The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is Canada’s largest union with over 600,000 members dispersed in hundreds of locals across the country. Yet despite CUPE’s contributions to the labour movement in Canada over the last 50 years it has not been the subject of much academic research; indeed there is no systematic institutional history of the union which covers its entire history either at a national or local level. The absence of literature on CUPE and other unions is all the more alarming when one considers the overwhelming ignorance of the general public with regards to the history of unions, what they stand for and how they operate. This study aims to correct this omission in some small part.

This essay focuses on the evolving role of National Servicing Representatives (national reps for short) within CUPE over a 35 year time period (from about 1980 to the present).  These findings are based upon my own research on CUPE Local 1063, which represents approximately 450 public sector workers at the Manitoba Workers Compensation Board (WCB).

National reps serve an essential role within CUPE’s institutional structure (in terms of the services they provide for individual locals) as well as in mentoring union activists at the local level. The extent to which a national rep will be active within a given local is dependent upon a number of factors, including the level of experience of the local executive or national rep, as well as on the personal relationship between the national rep and local leadership.

 

Methodology:

This study is based primarily on oral history interviews I have conducted with past and current members of CUPE 1063’s executive.[1] More specifically, I have interviewed four former national reps (Sandra Oakley, William (Bill) Sumerlus, Paula Raposo, and Nicole Campbell) who serviced the local, in one form or another, since 1981.[2] Such testimony has been particularly useful in my attempts to define and assess the role of a national rep within CUPE as well as on their perceptions of union-management relations and traditional and mutual gains (or interest-based) bargaining.

 

Brief Biographies:

Sandra Oakley was the national rep for CUPE 1063 for almost 20 years from 1981-2000. She worked at Manitoba Hydro and was active in the local there (CUPE Local 998), particularly on the women’s committees, before going to labour college and becoming a national rep in 1981.[3] By far the most influential of the national reps in the CUPE 1063’s history, Sandra was instrumental in the development of many of the locals institutions (such as the creation of the position of chief shop steward), while also serving as a mentor to many of the current leaders of the local.

Dennis Kshyk[4], the current president of CUPE 1063 (2011-present) and the local’s former chief shop steward for 15 years, stated that,

“Sandra, on the other hand, all you had to do was sit and listen….she knew what to say, how to say it, how to present it, and with a little bit of notes that she had she could make the employer look completely incompetent. And I learned that from Sandra…”[5]

William (Bill) Sumerlus, was a lawyer before he was a labour activist, and worked as a crown prosecutor and at the law firm Myers-Weinberg in Manitoba before becoming CUPE Manitoba’s in house counsel in 1992.[6] Bill became the local’s representative around 2004(?). During his short tenure with CUPE 1063, the local was able to achieve the introduction of a 9-day work cycle, which Bill described as “one of the things which I was most proud of being involved with…while I was at local 1063.”[7]

Paula Raposa became CUPE 1063’s national rep shortly after Bill Sumerlus’s departure. She was a secretary in the CUPE’s regional office in Winnipeg, and eventually went to labour college before becoming a national rep in 2006.[8]  She serviced CUPE 1063 for about four years during the transition from the presidency of Dave Cutler to Don High. She is currently the Equality Representative at CUPE’s regional office in Winnipeg.

Nicole Campbell had a long career in the healthcare sector in Portage la Prairie before she became a national rep in 1998.[9] She was CUPE 1063’s national rep during the 2013 round of bargaining, which saw the introduction of a full time union president, a further step in the growing professionalization of the local. She is currently the Education Representative at CUPE’s regional office in Winnipeg.

 

Role of a National Servicing Representative:

National reps defy an easy explanation. Dave Cutler, CUPE 1063’s president from about 1988-2009, described them as legal representatives[10], while Nicole Campbell described the position as a technical advisor akin to a general practitioner (an appropriate reference considering her background in the healthcare profession). “National reps are general practitioners. We know a little bit about everything but we don’t know a lot about everything.”[11]

Paula Raposo argued that the position provided the “bread and butter” services to CUPE’s regional locals, such as representation and guidance in collective bargaining negotiations.[12] National reps serve the essential function of linking CUPE National with the hundreds of regional locals spread throughout the country, who otherwise act virtually independently of the national union through the principle of local autonomy.[13]

In general, national reps are responsible for conducting the grievances and arbitration’s for their assigned locals, provide legal advice where necessary, and in the case of newer locals assist in the writing of their bylaws and are responsible for overseeing the executive elections.[14] They are also empowered to take disciplinary actions against locals where necessary, and can and have dissolved entire local executives and effectively run a local for a short period of time in a process known as administration.[15]

National reps service numerous locals at any given time. Though there is no standardized number of locals that a representative can be responsible for, they generally are limited to around 2,500 members.[16] Other factors which influence the size of a representative’s assignment include the size of the individual locals and the distances between them, as national reps are expected to attend most local executive meetings to both supervise and advise the leadership of the locals.[17]

National reps also service different areas of the public sector at any given time. Nicole Campbell noted that her servicing assignment included workers at the University of Manitoba, child and family services, along with the MWCB.[18]

As noted above, Sandra Oakley had an enormous influence on CUPE 1063’s development during her 20 year tenure with the local. The very fact that she remained with CUPE 1063 for so long was itself extraordinary. Paula Raposo noted that CUPE has a tendency to move national reps around quite a bit, particularly the ones with the most experience.[19]

During the early years of Dave Cutler’s presidency, Sandra Oakley was also heavily involved in the day to day operations of the local. Don High, CUPE 1063’s president from 2009-2011, noted that “back in those days [Sandra Oakley] would run a lot of the meetings.”[20] This view was echoed by Dave Cutler, though he argued that Sandra’s influence was not as great as other’s perceived it to be.[21] In contrast, Sandra’s successors were much less involved in the day to day operations of the local. For instance, Bill Sumerlus explained his hands off approach by stating that,

“I always wanted the local to have the strength not me because I could be gone tomorrow….so my style was to just try and keep [CUPE 1063] on the right track.”[22]

Many of my interviewees noted the dualistic nature of the leadership of the local during this period, as personified by the relationship between Sandra Oakley and Dave Cutler. Dave Ferguson recalled that,

“…I don’t know how well they knew each other before [Dave Cutler] became president but I know that once he became president they ended up having sort of a symbiotic relationship….They knew what the other one was thinking before they were thinking it sort of thing. Which is no mean feat for Sandra Oakley if you know what she’s thinking before she says it. But I think Dave started to sort of develop that relationship with her….I think she made him a better president. And again no reflection on Dave because he was a good president but she brought aspects to the table that he probably hadn’t considered and probably wasn’t in his nature to consider.”[23]

That is not to imply that their partnership, if I may be so bold as it call it as such, was always harmonious. Quite the opposite. Sandra Oakley recalled that some of her biggest disagreements were with Dave Cutler, while Dave Ferguson was more explicit, stating,

“…it was funny too because there were cases where I think Sandra Oakley hit [Dave Cutler] with a shoe once at a meeting…and there were times that he would yell at her. Like they’d just get into this screaming match and he’d storm out the door.”[24]

However, there are indications that the relationship between the national servicing representatives and the local’s leadership was not always as cooperative. Dave Cutler noted that during the tenure of one of his predecessor, Craig Cormack (c. 1979-1981), relations with the then national servicing representative Clive Durham were particularly acrimonious. Dave recalled that “Clive basically got told to butt out by Cormack, so we didn’t have much activity with the national rep until Sandra got involved.”[25] In Dave’s opinion, this was one of the reasons for the local’s ineffectiveness, or at least lack of assertiveness, during the 1970s.[26]

 

From Traditional to Mutual Gains/Interest-Based:

National reps are particularly important when it comes to bargaining a collective agreement. Sandra Oakley explained that,

“the [national servicing] representative is also responsible for the conduct of bargaining….In traditional bargaining usually the dialogue occurs between the employer’s chief negotiator and the union’s chief negotiator.”[27]

Indeed, such was Sandra’s dominance in the negotiating process that Dave Ferguson recalled that,

“There were times at bargaining where I kinda felt bad collecting the per diem because…we’d have 6 people siting along our side of the table, 6 people along their [the employers] side of the table and all of it is Oakley and whoever was leading their team going back and forth at each other. While the rest of us are looking like we’re trying to take notes.”[28]

During the mid-1990s, CUPE 1063 began to experiment with mutual gains, also known as interest-based bargaining. It is necessary to first note the differences between the two. Traditional bargaining is simply the exchange of proposals between the union`s and employer`s negotiating committees.[29] As such, it is characterized by a brinkmanship style of negotiation and as such is far more confrontational.[30] Usually, the lead negotiator on each side dominates the discussion at the bargaining table. In the union’s case, the lead negotiator is normally the national rep, though sometimes the local’s president can also lead the union’s bargaining committee.

Mutual gains/interest-based bargaining, by contrast is the exchange not of wants and desires, but of concerns.[31] It is more cooperative and there is far more discussion at the bargaining table, although it is a much lengthier process.[32]It should be noted that CUPE 1063 is one of the few locals in Manitoba to do mutual gains bargaining.[33]

To what extent then has this shift affected the position of a national rep within CUPE? On the whole, not significantly. While the national rep no longer leads the union’s bargaining unit during negotiations in the mutual gains process, they are still heavily involved in union caucus meetings.  It is useful to consider the 2013 round of bargaining as an example of this dichotomy. Describing her experiences in bargaining with CUPE 1063 Nicole Campbell, and she stated that, “CUPE [1063] had a bargaining committee that knew their stuff and knew what they were doing and didn’t need me”.[34]

However, Dennis Kshyk asserted that the national reps position was essential to the union’s bargaining committee, as Nicole was able to offer advice and guidance on developments in other CUPE locals which were invaluable in the formation of CUPE 1063’s strategy at the bargaining table.[35] The shift to mutual gains should also not be exaggerated. Since CUPE 1063 is one of the few locals in Manitoba to utilize a mutual gains model of bargaining, it is perhaps best to view this evolution (however circumscribed) in the role of a national rep as an anomaly, rather than indicative of a larger trend in CUPE as a whole.

 

Conclusions:

In short, national reps can be said to serve a vital role in CUPE both institutionally (in terms of the services they provide to locals, such as representation in bargaining) as well as personally (in terms of mentoring leadership within CUPE at the local level). Although my sample size has been to date quite limited (given my focus on a single local, CUPE 1063), I believe these findings are indicative of the position of national reps as a whole, given the diversity of the backgrounds that my interviewees have come from and the fact that they have serviced numerous different areas within the public sector.

As such, I have concluded that the role of a national rep does not vary substantially within CUPE. Rather, the extent to which a national rep will be involved in the day to day affairs of a local is dependent upon the experience of the local executive and national rep in question, as well as on the personal relationship between the national rep and local leadership.

In addition, it can be stated that the role of the national rep has not changed substantially over a 35 year period. Even the shift to a mutual gains model of bargaining has not altered the role of a national servicing rep substantially, given that their advice remains invaluable to a local in forming its bargaining strategies at caucus meetings.

Finally, the extent to which mutual gains can be said to have altered the role of a national rep is limited, given that CUPE 1063 is only one of a few locals in the province to adopt the mutual gains/interest-based model. The experiences of the national reps I have interviewed at CUPE 1063 with respect to their experiences in bargaining are therefore likely an exception, rather than the norm in CUPE.

 

Bibliography

Oral History Interviews:

Nicole Campbell, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, January 13, 2014.

Nicole Campbell, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, March 5, 2014.

Dave Cutler, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, January 2, 2014.

Dave Ferguson, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, January 30, 2014.

Don High, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, October 15, 2013.

Dennis Kshyk, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, September 22, 2014.

Dennis Kshyk, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, April 1, 2015.

Sandra Oakley, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, December 9, 2013.

Paula Raposo, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, November 20, 2014.

William Sumerlus, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, August  6, 2014.

[1] Cited in this paper; Dave Cutler, Dave Ferguson, Don High, and Dennis Kshyk.

[2] The earliest national rep that I interviewed was Sandra Oakley, who began her career as a national rep with CUPE 1063 in 1981. Sandra Oakley, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 9 December 2013, 2-4.

[3] Sandra Oakley, interview, 9 December 2013, 2-3.

[4] Note: Dennis Kshyk is the father of the author of this paper.

[5] Dennis Kshyk, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 22 September 2014, 19.

[6] William Sumerlus, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg,  6 August 2014, 2.

[7] William Sumerlus, interview, 8.

[8] Paula Raposa, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 20 November 2014, 2.

[9] Nicole Campbell, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 13 January 2014, 3.

[10] Dave Cutler, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 2 January 2014, 13.

[11] Nicole Campbell, interview, 13 January 2014, 15.

[12] Paula Raposo, interview, 2.

[13] Sandra Oakley, interview, 9 December 2013, 17; Nicole Campbell, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 5 March 2014, 15-16.

[14] Sandra Oakley, interview, 9 December 2013, 4-5; William Sumerlus, interview, 3-6.

[15] Nichole Campbell, interview, 5 March 2014, 24-25.

[16] Sandra Oakley, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 9 December 2013, 4.

[17] Sandra Oakley, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 9 December 2013, 4,7; Nicole Campbell, 13 January 2014, 16.

[18] Nicole Campbell, 13 January 2014, 16.

[19] Paula Raposo, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 20 November 2014, 7.

[20] Don High, 15 October 2013, 9.

[21] Dave Cutler, 2 January 2014, 13.

[22] William Sumerlus, 6 August 2014, 10.

[23] Sandra Oakley, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 9 December 2013, 23; Dave Ferguson, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 30 January 2014, 13-14.

[24] Dave Ferguson, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 30 January 2014, 15.

[25] Dave Cutler, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 2 January 2014, 14.

[26] Dave Cutler, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 2 January 2014, 14-15.

[27] Sandra Oakley, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 9 December 2013, 6.

[28] Dave Ferguson, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 30 January 2014, 19.

[29] Dave Cutler, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 2 January 2014, 22.

[30] Carl Kernested, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 14 December 2013, 19-20.

[31] Dave Cutler, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 2 January 2014, 24.

[32] Dave Ferguson, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 30 January 2014, 18.

[33] Paula Raposo, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 20 November 2014, 9.

[34] Nicole Campbell, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 13 January 2014, 19.

[35] Dennis Kshyk, interviewed by Christopher Kshyk, Winnipeg, 1 April 2015, 2.

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