Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What then must we do?

What then must we do?
“I sit on a man's back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), from "Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence," written in 1886.

Tolstoy was a Russian aristocrat who was born in 1828 when the enslavement of Africans was practiced by white men and women of almost every European tribe, in Europe and in the countries they colonized (slavery in Canada ended on August 1st, 1834). When Tolstoy died in 1910, even though the enslavement of Africans was no longer a “legal” institution, (the Portuguese in Brazil being the last to abolish chattel slavery in 1888) most of Africa, except for Ethiopia, had been colonized by the European tribes. At the Berlin Conference which lasted from November 15, 1884 to February 26, 1885, white men from Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (a union from 1814-1905), Turkey, and the United States of America plotted and divided the African continent among themselves into fifty countries. With no thought or consideration for the people who lived on that continent, (similar to their colonizing of Native land in North America), they superimposed new borders indiscriminately and caused havoc in the lives of Africans which has lasted to this day. Groups of Africans who had never lived together before were forced to live in new European circumscribed and managed countries. There is no evidence that Tolstoy was thinking about the lived reality of Africans or cared when he wrote the words quoted at the beginning of this article, but the words very much capture where we were in 1886 when they were written and to a large extent our condition today. Ironically, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Russia’s most famous poet and the descendant of Gannibal, an enslaved African prince) is thought to be one of the people who influenced Tolstoy’s work. In turn, Tolstoy’s philosophy of non-violent resistance is thought to have influenced Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Tolstoy’s quote came to mind as I listened to some of the comments and observed the interactions at the CUPE Ontario Human Rights Conference from Friday, November 16th to Sunday, November 18th 2007. One of the purposes of the conference was to help formulate CUPE Ontario's Equity Agenda for the next two years. Much of the discussion at the conference centred around the many facets of racial profiling. There was much discussion about the racialization of poverty in Ontario. It was recognized that if someone is a member of a racialized community it is more likely than if they are white that they will live in poverty. This is a reality regardless of their place of birth. Racialized people who were born in Canada experience racism as much as racialized immigrants. It was acknowledged that individual and systemic racism contributes to racialized people living and working in poor conditions and in many cases without access to healthcare. Racialized workers even when equally qualified are likely to earn less than white workers. Police brutality and over policing of racialized communities was discussed. Some people heard for the first time that even members of racialized communities who are police officers do not escape racial profiling and abuse. One of the delegates to the conference appealed for help in the case of her child’s arrest after being brutalized by police. Such incidents are commonplace in communities where racialized people are warehoused especially in Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) buildings. The parent who appealed for help does not live in a low income neighbourhood, being upwardly mobile does not protect racialized people from police brutality. None of this information is new. There have been numerous studies, reports and recommendations to address the subject of racial profiling. The recommendations do not get implemented because in spite of the rhetoric, the people who have power are white males and “power concedes nothing without a struggle.” Since the people who are in leadership positions in the trade union movement are white men who are not willing to share the power then meeting, talking and recommending is an exercise in futility. Racialized members of trade unions have to challenge the leadership of their unions; it is not enough to pay your union dues and leave everything else that affects your work life to people who are benefiting from white skin privilege even if they are “working class” people.

Pay equity and employment equity were two of the measures that were recommended to address the imbalance in the workplaces. Pay equity is the method by which women would be paid the same as men after jobs have been evaluated based on four factors (skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions) and several subfactors including knowledge, experience, judgement, concentration, accountability etc., Pay equity would ensure that anyone doing jobs that are identified as traditionally “female” work would be paid the same as people employed in jobs that are identified as traditionally “male” jobs after a careful weighing and measuring. Employment equity would go beyond correcting a gender imbalance, it would address among other matters, racial imbalance in the workplace. In 1984 the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment recognizing that "systemic discrimination" was responsible for most of the inequality found in employment, outlined a systemic response to correct the inequity. The plan was to “identify and eliminate barriers in an organization's employment procedures and policies; put into place positive policies and practices to ensure the effects of systemic barriers are eliminated; and ensure appropriate representation of ‘designated group’ members throughout their workforce.” The goal was to “eliminate employment barriers for the four designated groups identified in the Employment Equity Act: (women, persons with disabilities, Aboriginal people, members of visible minorities); remedy past discrimination in employment opportunities and prevent future barriers; improve access and distribution throughout all occupations and at all levels for members of the four designated groups; foster a climate of equity in the organization.”
Although there has been much talk about implementing employment equity, in reality it has been cold shouldered by the union movement. The people who are sitting on our backs, choking us and making us carry them are declaring that they feel our pain but they will not get off our backs and/or stop choking us.

The colour of poverty campaign information can be obtained online at www.colourofpoverty.ca. Racialized people, who in many cases face multiple oppressions that intersect, need to become involved in the struggle to push the union movement towards including employment equity in collective agreements.

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