This decentralized structure is often described as "CUPE's greatest strength and its greatest weakness." This political decentralization is mirrored by an organizational decentralization. Although CUPE has a national headquarters in Ottawa, it is relatively small -- the vast majority of its staff are scattered across over 70 offices across the country.

Organizationally, there are provincial divisions for each province, as well as the national organization. Nationally there are two full-time political positions -- the National President (currently Paul Moist), and the National Secretary-Treasurer (currently Claude Généreux).

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