Diversity Council Ups Union Involvement

6717groupWhat used to be an all-white, mostly male, local workforce in Weyburn, Sask., is diversifying.

Among the 120 members of USW Local 6717, working at electrical cable maker Nexans, 36 are visible minorities and six are women. They hail from Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, China, Philippines, Poland, Romania; and in management, Mauritius, Germany and Bangladesh.

Recognizing that “the world is changing everywhere,” Local 6717 developed a human rights training course and established a Diversity Council to help “find a way to ease the transition into something new,” says President Brad Thompson.

Former Local 6717 member Harpreet Singh was one of the original Diversity Council members.

Employees from non-white backgrounds perceived the work culture to be rigid and non-welcoming, Harpreet recalls. Issues and divisions were percolating.

The Diversity Council was keen to deal with this proactively. Working with the USW Regina office, council members got training and learned about human rights laws. The council put up a world map in the workplace with pins marking the countries of origin of all workers in the plant.

“The map helped people from different ethnic groups see themselves represented,” says Harpreet.

The Diversity Council hosted meetings on topics from anti-harassment to world religions, gender diversity, mental health and more. Now well-established, the council hosts four meetings a year – on work time – with union members and management welcome.

Council Advocacy

The Diversity Council also took action for workers left in limbo when immigration rules changed without warning.

Workers were on a path to citizenship when quotas were changed in their category and they became Temporary Foreign Workers with few rights.

The Diversity Council put pressure on company management and the provincial government and succeeded in grandfathering the workers so they could continue on their path to citizenship.

Power of the Personal

The Diversity Council is never short on topical issues for its meetings. During the Syrian refugee crisis, the council held a meeting on the refugee experience and invited a member who was a Romanian refugee from the 1980s.

“He barely escaped with his life under [Romanian dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu. He’s been my friend and neighbour for 20 years, but I didn’t know the ordeal that he went through to get to Canada,” says Brad.

“He made an impassioned plea for people to be more supportive of Syrian refugees because unless you’ve lived through something like that, you have no idea what it’s like.”

Get Involved

A machine operator at Nexans for 12 years, Kendall Hibbard has been on the union executive for eight years, currently as a Trustee, Shop Steward and a Diversity Council and Women’s Committee member.

“My dad worked at Nexans for 40 years. He said, ‘You get in that union – and you get involved’.”

As a woman, even with her dad working there, sometimes people would say things to her, and she would cower and push back.

“I’ve taken courses through the union and I know what my rights are. I stand up for myself now.”

Kendall remembers a Diversity Council meeting that explored religions in India – Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity.

“It’s really neat to know! We’re all so naïve if we stereotype and think that people are the same – they’re not.”

Diversity Beyond the Council

Beyond the Diversity Council, the local is encouraging workers from different backgrounds to become involved in the union.

Fred Waroma has worked on the extrusion line for seven years, putting jackets on medium-voltage cables. Serving on the Health and Safety Committee makes Fred feel more connected to the union.

“I always like to volunteer. Back in Kenya I was involved in humanitarian activities. I find a way to do it through the union here, too. It’s another avenue to do things around the community, to help people.”

Joseph Intia, one of several workers from the Philippines, was encouraged to get involved in the union and after attending several meetings, he ran to be a Guard – and nominated another Filipino member.

“Somehow, I became an example to my brothers,” Joseph says. “‘Come and attend the union meetings,’ I encourage them. It’s a place where we can be informed.”

Respect

The Diversity Council’s work has branched out: opening a dialogue in the workplace around mental health and addictions issues.

“We have a responsibility to look after our membership and make sure we’re treating everybody equally with the same dignity and respect, and that looks different, depending on the challenges that people go through,” Brad says.

Brad’s advice to USW locals considering a diversity program: “Do it!”

This article appears in the November 2018 edition of USW@Work.

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