It has been a whirlwind month for a federal public service union that usually presents itself as a button-up, no-drama professional association.
On November 7, 2023, Camille Awada resigned as President of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) in the middle of the most hotly contested national election in the union’s history, purportedly due to a long history of antisemitic messages on his personal social media accounts. Only six months before, CAPE’s previous President, Greg Phillips, had resigned under vague circumstances, promoting Awada into the role from his elected position as Vice-President.
As the third-largest federal public service union, CAPE represents around 25 000 members – primarily economists and policy analysts, along with translators. In the last round of National Executive Committee elections in 2021, the vast majority of candidates ran unopposed and were simply acclaimed due to low candidate participation. This election cycle is different: nearly 40 candidates have put their names on the ballot for various positions. It is an unmistakable inflection point for the future of a union historically well-known for a conservative-legalistic approach, defunct locals, opaque policies, and inaccessible executive decision-making.
Dismayed at CAPE National’s lack of substantive support for their sister union PSAC during their historic strike in early 2023, rank-and-file CAPE members formed CAPE’s first independent rank-and-file caucus – the Solidarity Caucus, which now counts around 200 members across a wide range of departments and regions. This Caucus has become an unprecedented organizing space for engaged CAPE members, and aims to push the union in a progressive direction from below. In this election, the Solidarity Caucus has endorsed a large team of candidates called Members for Change who are running on a progressive platform for CAPE
On November 21, about one week before CAPE members will begin voting for their next national executive, the current CAPE National Executive Committee sent a cease and desist order to the Solidarity Caucus. This has now thrown the issue of rank and file union democracy into stark relief as members head to the polls.
Why a rank and file caucus
Rank-and-file union caucuses often form when members feel like their union leadership and operations are disconnected from membership interests or are at odds with member needs – as seen most recently in the dramatic takeover of the United Auto Workers by Unite All Workers for Democracy, which implemented vast democratic reforms in very little time and recently concluded one of the most successful strikes in UAW history. As most Solidarity Caucus members know from bitter experience, CAPE is a notoriously low-engagement union that prefers to operate as a professional association, opting for quiet, executive-level engagement with the employer over membership mobilization in order to achieve its goals. As such, the current bargaining model follows a “free-riding” approach, only achieving what more mobilized and strike-ready unions, such as PSAC, win at their bargaining table through the federal public service tradition of pattern bargaining. CAPE almost always takes the unique federal public sector labour relations framework option of preemptively opting for binding arbitration before bargaining begins – by definition, no new rights (such as the right to telework) can be gained through arbitration, and even modest gains most often follow at least the threat of PSAC job actions.
A strong rank-and-file movement within CAPE can change all of this. Highly professionalized unions like CAPE default to highly bureaucratic processes as the only means of making gains for members, to the point of actively advocating for member inaction on issues of management overreach and contract violations. The fight for redress from the (still operative) Phoenix pay system (the federal government’s disastrous payroll processing system) is ongoing and a perfect example of CAPE’s ineffectiveness at protecting members from devastating employer violations. In May 2019, the employer announced an agreement with 17 of the 18 public service unions, including CAPE, to compensate employees for Phoenix-related damages outside the existing collective agreements. The one holdout was PSAC, which pushed for a better settlement to address the fact that, at that point, the employer had been illegally breaking the contract with many tens of thousands of its federal public service employees every two weeks for over two years, by underpaying, overpaying, or, in some cases, not paying them at all. The most telling aspect of the Phoenix compensation agreement was the so-called “us too” clause, which permitted the signing unions to benefit from any additional concessions PSAC might extract from the government. In their joint press release, some of the signing unions openly bragged about this approach. Rather than working with the largest union in the public service to maximize the leverage of the majority of public servants, CAPE chose to advance the interests of its members at the expense of another union, which eventually signed its own settlement. The pattern of relying on PSAC to do the heavy lifting would soon be repeated during the following collective bargaining process.
Imagine the potential power a mobilized CAPE could have offered its membership (as well as PSAC’s) with a little more teeth and a lot more coordination, and what multiple mobilized and coordinated federal unions could have meant for all federal public servants. Watching the Common Front in Quebec (an alliance of Quebec public sector unions that develops joint bargaining strategy) strike against the Legault government, federal public servants should learn to move past the fragmentation our employer-designed labour relations framework lays out for us.
CAPE has always been fairly hands-off when it comes to taking action, preferring closed-door meetings with the employer, lengthy and obscure legal challenges, token statements in the media or on its website, and third-party arbitration in bargaining instead of membership mobilization. This professionalized, arms length approach to unionism has not been effective in the most basic sense, and has definitively not been the source of any substantive gains for CAPE members. Even with a more engaged executive, CAPE’s tendency to “tag along” with other public service unions reinforces a fragmented approach to union power when most public service workers regardless of their union membership share similar, if not identical, objectives. This, in turn, limits any public service union’s success, not just CAPE’s – the employer relies on this dilution and fragmentation of the power of federal workers, knowing full well that even a simple coordinated bargaining approach would likely mean significant employer concessions. Dealing with many unions vastly unequal in size and power instead of one cohesive unit plays directly into the boss’ hands, and particularly in a strike or job action context. CAPE, of course, benefitted enormously from PSAC’s historic 2023 strike (just compare our contract offer before and after the strike), but any chances of better outcomes for both memberships were thwarted by a lack of cross-union organizing. What we can learn from the Common Front is that identifying shared objectives, coordinating tactics, and building a deeply active membership are key steps to making lasting gains for all workers, not just stand-alone wins.
What’s at stake?
The Solidarity Caucus (and the Members for Change electoral team) have identified key challenges in the current model of CAPE unionism which ultimately roadblocks basic democratic process and accountability to members. The lack of transparency from CAPE’s national executive regarding operations, budgets, and the fulfillment of member-voted resolutions are now the stuff of memes for most CAPE members. CAPE members witnessed the National Executive Committee rescind a national budget in June 2023 in the face of overwhelming member pressure after executive salary increases were kept secret despite increases of millions of dollars to salary budget lines While CAPE currently only “consults” members on near-finished budgets developed by a five-member Finance Committee, members pay close attention to how their dues are being spent. As a union of policy analysts that regularly design and review complex budgets, members are demanding participatory budget processes where all members – virtually and in-person – are involved in setting spending priorities from the earliest stages, and where rank and file members maintain significant oversight of the union’s books.
Collective bargaining is of course a key plank of public service unionism- and an enormous point of contention in the push for democracy in CAPE. Under the unique circumstances of the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act, unions like CAPE, PSAC, and PIPSC can opt to forgo the strike leverage they inherently hold and preemptively submit to binding third-party arbitration,where a third party compares sectoral averages and imposes a final contract. CAPE’s collective agreement was set for renegotiation in 2021 and the union’s negotiation team quietly chose binding arbitration – to the surprise of many, who were not prepared to legally foreclose any possibility of leveraging the right to strike in a high-stakes negotiation. PSAC members ended up walking the picket lines in April 2023 demanding exactly what CAPE members were demanding – real wage increases and the right to telework. CAPE, as in previous bargaining rounds, ended up with a patterned-up contract almost identical in all key areas to the tentative offer that ended PSAC’s strike, which unfortunately featured below-inflation raises and no new telework rights for either union’s members.
How could this have gone differently? Throughout bargaining, CAPE did not provide any opportunities for debate, member feedback, or information sessions about strategic bargaining approaches, member priorities, or negotiation updates (including the status of critical bargaining items at the negotiation table). In preparation for this bargaining round, CAPE emailed a membership bargaining survey years in advance of bargaining to sense-check members’ position on arbitration, among dozens of other questions. Despite a very low survey response rate relative to the national membership list (which does not even include all CAPE members), CAPE National set us on an arbitration path anyways. No vote (or even collective discussion) was ever held with the membership on the issue. Any substantial solidarity with PSAC was foreclosed after CAPE had committed to arbitration, and everyone got a worse deal for it.
Also, collective bargaining negotiations do not need to be a tightly-kept secret, despite CAPE’s parroting of employer lines about the sanctity of confidentiality in the bargaining process. “Open bargaining”, where detailed bargaining information is shared with the membership and debated as bargaining progresses, is possible within the public service context and can ensure members are informed, negotiators are transparent, and table strategies are responsive to member needs and changing circumstances. CAPE could look at open bargaining approaches that have consistently secured strong agreements that democratically reflected member demands.
A confident and growing rank and file movement would force a union’s executive to become communicative, accountable, and responsive. Just as PSAC workers were preparing to strike in April, CAPE’s executive gutted our Defense Fund (strike fund) to cover CAPE’s operating deficits. With some of the lowest union dues in the federal public service, CAPE often faces an acute yet highly predictable budget crisis, and 2023 was no different. While the relevance of the Defense Fund is a hot topic, it’s clear that this issue is important to all members – while the resolution put forward by the National Executive Committee to gut the Defence Fund was passed by online vote after the 2022 Annual General Meeting, another directly contradictory resolution (put forward by members) calling for an increase the Fund’s reserve in 2023 was also passed. The plain contradiction of these resolutions was ignored by the National Executive Committee and then-President Greg Phillips, who simply approved the reallocation of funds out of the Defense Fund and into the deficit while ignoring the full implementation of the second resolution. The issue of conflicting resolutions was only addressed in 2023 after a membership petition successfully forced a Special General Meeting to demand accountability from CAPE leadership on the issue – an overwhelming majority of members at the meeting passed another resolution to hold a binding vote to resolve the contradiction, which was subsequently also ignored.
The question remains whether CAPE has the democratic safeguards in place to ensure the will of the membership is reflected in its policies and actions, and whether the CAPE executive, in its current iteration, is capable of conducting basic operations responsibly without being continually forced to answer for their actions. Members are not confident this is the case. Confusing and inconsistent responses to member and local concerns, convoluted and unintuitive systems for member participation, and near-silence on critical issues impacting member well-being and safety (ranging from telework to transphobia) have nearly eliminated CAPE member engagement over recent years. The direct result of this is a fiery rank and file movement committed to forcing member issues to the floor while establishing grassroots techniques for member leadership. The Solidarity Caucus continues to grow rapidly as it deploys clear member-centered messaging on priorities, articulates meaningful positions on hot topic issues, and works tirelessly to connect members across departments. What members are saying on the ground is reflected in the group’s principles and demonstrates a clear pathway for member voices and future leadership accountability.
CAPE also has a weak track record in advancing equity for its equity-deserving members – CAPE has only one committee (capped at five members) to deal with all equity issues, which rarely if ever moves to set equity priorities, does not influence collective bargaining, and doesn’t share updates with members. Equity-deserving members are mostly left to seek solidarity and attempt to influence the equity landscape through employer-controlled Employee Equity Networks, which have no substantive power and do not have the capacity to mobilize members to run campaigns or influence decision-makers.
CAPE has an even weaker track record on solidarity – in fact, CAPE only became a member of the Canadian Labour Congress (Canada’s national labour federation) in 2020 after a member-driven resolution to do so. Despite statements on its website suggesting otherwise, CAPE did not show any material support to PSAC during its strike. Instead, Solidarity Caucus members self-organized picket line delegations, in-kind donations, and art builds to support strikers that were effectively fighting for the contract gains of CAPE members, while our bargaining team sat waiting for arbitrators to level up our contract to whatever PSAC had fought for. As the foundational moment for the Solidarity Caucus, this moment showed that now, more than ever, we need the membership to lead CAPE forward. Members are all too aware of CAPE’s complete disinterest in fostering strategic solidarity approaches with other national public service unions, as well as community groups championing basic human rights, including in the face of aggressive far-right protesting (for example, only the Solidarity Caucus attended counter-protests against historic transphobic hate marches in Ottawa in September 2023) .
With this backdrop, the controversial executive resignations and general dysfunction of the last six months have members rightly demanding greater control over their union through urgent rank-and-file mobilization, particularly as budget cuts loom large over most federal departments.
Members to the front
To be sure, with a Members for Change team in power at CAPE’s National Executive, many more channels for direct democratic membership participation will open while profound changes to CAPE’s equity and solidarity approaches will be initiated. Fundamentally, however, the rank and file membership of CAPE must continue to assert control over their union.
Members need to organize independently of their elected leaders, take stock of what they think the union should be doing, and organize themselves to be able to build power where they deem it strategic – and then apply the power they’ve built, rather than beg union executives to do what needs doing. The Solidarity Caucus is currently the only version of this approach to unionism in CAPE, but anyone can start an independent rank and file caucus and get organized to assert demands on the union funded by their dues and theirs by right. With job cuts around the corner, telework rights being nearly unanimously clamoured for by the membership, and a number of severe crises developing for equity-deserving groups, CAPE members need to drop the freeriding label, step up, and take back their union.
Rosa Andrews is a CAPE member and supporter of the Solidarity Caucus, whose website was recently taken down after a cease and desist order from CAPE’s National Executive Committee. If you’re a CAPE member, they recommend you vote in the CAPE National Elections for the entire team of Members for Change, who have committed to a progressive platform over the next executive term.
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate