The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was established in 1963 through a merger of the National Union of Public Service Employees (NUPSE) and the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). The merger brought together service-providers, white-collar workers, technicians, labourers, skilled trades people, and professionals from a variety of sectors into one large public sector union. The new union emphasized grassroots democracy in autonomous locals, which directed their own affairs. CUPE Saskatchewan, the political and policy arm of the union in the province, was established the following year to protect and advance the welfare and economic security of public employees. George Cairns was elected as its first president.
As the public sector expanded in the 1960s, CUPE increased its membership substantially, bringing women into the labour movement in large numbers. The growth in membership was aided by the ability to negotiate contracts ensuring that public sector workers obtained significant wage increases, benefits, and other contract improvements. These contract gains were curtailed with the imposition of wage and price controls by the federal Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau in 1975. CUPE and other unions in Saskatchewan were incensed when NDP Premier Allan Blakeney supported the wage controls by implementing the provincial Public Sector Price and Compensation Board.
The relationship between public sector unions and the NDP reached a new low in 1982 when Blakeney legislated 5,000 striking CUPE hospital employees back to work. The Premier proceeded to call an election the next day. Angered by the attack on the fundamental right to strike, CUPE Saskatchewan urged its members to back an independent labour candidate, the Aboriginal Peoples’ Party (which opposed the back-to-work legislation), or to spoil their ballots in other ridings. The subsequent defeat of the NDP by Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives sparked an intense debate within CUPE over political strategy. In the end, CUPE Saskatchewan endorsed a direction of independent political action and education, and “selective support for those NDP and other candidates who publicly endorse labour’s political principles and objectives.”
This commitment to independent political action led CUPE Saskatchewan to work closely with the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice in protests against Devine’s agenda of privatization and assault on labour rights and the welfare state throughout the 1980s. CUPE’s social unionism also found expression in the fight against free trade agreements, regressive tax reform and attacks on the medicare system, as well as in strong support for international solidarity projects. The election of Roy Romanow’s NDP in 1991 found CUPE fighting a new round of cutbacks and wage restraint as the government focused on reducing the debt of the Devine years. As the province’s financial situation improved, a renewed militancy took hold from 1999 to 2004 with CUPE strikes in the health, education, and library sectors.
As women make up about 60% of its membership, CUPE has been at the forefront in the fight for pay equity. CUPE has also pioneered a new representative workforce strategy in Saskatchewan to increase employment for Aboriginal people. Today, CUPE remains the largest union in Saskatchewan, representing over 24,000 members employed in hospitals, nursing homes, school boards, municipalities, universities, libraries, and community-based organizations.