ontinuing our coverage of the CUPE 79 candidates for president, we interviewed Nastaran Yadollahi on her run, her views on the labour movement, and how she sees the local as part of broader social justice coalitions.

CUPE 79 is one of the largest public sector unions in the country, representing over 20,000 members working for the City of Toronto, Bridgepoint Hospital, and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. Yadollahi is among those running to lead CUPE 79. She is a health and safety coordinator for the union.

The election for the presidency of CUPE 79 will be held on Tuesday, May 24 in the afternoon. Results should be released that evening.

The Hoser: What is your history with the City of Toronto and CUPE 79?

Nastaran Yadollahi: I started with the City of Toronto in 1999. I actually started in children's services and then moved over to PF&R (Parks, Forestry and Recreation) in 2009. I started as a part time recreation worker, and then moved over into a full time position. I started with the local in 2017, I became a steward, then I became a health and safety coordinator and got involved in the broader labour movement, not just 79. And now running for president.

TH: Tell us a little bit about your personal history in the city.

NY: I come from a fairly political family. We've lived in Toronto most of the time. We did spend some time in Ottawa. We migrated to Canada in 1987, so I wasn't born here. We came as immigrants. My father was a refugee when he came. We followed him and met up with him here. So I feel like that political labour energy has always been around us in conversations with my father and his family. 

What really got me was the anti war movement during the invasion of Iraq. I got really involved. Then that spiralled into other international solidarity work that I did. I did some travelling around that stuff. I spent some time living abroad. I lived in China and Dubai. When I came back to the city, that's when I really got involved deeply in the labour movement. And it started very organically from a local place in my own workplace, realising the issues that were presenting themselves, and then realising that actually, it's a bigger issue. It's not just my workers, but it's an indication of what's happening more broadly. 

I found ways in which I could be more effective in terms of vocalising some of those issues, and then got involved in the labour movement. It's been a whirlwind. But it's been really, really good.

TH: CUPE 79 has upwards of 20,000 members. It's one of the most important unions in the city. I just want to know what your vision is from the presidency, from that vantage point, what your vision is for the union, especially considering member engagement and strategies to actually build power from the base.

NY: That's exactly it, right? We've lost the rank and file participation in the labour movement. And we actually sort of emulate a corporate model where it's top down, and there's a disconnect. We've created this disconnect between decision makers and workers, whereas it's supposed to be the other way around. The workers are supposed to be the decision makers in a labour organisation. 

There has to be an incredible amount of effort put back into, at a very basic level, even introducing the labour piece to workers like, “This is Local 79. This is what we do for you.” And there's a lot of discontent from workers in the sense of, “what does my union even do for me?” That's a very clear indication that the disconnect is real. People don't feel like their voices are being heard or that they're engaged. So to your question, I think it's going back to the basics of engaging members where they are at. 

Like you say, we actually have over 25,000 members at 79. And our meetings maybe have quorum twice a year. When we can't get from inside the local to show up, what that does is disarm the membership from being able to have a voice. One of the only places where the rank and file can actually put motions forward and create a movement that they want is out of general membership, meaning through passing motions. You can't put motions forward or pass them if there's no quorum. And when there's no quorum, that means the executive gets to decide the direction of the local. It's almost by design, disengagement, maintaining power at the top. 

That's what we have to break. We have to bring the membership back in and say, “This is the space in which you can tell the local what you want.” We just got to flip the power dynamic, the power has to get back in to the rank and file.

TH: This is like a very common thing. I hear this from so many different private sector and public sector unions. There's an absence of membership, and then whatever happens is on the exec level. But there's a lot of people like you who want that to change. One of the things that I also want to ask you about is this concept of social unionism. That's not necessarily my favourite term for it. But just the idea of unions being embedded very integrally in other social justice movements, or just more broadly, positive reforms for the locality. CUPE 79 has a very large footprint, both in terms of labour resources, and reach into different communities. How do you see 79’s role in a city like Toronto, in terms of bringing about not just better working conditions, but social change on things like trans rights, police violence, anti-Black racism, those sorts of things?

NY: Good question, and very relevant to 79. We have been absolutely absent from the broader movement. Given our size and the magnitude of the local there's no reason for that absence. When encampments were being cleared, when there was the Black Lives Matter movement, when there were all of these sorts of things. Our workers are there. We have a large contingency of part time workers who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet with the cost of living being what it is now. Supporting the broader movements, grassroots movements, is not separate from our workers. But we have created this separation where, “It's out there, it's not our issue. We're just going to deal with bargaining. And we're just going to do it's important.” 

I get those pieces, those pieces are important. Health and safety in the workplace, good bargaining, decent wages, living wages, all of this stuff is important. But how does that intersect and interconnect with what's going on in the world out there? And what's our responsibility to the greater worker’s movement? So many of us are a few paychecks away from losing our homes. So why are we not there? Why are the union flags not flying when encampments are being cleared? We don't even make any statements about it. Then it goes back to, “That's not what the membership wants.” How do we know what they want if we don't hear them? 

There's this very deliberate control of what we put out, because when you do put yourself out there, when you do make a statement about something, you're taking a stance. In the City of Toronto, I understand that there might be reasons for why the stance is not taken. You might ruffle feathers, you might upset some people. But I think we need to get back to, “Who are we representing?” And it's a big workforce. Not everybody's part time. We have professionals who work and who make a decent income. It's a balance of “Where are we? What are we doing? What are we speaking on? Who are we supporting?”

TH: I know that there was recently some impropriety discovered at the executive level relating to a violation of the [CUPE 79] constitution [and OMERS pensions]. If you could just briefly explain that and what you want to do to ameliorate that problem.

NY: I don't know the details. Nobody knows the details of what occurred. And let me just say that I'm actually not as invested in the OMERS piece per se, as I am in what it represents. What the OMERS piece represents is a historic foul practice of taking an incredible amount of money and taking it for oneself. This is not unique to this administration. Past presidents have taken that money as well.

Why do labour leaders think it's okay to take the equivalent of a full year's income of a person and pocket it? And the OMERS board is a side [gig], it's not like you're spending eight hours a day, 40 hours a week at the board. As a side gig, you're getting paid this incredible amount of money, and you're representing the membership at the table. So why in representing the membership, are you taking all of that [money]? That money should absolutely get back into the local.

You're talking about social unionism. This is exactly the opposite. It's business unionism. It's a very popular thing now in the labour movement. How are funds allocated? How much is the executive getting paid? What does that hierarchy look like? I have a lot of issues with the way that stuff works. We need to find an equilibrium that's different from what exists right now. The status quo is not very labour friendly. So OMERS, yes, whatever that issue is, it's a symptom of other things that are happening. It's not the disease. It's much deeper than that.

TH: Conventions and the practices that people have gotten comfortable with are such that this type of malfeasance becomes more common. 

NY: It's a cultural shift. It has to be a shift in culture and how we see labour leaders and their role in the movement.

TH: Bill 124 is still on the books. I'm pretty sure that Doug Ford is going to win again. The Liberals and the NDP have not been ahead of the PCs in polling for years at this point. So if Bill 124 is still on the books [limiting public sector wage increases to 1 per cent] and you're the president of CUPE 79, what do you want to do to be able to try to get members a decent living standard when it comes to salaries and wages? That's a really suffocating piece of legislation when it comes to somebody trying to re-engage membership to push for more.

NY: I don't think that burden can just be placed on a local. It's going to have to be us engaging with the broader labour movement to push back. And not just the labour movement, just engaging workers in general, to push back. Even municipally. Let's just take the pandemic as an example. As a health and safety coordinator and trying to push back on the employer to ensure safer working conditions, there's been so much pushback, on something as basic as health and safety. It takes so much effort just to try to get them to shift a little bit. So you can imagine a bill coming from a conservative government, the kind of momentum and solidarity that that is going to take across the board. 

It's going to have to be getting the members to understand what this means for them, how it impacts them, and see how significant it is for them to get involved in pushing back. That's not just going to be the president trying to do that. It's going to take the entire local to mobilise workers and push back, no different than May Day [AKA International Workers Day, May 1]. May Day was something that the broader labour movement decided, “We need to come together and make this a bigger thing than just a little ‘rah rah’ on May 1.” I think people are actually waking up to be perfectly honest with you. The way that the conservatives have totally run workers to the ground through the pandemic, even those who are on the peripheries are starting to wake up and realise that we need to do something.

It's a good time to push back on Bill 124. We need to do it. Where 79 is concerned, we actually need to make a statement. We need to stand for something and we need to move on it. I think our membership is ready. They feel the momentum is there, the energy is there. They'll go for it.

[Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Yadollahi is on the executive of CUPE Local 79. She is not on the executive.]

May 19, 2022
Local News

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