Amazing Grace: A Labour Day profile

By Ed Silva and Metta Spencer (interviewers) | 1985-09-01 12:00:00

CANDIS spoke with Grace Hartman, the recently retired President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), about her involvement with labor, feminism, and peace. We met with her in her pleasant North York bungalow, where she told us about her work with CUPE and talked about the peace conferences she's just attended in Mexico City, Halifax, and Nairobi. She analyzed the different styles of organization in the labor and peace movement, pointing to ways to bring the two closer together.

Grace Hartman was born into a Southern Ontario Tory family. Her own mother died when she was a girl, and it was her mother-in-law who probably influenced her commitment to labor most strongly. She was a red-haired Scottish woman who had come from a mining town where everyone read the labor press and went to union meetings. So when Grace started work as a secretary for North York in 1954, she already had a sense of what unions could do for people, and was ready to help run her local. She became an officer less than one year after joining the union. From then on, she was on a straight course: By 1975 she was President of CUPE.

With 300,000 members in 2000 locals, CUPE is by far the largest Canadian union. Its membership is remarkable for its diversity, ranging from white-collar clerical workers to day care and hospital personnel to blue collar hydro workers. And, men and women, old and young, they know their own minds; in all twelve provinces, in large and small locals. CUPE members expect their officers to listen closely to them.

In fact, Grace Hartman's responsiveness to CUPE members once sent her to jail for a month. Hospital workers in Ontario are not supposed to strike, but in the early '80s their workload and pay scale became intolerable. Despite their deep commitment to their patients, nothing could keep them on the job. Grace Hartman was imprisoned for refusing to order them back to work. The union showed its solidarity with her through a "rose vigil." Every day members stood outside with a single rose. Every day a bouquet arrived for her. The guards, who were not allowed to let inmates receive flowers, nevertheless put the roses in places where everyone could see them. When she was finally released, she returned home to find her house was full of roses. And a world-famous poster, showing an imprisoned rose, commemorated this bond between a union's membership and its leader.

Grace Hartman joined Voice of Women about twenty years ago and, although she didn't have time to attend many of its meetings in those days, she did promote its values among CUPE staff and members. She chuckled, recalling that she felt sure that many women, after she'd urged them to become more involved, would exclaim in relief when she left the room, "Whew! She's gone!" She used all her powers of persuasion to prompt public workers to stand up for their rights. Although she's obviously a powerful person, her power is supportive and positive, not intimidating. Even when she talks of 'struggling' for social justice, it's clear her tone is open and friendly, not closed minded or antagonistic. Undoubtedly she did prompt many workers to join together and stand up for their rights and for causes like disarmament.

Grace Hartman sees CUPE and the United Auto Workers as exceptionally concerned about peace issues. During the Vietnam days, she and UAW president Dennis McDermott seemed always on the same platform speaking at rallies opposing the war. The same holds true today. She gives Bob White a lot of credit for influencing UAW members to oppose the nuclear arms race, especially Star Wars. People listen to him who wouldn't listen to just everybody, she says.

But she can't explain why these two unions take similar positions so often. They're not so alike structurally. Her union represents many diverse locals and negotiates hundreds of separate contracts each year, while the UAW is far more unified and centralized. Perhaps because CUPE workers have to negotiate with many governments, they have learned that governments are wrong as often as any other group. Still, Grace Hartman no longer sees the UAW and CUPE as the only supporters of peace in the labor movement. Unions in general are becoming more favorable to the peace movement. It's no longer a minority position. The leaders of all kinds of unions are promoting disarmament, and their members are paying attention. Perhaps we're well on our way to an alliance between the trade union movement and the peace movement.

The main differences standing in the way of this alliance now are matters of style. Trade unionists have a more disciplined way of working, more practical and businesslike, than peace organizers. Their approaches don't combine readily. The Peace Petition Caravan Campaign had been their first big cosponsored effort and, while participating in it, she had been surprised at the way peace groups make decisions. Instead of passing motions, debating them, and then bringing them to a vote, many peace groups try to reach a consensus without voting at all. Sometimes they argue vehemently for a long time in their search for a consensus, but they don't like to force the issue and let either position win at the expense of the other side. This time-consuming process frustrates many experienced unionists, who are used to pushing for what they want, using parliamentary procedures. Even though peace organizers recognize the potential in allying with the unions (which have useful skills and resources) they often worry that in any alliance the unionists will try to take over. There is always a potential for conflict in such a situation.

She told us about the tensions that had come up during the Halifax conference. Seven or eight trade union women had attended the conference, she said, and felt they had been held at arms length. Some of the differences were symbolic: They dressed up" more than the peace-group women, wearing skirts instead of jeans. They used expressions such as "fight for peace, or "struggle," and they spoke favorably of gaining "power"-terms that many Canadian peace movement women avoided altogether. They wanted to pass resolutions and they knew how to work on drafting them, while the organizers of the conference worried about such "political" acts, saying that no provision had been made for passing resolutions. They didn't care much for some of the ceremonial expressions of feeling that the "peace" women enjoyed so much. And so they held a caucus to talk about their isolation within the whole conference.

It was, they concluded, partly their own fault. Mainly the peace movement women saw them as "Jenny-Come-Latelys." Grace Hartman herself did not feel shut out; she had been part of the peace movement for a long time. It was some of the other union women who felt excluded- and they were not rank-and-filers either, but leaders in their own unions: flight attendants, steelworkers, auto and public service workers. "We have a job to do," they decided, "to show that peace is our issue too. We have to find a way to link up with the peace movement."

They largely succeeded. On the last day of the conference they gathered ahead of time in the auditorium to sing as the other members made their way to their seats. They chose a song about women and power: One woman pushing cannot move a mountain. Two women pushing cannot move a mountain. But all women pushing can move a mountain. The participants joined in and in subsequent verses enthusiastically pushed a variety of objects besides mountains. And they sang "Amazing Grace" as she strode to take the chair for that session.

That's a beginning. Even though she's retired, Grace Hartman works full time for the causes she's always believed in. She doesn't have the tension that goes with official responsibility for CUPE, but she enjoys the loyal affection of the entire trade union movement, and she wants to help bring it and the peace movement into a more fruitful alignment. "We have such expertise and so many resources to contribute," she proclaims. "We have to find ways of using them together. We care about peace too"

Peace Magazine September 1985

Peace Magazine September 1985, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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