CUPE Failing Sexual Assault Victims After Toronto Incident, Group Says

York University group Silence is Violence claims public-sector union CUPE fails to protect its members.

Andrea Janus

A barricade at the recent York strike held by CUPE Local 3903. Photo via Flickr user OFL Communications

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is failing to prevent and address sexual violence between members, creating a culture where female members are marginalized and "a culture in which gendered violence is quietly accepted," a group of students and teaching staff at York University says.

The group, which calls itself Silence is Violence, made the allegations in a letter sent to CUPE National President Paul Moist on Wednesday.

In the letter, the group expresses its "utter dismay" over what it calls "the inadequate response to ongoing instances of violence taking place in myriad forms within our local, CUPE 3903 and CUPE national."

The letter comes just a few months after a York PhD student and teaching assistant named Mandi Gray, a member of Silence is Violence, alleges she was raped by an executive member of local 3903, the chapter that represents the school's TAs and other staff.

According to Silence is Violence, the union lacks formal procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual or gendered violence within union spaces, leaving victims marginalized and abandoned.

"CUPE National has failed to provide safety for its marginalized members by refusing to address sexual violence and harassment as a legitimate workplace issue in a systematic manner," the letter says.

"We therefore urge CUPE National to move beyond its existing parochial physical-health conception of workplace and union-space safety towards one that ensures workplaces and the union are free from sexual harassment and violence in all manifestations and forms."

The letter contains seven demands to overhaul the union's approach to sexual and gendered violence and end "the ongoing culture of silence that allows violence to continue."

They include overhauling CUPE's National Constitution to specifically address sexual violence; the creation of a "comprehensive policy and procedure" to deal with allegations "in a survivor-centric framework"; mandatory sexual violence and harassment training for all local and national CUPE officials; and the immediate suspension of staff and executive members facing allegations of sexual violence pending a full investigation.

The letter asks for a response from the union within 10 business days.

In response to detailed questions about the allegations and recommendations contained in the letter, CUPE National media relations representative Greg Taylor issued a brief statement.

"CUPE National has just received the letter today. Our union takes the concerns raised in it very seriously, and CUPE will be reviewing it carefully to ensure it's given the proper attention," Taylor said.

"CUPE will be responding to the group issuing this open letter directly. Until then, CUPE cannot make further comments to the media."

Gray says she had just joined the union's strike committee, her first involvement with union organizing, on Jan. 15, as York TAs prepared to walk off the job amidst contentious contract negotiations.

On Jan. 31, local 3903 held a party following the vote to strike. That night, she alleges she was assaulted by the local's chief steward, Mustafa Ururyar. Toronto Police confirm that Ururyar is currently facing a sexual assault charge.

At the urging of another union member, Ururyar voluntarily resigned his post, Gray says. His next court appearance is scheduled for May 11, she says.

Gray told VICE she assumed that once a charge was laid, the union would remove Ururyar from his post. However, she learned that there is no formal process at the union for suspending an executive member who is facing allegations of assault against another member.

She also says that at first, the executive of local 3903 offered no support. That changed after a swap in leadership, but "CUPE National, to my surprise, hasn't been there at all."

Gray says she sent an email to the national office providing details of the alleged assault, including a letter from her therapist saying her trauma was exacerbated by the union's lukewarm response.

She only received an email reply thanking her for her note.

"I was surprised. I was also hurt," she says. "But it became apparent to me just how blatant these issues are in my union."

Taylor would not say whether anyone from the national office will be contacting Gray separately.

The letter does say that the group's concerns are not just about an individual case, but is "an ongoing issue" at the local and national level. The group is careful to express its continued "support and solidarity" with the union and the labour movement in Canada.

But, the letter says, "the systemic silencing of rape and harassment survivors within our union sends the message that involvement within their local carries with it the risk of victimization; a victimization that will leave them largely neglected, if not entirely abandoned in times of crisis.

"The symbolic violence of silencing these members, the strategy of choice of our employer and evidently, our union, not only marginalizes woman-identified individuals, but also works to perpetuate a culture in which gendered violence is quietly accepted."

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