he Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) held its 29th Convention in June 2021, electing a new slate to leadership from “Team Unite.” These include President Bea Bruske, Executive Vice-President Siobhán Vipond, Secretary-Treasurer Lily Chang, and returning Executive Vice-President Larry Rousseau.
Lily Chang has a long history in CUPE 79, one of the key unions working to keep the City of Toronto running. CUPE 79 has 20,000 members in numerous sectors including public health, childcare, housing and education. The Hoser sat down with Secretary-Treasurer Chang to discuss the CLC’s new direction as well as her history in Toronto’s labour movement.
The Hoser: We have a pretty big audience in the GTA, and our readers care a lot about this city. They also care about diversity in labour. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey through the labour movement, especially through CUPE 79?
Lily Chang: That'll take me back to over 30 years ago when I got a job working for the City of Toronto, which at the time was Metro Toronto. It was as a social service caseworker.
And at the time, I have to admit, it was a job. It was something that I thought fit more with my educational background. But very quickly, I found out that workers with Local 79, at Social Services Division, were very unhappy. There was a huge wage differential between the municipal workers and the provincial workers. As I understand it there was a disparity of about $10,000. The province got some kind of a pay equity or wage equity type of grievance that they won, while we were still waiting for ours. And people weren't happy, to the point where they wanted to vote down a contract, get out of the union, and all that kind of stuff.
I at the time worked with a small group of caseworkers, and it was because we were unhappy with the leadership. We believed that the leadership didn't really understand or care about our issues because a number of them at the time were former City of Toronto people. Local 79 represented City of Toronto [workers], as well as Metro Toronto [workers]. Because they had more progressive politicians, they had better collective agreement language.
We organized this big meeting. There were so many people who attended, more people than a general membership meeting for Local 79, but just from one division. They knew that there were some in leadership that came down who were observing, but we pretty much said “you know, we're unhappy about things, and we need to do something about it.” I think we probably used the words, “shit or get off the pot.” But it [meant]: “you’re gonna do something about it yourself. Not wait for someone else and not sit back and complain.” And if you're not happy with the leadership, the idea was not to leave Local 79, because that's a big huge ordeal. It was to make it more representative of what we were looking for.
While we spoke for social services, former Metro [Toronto social services], that bargaining unit consisted of childcare workers and long-term care workers. A hugely female dominated workforce. So I became a steward. I started helping people in the workplace. That came about because I had just transferred to a new office, passed my probation and I had a couple of co-workers approach me and ask me, “can you be our steward?” because they saw me writing some stuff or giving advice on some stuff. So I said, “okay!” then I became a steward, and then progressed from there.
Probably for the next 12 or 13 years I was just stewarding. I had my kids around that time and was only willing to put in so much time during the workday. Not so much after hours, which elected positions often require. Then an opportunity came along. I was asked to be a returning officer. Then I was asked to be on the job evaluation committee when the City amalgamated. I was looking at wage disparity there as well because we were putting everybody into one pay scale.
That was a big project and took a very long time. It took a long time before we got an arbitration decision on that. From there, I was asked to run for unit officer, which was sort of an elected officer position, but dealing with grievances, for the most part, workplace disputes. And then from there, I was asked to run for Treasurer for Local 79. I did that for 13 years. I had lots of great experiences during that time. I think that's when my labour understanding expanded so much more because I was at the top, helping to make those decisions, helping to strategize, understanding that as a local, we weren't just alone. We fit into a bigger labour family. Not just CUPE but also with Labour Council.
I went from there to sit on the board of the Toronto and York Region Labor Council. My understanding and my experience expanded even more because we were working with private sector unions, unions in sectors that I didn't have much familiarity with, and may not have even understood that there were unionized folks there, too.
What was amazing was that they had the same concerns that we did, they want the same things that we do. And despite the fact that the public sector and our employer is not about profit, the fact is, those private sector unions care so much about public services as well, because they live and work in the City and enjoy those services.
That was a wonderful experience. I was on the board for about five or six years. And then I got a call in December 2019. It was from Mark Hancock, national president for CUPE. It was a little bit surreal because in my 13 years as treasurer, I never got a call from any president directly. It was always through an [executive assistant]. So I was kind of wondering, “what is this about?” But this opportunity came up, and I thought about it, and I talked to my family, and it was just was the right thing to do at the right time. I was nearing sort of my 30 years plus with the City, I was eligible for an unreduced pension, and I had been thinking about sitting in that job too long without vacating it for younger people coming up through the ranks. But I needed to find something else, because I’m too young to just sort of watch Netflix, you know.
And then the pandemic struck. So that's my journey up to the point in time where I entered the race for the Secretary-Treasurer position.
TH: Your team mentioned to me was that you all were very busy with election work. One of the things that you were trying to accomplish was “foregrounding workers issues” during the federal election. Can you tell me about some of the successes that might have come from this effort?
LC: One of the things that we talked about during the campaign, and for years leading up to the campaign, was a national pharmacare program.
This is something that is just unusual for a developed country [not to have]. Canada, one of the [most] developed countries in the world, which has a public health care system, does not have national pharmacare included. I know this issue quite well because at Local 79 we have part-time members who work in recreation and don't have any drug plan in the same way that the full-timers do. They have to pay a lot for it and not get as much. People should not have to think about paying for the prescription [versus] paying for their housing, their utilities, what have you. That was one of the big issues.
Another big issue for us is childcare. I was lucky enough that I had a good job at the time I was raising my two kids and I could afford daycare. I put my kids in nonprofit daycare when I became the President of the Board because I felt I needed to be on top of things. I could go to work and I could go off and do other things that I wanted to do to make a contribution. I was confident in the daycare arrangements that I had.
I think especially about coming out of this pandemic and needing people to get back to work. More women left employment during the pandemic than men. Childcare is just really unaffordable, good quality childcare anyways, in this country and this city. That’s one of the things that we pushed on as well, and I think that was talked about [during the federal election].
We also talked about issues related to a more fulsome recovery, to disaster-proof our social safety net. Things like affordable housing. People know how unaffordable this city is.
I feel really badly for young people these days because back when I was young, you did everything right, you went to school, you got yourself a job, and you could get yourself a mortgage. It isn't like that anymore. Until you have some independence in that way it's really hard to start a family, to get along in your life. Good jobs are one of the things that I had with good benefits and of course fair pay and unionization. These are things that are important to us as well.
TH: Workers currently are living under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Some of the strongest unions over the past year or so have had either 1% or 0% wage increases, or are rolling over contracts for an extra year. The inflation rate reached 4.4% in September, and Statistics Canada has major wage settlements and new union contracts at 1.8%.
Effectively, the vast majority of unionized workers and non-unionized workers in this country are getting a pay cut. What plans does the CLC have considering you only have a two-year term because of the pandemic? What plans does the CLC have to accelerate pushback against these losses?
LC: The term is a shorter term, so we can't really be as ambitious as we would like. But on the issue of proper pay and compensation, what we see right now as we hopefully head toward a recovery out of the pandemic is that a lot of employers can't staff their operations. There's also a lot of people, particularly in the service industries, like the restaurant industry, or even healthcare, who have decided during the pandemic that they need to do something better for themselves. If that means finding a job that pays more, that isn't so precarious, that offers [better] schedules, and that the employer is offering benefits, etc., they're going to go to [those jobs].
I think all of us can agree that we need workers in every sector. We can't have everybody being an office worker, everybody being a union leader. We need people in every sector because that's how we have such a rich diversity of services that are provided here.
If we want to attract people to those industries we need to pay them properly, we need to look at offering those people benefits, pensions, commitment to schedules of work, so that they know that they're important to the organization. They're valuable, more than any other resource that they have. I think it's really important to let this government know and continue to push on what we need for good jobs.
Maybe then there's less looking at unions and wondering how come they're getting paid more, because all of us will benefit when you raise a floor.
TH: On a recent episode of The CUPE-Cast [July 27, 2021 podcast episode “Spillin’ the Solidari-Tea”], you mentioned that you have plans to unite the house of labour again, bringing in unions that have left, such as Unifor or the Teamsters. Can you expand a little bit on the sort of outreach that has happened at the leadership level?
I know that informally at the grassroots level, Labour Councils and the unaffiliated unions often work with people in different unions already. I want to know, at the leadership level, what type of efforts are going on.
LC: At the leadership level, it's mostly been at this point in time the President who has reached out to the Presidents of the Teamsters, as well as Unifor. Those discussions have to happen first, and it’s not going to be something that happens overnight.
What happened to make them leave the CLC were things that didn't happen overnight but over a period of time. What we don't want to do is stop the conversation. There are still so many things that we are on the same side on. When you're fighting for good jobs, fighting for good healthcare, fighting for affordable housing, these are things that all unions care about. Our members stand to benefit from these things.
There are ways that we can work together. If there are groups where we should be consulting with each other on how to press forward on an issue with the government, then we will work together. A lot of the staff in labour move from the CLC, to Unifor, to CUPE—you name it. They've been around and they know each other. There's a respect there. It's a job that people do, but at the end of the day, we’re here because we care about social issues and social justice. We have to look beyond what keeps us apart and find what puts us together.
TH: Without revealing any specific targets, obviously, are there plans among your CLC leadership team and everyone else to unionize specific big employers that are not organized in Canada?
LC: I don't have any specific plans. I know that we don't normally go around unionizing. At this point in time, we're looking to bring back the Teamsters, bring back Unifor, bring back the carpenters. I think they’re also sanctioned or out. But I don't actually have any ideas about what other unions that we’d bring in. We haven't had those kinds of discussions at this point in time.
TH: One of the things that you mentioned a little bit earlier, and one of the things that I've heard time and again, is that retail and food service are particularly difficult to unionize. Are there any new strategies that you guys are trying now that these jobs have become “family-supporting” jobs, the way that industrial jobs were 50 years ago?
LC: I think that's why it's so important. For us at the CLC, when we're speaking, we're not speaking for just unionized workers, we're speaking for all workers. A lot of the issues that we push for, whether it's good public healthcare, or climate justice or social justice, these are things that affect working people across Canada and internationally as well. What we need to do is speak out more, let them know that the issues we care about are their issues, and that this is a movement that they can join, even though they are not affiliated with a union.
They can participate and help us out when we are undertaking our campaigns and when we're fighting for these things, pushing the government, petitions, lobbying, coming out to help during election time when we’re trying to elect progressive politicians. These are times when all workers can help. They will only do that if they see us speaking to the issues that matter to them, too.
Earlier you were talking about other unions, and I think that it isn't just about unions. It’s about non-unionized workers as well, how to bring them in, how to have them want to join a union. If people want to join a union then we would be looking at that sector and referring them over to a union that would organize that particular group of workers.
TH: We have seen the Trudeau federal Liberal government, as well as the Ontario Wynne/McGuinty Liberals use strike breaking back-to-work legislation several times over the past few years, including against OPSEU’s college instructors and CUPW’s postal workers.
Is the CLC committed to a particular political party, or is it more of an “Anything But Conservative” strategy come elections?
LC: The team that I was elected with: we are saying that we are supportive of the NDP because the NDP is a party of labour and labour was one of the founding partners. To that end, if your family's not working for you, you have got to make some changes within your family. Speak to your family, fix those problems, and not necessarily look to divorce that family and find yourself another family. When you take a look at their platform and their values, they are most closely aligned with the values of labour. That's why we would support the NDP.
However, we have affiliates with different viewpoints, and we listen to our affiliates, take direction from them in terms of how they would like us to move politically. We do have affiliates out there who would [advocate] more of an “Anything But Conservative” strategy. And in some neighbourhoods that probably makes sense. In some neighbourhoods, if, suppose the NDP candidate isn't as strong, we have to take a look at our polling to help guide us.
Overall I would say our team is committed to the NDP. But we work with all parties, whoever's in a position to help us make sure that we can improve the lives of working people.
TH: I look at pictures from other countries oftentimes where there are different movements, whether it's anti-racist movements, movements for housing, reproductive rights, pushing against police violence, etc. There's often lots and lots of union flags—a big physical presence from labour. There's far less of that in Canada.
Do you think it would be constructive for Canadian unions to show up to these movements? Is this something you want to pursue, bolstering social movements in a physical capacity the way that lots of other developed nations have?
LC: Yes. There's all kinds of lessons that we can learn from those movements, right across the world.
It's so inspiring to see people coming together and pushing the social or the environmental envelope. People who are less comfortable than we are, have less than we have, and can come together and be committed? Absolutely, we want to build on that. I think the pandemic has given us an opportunity to do that, for what it's worth. Normally, meeting in person is way better, but technology offers us the ability to bring more people together from across the country on a lot of these issues. Also, because we've all been home at the beginning of the pandemic, it has made us more aware and [attentive] to what was happening in this country and around the world.
We can't let up on that. I think that a lot of eyes have opened during this pandemic. I know that I myself have been paying more attention, for example, to Indigenous rights and to anti-Black racism. And I would say even anti-Asian hate. Growing up, I was lucky. I didn't really have a lot of experience with really, really overt racism. Just children taunting and stuff like that, but I didn't care so much. But during this [pandemic] I've seen people who are really strong people so affected by what has been happening in their community or around the world. It's heartbreaking. So I think we have to capture that and continue to see that these are the things that people care about, that pull us together and allow us to be able to work together.