Creating Safer Workplaces, Opening Speech by Carol Phillips to CAW Pride Conference, 2007


Speech by Carol Phillips, CAW Assistant to the President, to the 2007 Pride Conference: Creating Safer Workplaces.

Greetings to all of you.

I know lots of you are union activists - chairpersons, NEB members, shop stewards, committee people, members of LGBT caucuses, etc.  And I also know we have folks here who may be at their first ever union event - I especially welcome you to our Centre.  Some of the people in this room are here, like me, as allies, others are LGBT activists in their communities.  And, some folks are here because they're with their partners who are CAW members (again, a special welcome).

I want to open my remarks by first acknowledging the very hard and personal work that so many of you have undertaken in recent years in fighting for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. 

A lot of changes have taken place and I know you're going to spend some time this weekend talking about some of these very positive shifts.  Today's climate is much more open to LGBT members, and great strides have been made.  We'll have a chance to celebrate some of our victories later on this evening.

However, I'm going to focus on the darker side for a few minutes, because I don't think we should take our eyes off the horizon.

I'm talking about the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world and within Canada

Consider this:

·        The Institute for Marriage and the Family (which includes Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper as members), along with a whole host of other Christian groups (Defend Marriage Coalition, Enshrine Marriage Canada, Campaign Life Coalition, Untied Families Canada, etc.) became actively involved in politics in a way that we have never seen before in Canada.  Through the same-sex marriage debate, they built their capacity to organize, to fundraise, and to attract members.  They lost the vote, but they built their movement.

·        Fundamentalists are working harder than ever to get religious politicians elected to Parliament.  The organization "Equipping Christians for the Public Square" has stepped up its outreach campaign, aimed at convincing Christians (right-wing ones) to enter public life.  These folks even ran against Conservative candidates, pushing that party further to the right. 

·        Fundamentalists who are organising today in Canada are not only opposed to the legal extension of marriage to same sex couples, they also oppose a public child care system in Canada.  And, while they're at it, they're opposed to providing birth control, sex education, safe-sex education, abortion, gun control, HIV/AIDS prevention programs (other than abstinence), funding for women's programs, and much more.

·        Christian fundamentalists spent millions of dollars trying to defeat the same-sex marriage bill in Parliament. 

·        The American right-wing group, Focus on the Family, has been operating in Canada for two decades - but in 2004 they actually set up their office in Ottawa -- with a staff of nine and a budget of $11 million[1].  

·        On a related note, as trade unionists, we're very concerned that public services are increasingly being downloaded to the private sector.  But there's an added concern here for the LGBT community, as so many of these services are downloaded religious 'charities'. 

·        "The Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto will not allow gay or lesbian couples to foster or adopt children in their care, despite federal and provincial laws making it clear that such discrimination is not allowed.  In 2006, they received close to $92 million in funding from federal and provincial governments."[2]

·        The Ottawa Mission provides lunches to homeless people - but only those who attend their 11:00 am chapel service.  The mission received over $3 million from the municipality in 2005, according to Revenue Canada.[3]

·        In Quebec (and elsewhere as well) the majority of nursing homes are run by religious institutions, pushing LGBT seniors back into the closet, effectively denying them their partners' care.

·        All of these institutions tend to hire workers only within their faith groups, making the possibility of discrimination against the public (their clients) increasingly likely.  And, this discrimination in hiring likely extends to LGBT workers and workers who are non-believers.  If these were public service jobs (and they ought to be), there would be no such discrimination.

·        Gideon societies are back putting bibles in schools, and in 2005 New Brunswick lifted its ban on bible distribution in public schools.[4]

Maybe you've seen the bumper sticker:  "Focus on Your Own Damned Family"?

Right-wing Christian organizations are not the only activist fundamentalists in Canada - they are joined by some hard-lineJewish groups, and some hard-line Muslim groups.  But, it is the fundamentalist Christians who have the most ties to political power (in both the Conservative and Liberal parties).  It is the increasing presence of religion in government policy that we need to be most concerned about. 

We have won equal marriage, but that battle brought social conservatives and religious fundamentalists together, in a way they have never united (or organized) before.  And it is this that we need to keep in mind.

(My point here isn't to say that LGBT folks need to choose between their religion and their sexuality - that's an argument that fundamentalists have already made and we reject that.) 

And I'm not here to just list off all the forces lined up against us.

However, I think it's important that we see the opposition to social justice clearly, as that helps us determine who our allies are, and what work we have to do.

Contrast what I've just said about the fundamentalists with the following:

·        The majority of Canadians support equal marriage.

·        Groups from within all of the major religions spoke out in favour of equal marriage - the Quakers, the United Church, the Unitarians, the World Sikh Organization, the Council of Muslims, and so on.

·        Nearly every leader of every major union in Canada publicly declared their support for equal marriage.

·        The majority of Canadians also support universal child care, women's right to choose, and gun control.

Canada is one of the world leaders in rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people.  And if you ask people from other countries why Canada is in the forefront, they know - because the union movement was the vehicle for change. 

We negotiated equality for gays and lesbians - in benefits and against discrimination; we educated our members about LGBT issues; and we put our weight behind the LGBT community in pushing Parliament to end discrimination, stop the hate, and implement formal legal equality.

But there's more work to be done.  We need to take on homophobia, transphobia and the sexism that underlies it.  We need to challenge the intrusion of religion into politics, courts, and the provision of public services.

At our CAW Council last weekend we endorsed strategic voting - our union will work very hard to ensure that Stephen Harper does not win a majority government.  This means that we will focus on ridings where the NDP has a good chance of success, and in ridings where the NDP does not have a winnable candidate, we will support non-Conservative candidates.  But make no mistake - the Liberal party has their share of religious fundamentalists, and they need to be exposed and isolated - our message to both the Liberal party and the Conservative Party needs to make it clear that we do not support the intrusion of religious fundamentalism into politics.

The Canadian people are on our side.  But we need to cement the gains that we have made.  We need to deepen and broaden societal understanding of LGBT people and issues, and not take public support for granted.

We have done lots of good work in talking with our members, but there's lots more hate and lots more homophobia that needs confronting.  Trans people still don't have explicit human rights protection - that will take more work with our members, with employers, and with governments.

And our workplaces still aren't as safe for LGBT members as they need to be.

The union has been, and will continue to be, a vehicle for change.

This weekend we'll concentrate primarily on the work that needs to be done in our workplaces. 

This conference is about health & safety for LGBT members (from violence in the workplace and harassment, to 'macho culture' that keeps folks in the closet, to ostracism / isolation.  It is a basic union principle that both our dignity and our safety be protected at work - that means both our mental health and our physical health.  Too often this is not the case for LGBT members.

I know, as a woman, working in male-dominated workplaces that while we have made many improvements, there is more work to be done.  As a feminist, I've long understood the slogan "the personal is political" -  and the need to collectivize our individual experiences of harassment and violence, to analyze and strategize together to make real, lasting change. 

This conference is open to allies and leadership because it's about workplace safety - and LGBT folks themselves cannot be responsible for creating conditions for safer workplaces. 

Just as we don't make injured workers responsible for creating safe workplaces - LGBT workers are not solely responsible for challenging bigotry in the workplace.  Having said that, just as lots of workers who have been injured become health & safety activists, so too do our lgbt members get involved and push our members / leaders / employers to change attitudes and behaviours.

Some of our LGBT members hold elected positions, but for the most part, our LGBT activists don't have the power or tools to actually implement harassment-free workplace strategies.  We need leadership and allies to step up to the plate - and in some cases they really have.

We need to continue to dialogue with our members on LGBT issues.

To that end, we've put together a new Allies booklet, that we're really pleased to be able to present to you today: 

To our allies: everything you ever wanted to know about LGBT issues - well, maybe not everything.

This has been developed for our leadership, activists, allies, and also for LGBT members who want to better understand each other (especially trans issues).  Copies of the booklet were distributed to 800 CAW leadership and Council delegates last weekend.

This booklet is one part of our strategy to educate our leadership and activists about LGBT issues so that they can better represent LGBT members.  I know, as an ally, that there are issues that I have struggled with understanding - the booklet addresses these and provides allies with the answers we need to better work with and support our LGBT members. 

For many years now it has been up to LGBT people themselves to educate others on the issues - which means you've had to answer an awful lot of personal questions again and again, constantly putting yourselves out.  The work you have done on a one-to-one basis has built the understanding that exists in our union - what we hope now is that we will reach more people, and deal with more issues through the Allies booklet.  It's a tool for Allies, but it's also a tool for LGBT members - hand it out, and tell folks they can read it and get back to you if they still want to know more!

You'll have seen from the registration form that we have a separate allies workshop at this conference.  That's because as allies we need to challenge each other, and talk frankly about how we can best support LGBT members.  At the same time, our LGBT activists need time and space to talk with each other too.  It's important that we do our own work -- and then that we also come together.  This conference should be a model of how caucuses actually strengthen the union (people within a distinct group defining their own agenda and then calling on their allies to work with them).  Of course, it doesn't always feel comfortable to 'separate', but this is actually critical to our ability to work together. 

I'm going to conclude my remarks now, and I will join you again on Sunday morning to talk about the many important issues facing our union today.

I wish you a great conference -- no wait, a FABULOUS conference.


[1] CLC National Women's Conference, 2006

[2] John Crossen, Capital Xtra, March 15, 2007 "When religions deliver the services"

[3] John Crossen, Capital Xtra, March 15, 2007 "When religions deliver the services"

[4] ibid.