It's About Time

On Monday, John Rae was once again up at the mikes, chastising the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) for its inaccessibility. By his count, it’s been eighteen years since — as a government worker who is blind — he has tried to get the labour movement to take disability rights seriously. This time was different, though. The OFL’s biennial convention began on December 3, the International Day for Disabled Persons. And, finally, the labour movement was taking people with disabilities seriously.

Rae was at the convention debating a priority policy document on persons with disabilities. It was an order of the day — which meant that everything else stopped to ensure that the issue was on the agenda. Earlier in the day, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) announced a new campaign called “It’s time to do more,” meant to promote disability issues among union members.

The poster girl for the CLC campaign, long-time disability rights activist Carol McGregor, told a press conference, “It’s the first time labour has really looked at people with disabilities and what role we can play.”

Derek Fudge is another worker with a disability who has laboured long and hard to get the union movement to take up these issues. Now, he is also the CLC vice president for workers with disabilities. “The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) hired me in 1980, the International Year of Disabled Persons, as their token crip,” Fudge said in an interview, “and I’ve been pushing these issues ever since.”

At a press conference, Fudge outlined the CLC campaign for the two media people who showed up. Fifty or so delegates from the OFL convention sat in the audience. Unions who belong to the CLC are being asked to:

  • Educate union members on disability rights issues.
  • Make union activities accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Use collective bargaining to improve the accessibility of the workplace.
  • Join with disability rights groups to mobilize to improve government policy.
  • Organize the unorganized with a specific focus on people with disabilities.

Fudge blasted the Harris government in Ontario. “Since 1980, the lives of people with disabilities have gotten worse,” he explained, adding that the province’s People with Disabilities Act is an insult. “Our problem isn’t parking spaces, it is quality of life and basic dignity.”

In Ontario, a person with a disability gets $6 a week for home care. That works out to one bath a week. While disability benefits have not been cut, the eligibility has been dramatically decreased. The application for benefits is difficult and humiliating, according to Fudge.

One the first things Harris did after gaining power was to repeal the Employment Equity Act, which would have given people with disabilities some chance of overcoming their exclusion from the workforce. (Disability rights groups had fought hard for employment equity at both the federal and provincial level in the 1980s.)

The statistics are shocking. Twenty-nine per cent of people with disabilities are employed fulltime, compared to 61 per cent of other workers. People with jobs and disabilities earn an average of $7,000 a year, compared to an average of $22,500.

“Union members with disabilities are making a statement to the labour movement,” says CLC secretary treasurer and feminist activist Nancy Riche. “‘We want to be equal members of the trade unions and get unions to become advocates for people with disabilities,’ is what they are telling us.”

The struggle some twenty years ago to get the labour movement to recognize women’s rights was similar. At an OFL convention in 1982, women organized to win two fundamental advances. The first was affirmative action to get women on to the OFL executive. It was a pioneering step that was later copied by other labour bodies. The second, even harder fought, was to get the labour federation to support choice on abortion in general and the Morgentaler Clinic in particular.

Winning those fights transformed and profoundly strengthened the women’s movement in Canada. The alliance between labour and the movement has made both more progressive and influential. The support of labour for the struggling disability rights movement could have a similar impact.

The difference is that there are few union activists with disabilities — because there is little access to unionized jobs and even less to union activism once people are members of unions.

Twenty years ago, women crowded around mikes to insist that their unions fight for their rights. This year, only a handful of people with disabilities were up at the mikes. As John Rae pointed out, only one of the mikes was accessible. But their passion made up for lack of numbers.

“Finally, after twenty-seven years, we are taking the steps that mean I can be part of this community,” Doreen Tripp — a Canadian Union of Public Employees delegate — told convention. “When I die, I want to know that I made a difference in this world. And now I will.”

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