In the late 1970s and early 1980s, more than local and exotic flora was growing in the Winnipeg greenhouse where Paul Moist worked as attendant. While there, he further cultivated his passion for the power of the collective, and he eventually went on to become president of one of Canada’s largest unions, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
“I believe strongly in the community spirit embodied in unions—the notion of working together to help one another at work,” says Moist, who recently has been uniting his organization’s members around the cause of Canadian pension reform. Their efforts have begun to effect the sort of societal change CUPE strives for—and that it hopes to take in still more directions in the future.
Moist grew up in a union family, the son of a firefighter-turned-fire-chief.
“There was a sense of fairness to my upbringing,” he says, “and I accepted instinctively from an early age the notion that collectively we could improve wages and working conditions far better than we could achieve [it] as individuals.”
Moist got his CUPE card in 1975, while working as a lifeguard, and he continued to carry it through college when he worked in the Winnipeg greenhouse. In 1983, he was offered employment as a CUPE representative, and 10 years later he was elected president of CUPE Local 500, representing Winnipeg’s municipal workers. In November 2003, he became the fifth national president of the CUPE, which today boasts 625,000 members.
Under Moist’s leadership, CUPE—whose membership includes municipal workers, education workers below the level of teacher, and health care–support workers below the level of doctor and nurse—has focused on branding itself as a community union and has played a key role in the expansion of pension plans.
While many CUPE members are covered by a workplace pension plan, those who work for smaller entities—such as nursing homes and day-care centres—are often left out in the cold. To meet the needs of that demographic, CUPE formed two pension plans of its own: the Multi-Sector Pension Plan, which represents workers in small social-service agencies, and the Nursing Homes and Related Industries Pension Plan (created in cooperation with the Service Employees International Union), which represents workers in private nursing homes. Employers and employees alike make contributions, and today 150 employers participate in the two pensions, which cover 30,000 workers. The percentage of CUPE members covered by workplace pensions has thus grown from 60 to 75 percent. “I’m really proud that we’ve figured a way around the pension dilemma by creating our own pension plans,” Moist says.
By the Numbers
Largest local union membership
Smallest local union membership
Members covered by pensions
Although much of CUPE’s effort goes into organizing and bargaining on behalf of its members, it is also committed to what Moist calls “social unionism,” which involves arguing for broad programs that make society more equal.
For example, CUPE has been instrumental in the fight for the expansion of the Canada Pension Plan, a compulsory pension plan for all Canadians. It currently provides up to 25 percent income replacement, which simply isn’t enough, Moist says, given that 60 percent of Canadian workers—most of them nonunion—have no other pension plan.
CUPE has campaigned for a broadening of the Canada Pension Plan to give more coverage to workers who don’t have additional coverage. “If people don’t have enough money to retire, society will take care of them in an imperfect way, so employers and employees should pay a little more to gain a greater benefit upon retirement,” Moist says. CUPE’s campaign, now in its fourth year, has 8 of the 10 provincial governments on board, and the union is now waiting for the federal government’s agreement.
CUPE has also had a hand in the push to establishment a private Medicare system in Canada, it has defended public education so that all children have access with no fees at the door, and it has resisted attempts to privatize water and electricity services across the country. It has done all this purely in the name of bettering the community—a mission inherent in CUPE’s very existence.
“We advocate a social wage for all Canadians,” Moist says. “That’s part of our raison d’être.”