Moving Our People Forward

Reflections by Janice Gairey


As a child, Janice Gairey looked up to labour organizers. Literally. In the 1950s, when Gairey was growing up, her father, James Desmond Davis, sat on the board of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

"It was a time when they wouldn't accept Black workers into the labour movement," she says. "So they had to form their own union to be represented and for their issues to be addressed." Barred from other positions with the railway, Black sleeping car porters endured relentless racism, overwork, low wages and little sleep. Long rides on the railroad also meant they spent many hours separated from their families.

Gairey recalls the frequent meetings held in their home near Bathurst and Bloor, in Toronto, where she grew up. "It became a social event," she says. A safe space where men and women could meet and talk about the racism and discrimination they faced, and where they could plan their activism.

South of the border, Black porters had begun organizing a union in 1925. After fighting for over a decade, they became the first African-American labour union to win a collective bargaining agreement. They reached out to fellow porters in Canada and, in 1946, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first trade union in this country to be organized by and for African Canadians.

"It was a close-knit family," says Gairey. "There wasn't a lot of immigration that had happened — that started in the late 60s."

Gairey's mother, Norma Betty Toliver, along with many other wives of the Brotherhood members, belonged to the Canadian Negro Women's Club, a group of community activists who took on racism and discrimination in Ontario, actively supporting such campaigns as a ban on the racist children's book Little Black Sambo in Toronto schools.

The activists ever-present in Gairey's childhood also fought against racist hiring practices. "There was discrimination around entry into restaurants, entry into any kind of job. There just wasn't access," says Gairey. Along with fighting for their own members' rights, the Brotherhood pushed federal and provincial governments to introduce wider legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing.

"Between the Sleeping Car Porters and Canadian Negro Women's Club, they were able to move job hiring in a different way." Close to home, and because of the groups' activism, Gairey, at the age of 15, was hired by the city's Parks, Forestry and Recreation department. "My cousin and I became the first trainers — which would be like the playground supervisors they have in the summer."

Combatting racism in the workplace is what brought Janice Gairey's family into labour organizing, but it also played a central theme in her own career as a labour activist.

Gairey, who retired from the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) in January of this year, has had a career in the Canadian labour movement that spans decades. Former human rights director for the OFL, she has worked with a long list of labour organizations including the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, and Unite Here. She was also active with the Service Employees International Union, the Brampton-Mississauga Labour Action Centre, and the United Way's Labour Community Services.

Gairey's first experience working with a labour organization came in 1985 when she became acting president of CUPE 1874. A teaching assistant with the Toronto District School Board at the time, Gairey was supposed to cover a six-week maternity leave but ended up holding the position for a year.

By 1987, she was hard at work on a project organized by the Toronto & York Region Labour Council that focused on bringing Black workers into the labour movement.

Gairey describes the sudden shift that took place after formal recommendations based on that award-winning project came out. "The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and ACLA (the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance) also did a report card on staffing in the various unions," she says. It was released just before a Canadian Labour Congress convention and, "all of a sudden, when the affiliates saw the report card, they went out and tried to hire, so they wouldn't look as bad. So there was an influx of workers of colour."

One of the many findings of the labour council project was that Black workers held no positions of power within the labour movement. Chief stewards, board members and heads of unions — the decision-makers — were, and remain, mostly white.

"If they're asking for a BA, they want you to have multiple BAs. If they want experience in arbitration, they probably want you to have some sort of certificate in arbitration," Gairey says, "There were different ways that they did hiring for us.

"Once, five white people around a table interviewed me for over an hour and a half for the coordinator job I had applied for. Then I found out that all of the other coordinators, who were white, got phone calls and no interview process. So what was so different about me?" Gairey asks, relating a hiring experience she endured within the labour movement. "The reality is that I was a Black woman, whom they questioned about her skills and ability to perform the job. The others got phone calls saying, 'You're hired.'"

But labour organizing is meant to combat this kind of workplace injustice. "White privilege is always, always a factor, and I don't think that's changed," says Gairey. "When the leaders don't reflect us," she asks, "how can we move forward?"

In 2014, over 50 years after Janice Gairey's parents hosted meetings for the sleeping car porters in their home because the workers weren't welcome in the union, Hassan Yussuff became the first-ever person of colour to be elected president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

"I've known Hassan for many, many years," she says. "I'd have to give kudos to Marie Clarke Walker, too, as the executive vice president of the CLC. It hasn't been easy for either one of them to become leaders."

Gairey sees Yussuff's leadership as a step in the right direction. "Now that the head of the Canadian labour movement is a person of colour, I think it gives people a different sense — the sense that we have arrived, and are planning on staying and bringing people that look like us forward."

From 2003 until 2009, Gairey was the Ontario Federation of Labour's education director. During that time, the OFL created outreach initiatives aimed at young people who were still in school. Gairey worries that too little labour education is provided these days and, of that, too little is geared towards youth, especially youth outside the labour movement.

The OFL-funded Solidarity Works program of Gairey's time included sending speakers to schools. The program, which ran for over six years, also "brought in young people — not necessarily activists — both from the community and unions."

These youth spent three weeks job-shadowing union staff and training intensively with them. "It was such a successful program," says Gairey, "that I really think most of the young people who went through it are now staff at unions."

Without programs like Solidarity Works, it's difficult for newer generations to understand the value of labour organizing and how they themselves can effect change through it.

"Although we do say we are trying to encourage younger people and allow them access to the labour movement, I don't think we do a very good job."Gairey also feels that encouragement alone is not enough. She sees the current selection process within much of the labour movement as still intimately bound in privilege.

"Are you selective about who you move forward or do you allow everyone to come in? Are you only going to let people in who follow your ideology? That you know are going to be supportive, who won't challenge things?" She is precise in her critique: "Is that exclusion? Yes. Because people should be able to make their own choices about their values and their ideologies.

"I think there was a time when you felt like you had to assimilate to survive," says Gairey, who feels the labour movement slowly but surely moving away from that. "I've watched the younger generation of staff and activists expressing themselves in a freer and more valued way, and I love it."

In terms of staying engaged and feeling supported throughout her time as a labour organizer, Gairey credits the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, whose mandate it is to support Black workers around addressing issues of racism, discrimination and harassment.

CBTU was founded in the United States in 1972, and served as a model for then OFL human rights director June Veecock, who "was getting a lot of complaints from Black workers about unions not representing them in a fair and equitable way," says Gairey. "She was instrumental in meeting with people south of the border and initiating a Canadian chapter in Ontario.

"CBTU, internationally, has helped build a solidarity that I needed to survive in the labour movement. You're talking about Black workers getting together and confidentially talking to each other about issues we couldn't talk to our co-workers and leaders about in a productive and proactive way," Gairey says.

"We had the same issues in the workplace; we had the same ideals and goals in the workplace, and in the labour movement in general. It was a place for me to grow and feel safe. Because many, many, many times you do not feel safe in the mainstream labour movement. When you're looking at the numbers in the Canadian labour movement of people that look like me, they were very few and far between. Especially in decision-making positions or in staff positions.

"Although I had many [non-racialized] allies, there is a different kind of support you get from people who look like you. Let's be realistic about that. That kind of support comes from people understanding racism. People can empathize with racism, people can empathize with discrimination, but what workers of colour experience is a whole different ball game. That's what was missing in my life when I first started in the labour movement. There were not a lot of us, and it was difficult. You were very alone on many occasions."

Gairey remembers the many times she and other women in the CBTU got together to discuss femininist ideals and agendas. "The women in CBTU, both nationally and internationally, have been a great support for me."

Despite advances relating to gender issues in the workplace (the maternity leave Gairey covered in the 80s which gave her her first staff position with a union totalled only six weeks), "women's issues are still not on the bargaining table," she says, and goes on to explain that without representation in union leadership, the varied experiences of so many women go unaddressed. "We can say 'women's issues,' but then where are women of colour? Where are Aboriginal women? Where are women with disabilities?

"If you're talking about a ladder, I'd say that women's issues are about halfway up the ladder and then we fall. Women of colour would be the lowest on the ladder, still now."

In 2006, Gairey became the first Canadian to be elected to the CBTU's international board. She describes learning about the differences between U.S. and Canadian labour. "I relished the fact that they had so many women of colour in established critical positions that had power and influence over the direction they were going around human rights issues," she says. "We are not the same here. While we have the same number of people, we don't have people moving forward into activist positions here."

So what are we missing north of the border? Gairey asks, "How do young women of colour become active in the labour movement when people are not encouraging them or breaking down barriers enabling them access?"

Once again, Gairey emphasizes that we need to engage youth through education and connect with them while they're still in school: "Universities are where activism actually happens and begins, and what a fruitful way to bring people forward if we utilize that in union activism, not just in social activism."

Gairey lauds the organizational capacity of young people. "I don't think they need advice. Young people are doing so many wonderful things that are so similar to the civil rights movement in the '60s and '70s. The Black Lives Matter rally that blocked Allen Road in Toronto this summer exemplified their energy and their need to get out there," she says. "They're quite prepared to do that kind of activism, to deal with racism."

How can we ensure that such rallies, organized around racism, reproductive rights, tuition fees, mideast politics and environmental issues, also include labour organizing? How can we bridge the gap between social justice and workplace justice? Through constant community engagement, according to Gairey.

"How can we develop a relationship or talk about a social justice issue if you're not involving a community that is affected by it, at a grassroots level?" she asks. "That's my mantra. We may have an issue around employment equity, so we want to lobby legislation that'll help access, but when you hear the stories of the people that are actually at the grassroots level, then you understand why it's so important to have that legislation passed.

"It's not that all white men or white women don't think about us, it's just that it's in the forefront of our minds to move our people forward whereas it's an aside when it comes to them. They think about equity as a second thought, not as an everyday thought."

Janice Gairey's father was barred from his union because of the colour of his skin. Decades later, his daughter, through her parents' example, through her own commitment, dedication and tenacity, and with the support of her fellow activists, has become an award-winning labour activist and community organizer.

Gairey tells of the gratitude she received at a CBTU event honouring her retirement. "There were 20 young people that got up and thanked me. But I didn't realize that I was doing what I was doing. I was just there as a sounding board, as support."

One of those speakers was Tyler Downey, current director of organizing for SEIU Local 1. "What clicked with him in our relationship was that I kept telling him 'don't give up,'" she says.

"I can see now, with activist involvement in CBTU, that it's given them a platform to move forward and know that they have the collective support of Black workers and activists. They can use that support as a catalyst to deal with the barriers they face in the labour movement and in the broader movement."

Gairey worries about the future of the labour movement. "You have in the political realm the hard-hitting conservative agenda with anti-union propaganda; people are hearing those things and believing them. Are we counteracting that? Are we getting to our members in the community about the value of unions? I feel nervous about what the labour movement is going look like — is it going to go back to the '20s and the '30s, and are we going to have to fight again?

"A lot of people don't know the value of why you should be unionized — what blood, sweat and tears it took for us to get what we have now. When they walk into a workplace and they have all of these benefits they figure that the company's giving them those benefits; they don't know that it was the struggle of the labour movement that got them there."

The only way forward is through inclusion. That was true when Gairey's father and mother brought the sleeping car porters to their home to organize in the 1950s. And it is just as true now.

Haseena Manek is an Ottawa-based labour journalist, and Our Times’ Online Community and Outreach Coordinator. Follow her on Twitter here.