Jewish union members file rights claim against CUPE alleging discrimination and antisemitism

Triggered by union social media posts after Hamas’s attack, 25 Jewish CUPE members allege several years of antisemitism by Canada’s largest union

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Jewish members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees have filed a human rights claim against their union alleging discrimination and antisemitism, including recent messages seen as cheering for the deadly Hamas attacks on Israel.

Although triggered by social media posts by a CUPE local and CUPE Ontario’s president Fred Hahn after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, the complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario by about 25 Jewish members of CUPE alleges antisemitic incidents spanning at least five years by Canada’s largest labour union.

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“The respondents have collectively engaged in systemic discrimination against the complainants by promoting and engaging in antisemitism,” says the complaint, filed Monday.

“This has caused the complainants to feel isolated, unwelcome, scared, silenced, discriminated against, threatened and harassed.”

Carrie Silverberg, a CUPE member from Vaughan, Ont., is one of the complainants. She resigned from the executive of CUPE Local 1734 after years of futilely fighting antisemitism in her union, she said.

“Change wasn’t coming, it was just becoming more and more toxic, and I felt more and more unsafe and less heard,” she said in an interview.

“Enough is enough. This is not the way I would want to bring about change. I was hoping to educate, hoping to work together, but clearly that’s not working.

“Those tweets, the day after the massacre and horrendous terrorist attack — for him to be celebrating the death of Jews? I cried.”

Hahn said the union stands by its record of fighting discrimination.

“CUPE Ontario hasn’t seen the complaint and can’t speak to the allegations made. However, our union understands the fundamental importance of human rights and we take these matters very seriously,” he said in a statement to National Post.

“We firmly believe there has been no violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code and in any forum we will be happy to stand on our record of fighting discrimination and oppression in all their forms.”

Hahn and CUPE have already faced criticism over social media posts. Shortly after the deadly terror attacks in Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7, CUPE executive members publicly expressed messages that were seen as supporting the killing of Jewish civilians.

CUPE Local 3906, which represents academic workers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., posted “Palestine is rising, long live the resistance” on social media.

A day later, Hahn, a vice-president on the national CUPE board and head of CUPE in Ontario, posted that he was thankful on Thanksgiving for “the power of resistance around the globe. Because resistance is fruitful and no matter what some might say, resistance brings progress.”

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On Instagram, according to the complaint, Hahn posted an image with the words “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which is a slogan drawn from Hamas materials calling for the erasure of Israel.

“In posting these comments, the respondents were celebrating the murder and rape of Jewish children and civilians, calling it justified and promoting violence and discrimination against Jewish people,” alleges the complaint filed with the tribunal.

After a public backlash over the social media posts, including from federal and provincial political leaders, Hahn expressed regret for his timing.

“Causing any form of pain to our members was never my intent, but I understand that it has been the impact. I am deeply sorry for this unintended consequence,” his written statement said.

“That was an error, and I apologize. My social media posts became a giant lightning rod for both legitimate anger, and also for bad faith actors with a divisive agenda.”

The McMaster CUPE local deleted its post but said it was not retracted, only removed because of “violent messages” the union received, blaming “the highly organized Zionist lobby.”

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In a statement, CUPE 3906 executives said they did “mourn the attacks on the sanctity of human life and indiscriminate killing of civilians” but stood by its original message.

“The voices of Palestinian students, faculty, politicians, and their allies are targeted everywhere by the highly organized Zionist lobby in Canada, its targets inclusive now of CUPE 3906 and the President of CUPE Ontario.”

The complaint says the social media posts are not isolated incidents but part of “a long pattern of discrimination against Jewish union members.”

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The human rights complaint claims CUPE condones and encourages antisemitism and discrimination against Jewish members and deliberately excludes education about antisemitism in CUPE policies or documents, despite calls for inclusion.

According to the claim, Hahn told Jewish members “he doesn’t believe that Jewish people should live in Israel and that Jewish people ‘stole’ the land from Palestinians.”

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The claim complains of several CUPE resolutions, such as one in 2018 which said Israel was “illegally” occupying Palestine, a 2021 resolution to oppose the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, and a 2023 “emergency resolution” to conduct member education about the history of Israel’s “occupation and colonization” of Palestine.

The complaint says CUPE produced and distributed infographics claiming Israel is “ethnically cleansing” the Palestinian people.

It also says the union silenced Jewish members. The camera and microphone of a Jewish delegate at a CUPE Ontario virtual convention was cut off because she was wearing a shirt supporting the Israel Defense Forces when other members were allowed to raise Free Palestine flags on their screens as they spoke.

Further, the claim says CUPE hosted union events during Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. Silverberg said this greatly reduced the ability of Jewish members to participate.

“I’m a member in good standing and I have no voice,” Silverberg said.

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The complaint claims CUPE violates Section 6 of the Ontario Human Rights Code, which says everyone has a right to equal treatment in a trade union without discrimination based on race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability.

The claim seeks $500,000 in compensation for pain and suffering and an order allowing members to re-direct their union dues to a Jewish charity.

Other remedies sought include orders for the union to stop engaging in discrimination and hate towards Jewish members, to create internal policies to combat antisemitism, and for union leaders to attend educational seminars about antisemitism.

Kathryn Marshall, a lawyer with Levitt Sheikh LLP who is representing the CUPE members in the complaint, said she expects the number of complainants to grow.

She said they heard from other CUPE members who wanted to join but were hesitant and frightened.

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario is similar to a court and is empowered to resolve claims of discrimination and harassment.

CUPE is Canada’s largest labour union, with 740,000 members in health care, emergency services, education, municipalities, social services, utilities, transportation and other sectors.

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Originally posted 2023-11-06 16:45:34.