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Fighting racism in construction from the bottom up

Brian Champ

January 12, 2022
In January of 2021, published an article that featured Kimoy Francique, a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent who is an electrician in IBEW Local 353. After nooses were found at construction sites across the city, she helped organize a group of rank-and-file members to protest their local executive board's failure to take action when information about IBEW L353 members' involvement in planting these threats of violence to Black workers came to light. 
These threats come on top of all the barriers that Black people, women, and LGBTQ+ people face getting into the trades and withstanding the racism, misogyny and homophobia that is tolerated every day on jobsites. Kimoy is a fighter and did not let these barriers stop her and is committed to breaking down these barriers for those who come behind her.
The half-hearted response from industry, governments, courts, and police has not stopped nooses from being placed at construction sites in Toronto and across Canada and the US. But grassroots mobilizing in communities and workplaces has created pressure for change from below that is already making a difference.
I interviewed Kimoy to catch up. 
Brian Champ for Socialist Worker: The last time we spoke you had raised a complaint against the business representative at the MGH construction site. Can you explain the complaint and how this has been handled in your union?
Kimoy Francique: We had actually something very interesting happen. So that rep that you're talking about - John Mightis is his name. The actual predominant message that my union local leadership has been to cover things up. Right, so they don't want to talk about it. So, when the nooses started going up at the MGH site, me and my brothers, fellow union members, were concerned - I just quit the trade. I just didn't feel safe. No amount of money is worth that to me. Some of my brothers heard. So, we started polling and rallying. And at the end of it, we did some strategic stuff like we had the petitions, we made sure to ask leaders when they came down to our job sites, strategically put witnesses there, ask them certain questions, right?
One of my brothers asked John Mightis on the MGH site because they had been ignoring our concerns, "What does a noose mean to him?" And his reaction was what our [union local] hall reaction was, "Ah, brother it's just a joke." And that is the reaction our hall has for our concerns as members of African Caribbean and multiracial descent. The fact is my Indigenous, Asian, East Indian brothers have it just as bad on job sites. It's always we don't know how to take a joke. It was a joke. And you just don't know how to take it. But nobody makes fun of the swastika - tell Jewish people that it's funny. Nobody does that. But they do it to people of color, of African descent. And they absolutely make you feel that you don't have a good sense of humor [laughs]. And you're going home, feeling like you want to cry.
SW: I can't see anything funny about it - it's a threat of violence - what's so funny about that?
KF: Yeah, it's a threat of violence towards you. But it was just meant as a joke anyway. So, you know, you're not looking at it in the right context, you're not taking it in the right way. He meant no harm. Right?
You don't want to cause a man to lose his livelihood over this, do you sister? So now it becomes my problem, as the victim. This is what happened at my mediation. My Business Manager Lee Caprio, in the mediation that took place to resolve this issue he said something to the account of, I’m destroying a member's career, who's been great to the union, and am I okay with this? So again, I'm the bad guy.
Well, what I said to him is, I think he destroyed his own career, because I did not act in any of those ways.
SW: What was the result of the mediation? Is he still the business rep?
KF: Yes, he's still a business rep. Even though he refused to go to a cultural sensitivity training. [Note: union local mediation of the complaint of John's response stipulated that he attend such training] When I asked for proof that he went as a person who was directly affected by his false charges and as a person of African Caribbean descent, I was told that no proof need be given. I have to take their word for it.
SW: But wasn't it a union local decision?
KF: Yes. And the union has decided that they don't want to give any proof to the membership. And specifically, not the membership of African Caribbean Canadian descent. I make that statement because the membership has specifically requested, the IBEW L353 Human Right Rep has requested the charges be read out and we have had 2 regular union meetings where the constitution has been ignored.
One of the things they've done is they protected those people who hung the noose. My union feels that they will get a bad reputation, if they were to say, you know, "So and so" hung the noose, he's a member and we sent him to get cultural sensitivity training. He's been an upstanding member, great electrician, obviously, he understands now that this is not acceptable, and he understands our code of conduct. My union is not behind that. My union would like to cover it up and continue to deny me and my brothers and sisters of African Caribbean Canadian descent the same rights as white men in my union.
But in our union, when a member is charged internally, that process indicates very clearly that they must read those charges out at the very next in person union meeting. But because of COVID, there have been no meetings.
What they've told me is that they read it out at the union local executive board, in lieu of reading it out in a in a regular meeting, as the IBEW constitution states should happen in a state of emergency when there are no meetings. And they're insisting that that is all they must do.
But it needs to be read out at a general meeting, because if they read it out there it will be in the actual minutes, for time immemorial. I don't know where the e-board minutes go.
So, the first meeting happens, we go in, I make sure I'm strategic. I have my brother Matt go in. And he asked them, hey, this is the first meeting. We would like the charges to be read out on the guys who hung the noose. Circle talk. circle talk, circle, talk, circle talk. He's off the mic. No charges read.
My sister, Cara Brideau, got up and asked openly on the floor if John Mightis had refused to take an equity training, because he's walking around telling people that nooses are hilarious. The executive board had to admit that yes, he refused to take the training. And then they all said Shame, shame, shame. And that's the best that a person of African Caribbean Canadian descent can hope for in the way of addressing these biased racist acts within my union?
Hopefully the exchange made it into the minutes.
The other thing is, I'm not allowed to know what he was charged with or the outcome of the [internal union local] trial. And so that's part of why we're trying to get them to state, because any other charge would have been read out.
Now, there was another charge, a human rights violation, that my rep Ticha brought forward. And they let me know that they had to push, push, push, push, push, push
SW: This was another incident, unrelated to the nooses?
KF: Yeah, so this was, again, there are racist things happening in my union all the time. Now that I have a human rights rep. My members are now reporting. I had to push really, really hard for that. Right?
SW: Can you explain how it came about that the local now has a new Human Rights representative available to handle complaints about racist, misogynistic, and homophobic behavior and other human rights violations?
KF: So, under Steve Martin [previous business manager], he wouldn't do it. He ignored us until he found out that I had an interview with Caribbean Vibrations. As soon as he found out, a new Equity Diversity inclusive committee was started, which I was invited to be on. They try to waylay me there.
I have a Human Rights Committee right now that will not address the concerns of the African Caribbean Canadian community who are very scared and are losing their jobs due to them not with wishing to state their [vaccination] status. At no time in history of have Canadians ever had to reveal their medical status for employment. Right? My human rights rep committee don't want to touch it.
But Steve Martin lost his bid for re seating in 2019, going into 2020. And I have a new business manager Lee Caprio.
Lee says the right things, and in some cases, I've seen him do the right things. I would like his statements and actions to be more consistent. I know Lee not to be a racist person, but I think he's a part of a system that is racist, and he may have his hands tied.
Out of the petition that we presented to our union leadership, we were able to institutionalize a human rights rep. So, we actually have a rep, their job is to address and deal with human rights issues. So, for a long-time brothers and sister of African Caribbean Canadian descent had no place to go, and it is wonderful to have that institutionalized.
Ticha is hard at work, there are several cases that they're working on, but I know that there's one that they put in at the first meeting, they had to work very hard, but they got them to read out the charge, so that's on the books. I think that will start to change my union because a lot of my union brothers would not behave that way and would never believe that union brothers would behave that way. Now that we have a human rights rep, and they are going to bring these charges to light, it's gonna start to be embarrassing and there's gonna be a change in culture because every meeting they will probably have to put in a charge. Ticha is also hard at work completing the Lessons Learned Document that takes a detail look at the Noose incident at the GMH site and makes recommendations on new policies and procedures that the IBEW L353 should adopt so that these incidences are addressed instead of being covered up.
I am also raising awareness through the Electrical Worker Minority Caucus-Ontario (EWMC-O) to make sure that my brothers and sisters are now confident and comfortable [making a complaint or accusation] and that Ticha has their back and does not use their names. That's very important. In the past people have been sold out. So far, Ticha has maintained that confidentiality as much as they can until it's time to draw up charges.
SW: That sounds like a real step forward, not only to address these issues, but also to bring people to the collective anti-racist struggle in the union. It's great to hear that your plans to create an Electrical Workers Minority Caucus - Ontario (EWMC-O) chapter, an officially chartered IBEW (International) union body, are going ahead. Update us on where things stand?
KF: [When we applied, they gave us] bylaws and we wanted to make it super democratic. So, we changed some things: We want to elect the executive board of EWMC-O, where under the bylaws the President of the local appoints them. So little things like that.
And they came back and they're like, no, if you're going to be a part of this organization, you got to do it this way. But the only thing we stuck on was we felt it was really important to keep our land acknowledgement. And so, we put back in for the charter. We wrote a letter, we acquiesced to all the other changes they wanted, and wrote in the letter to say, no, we want this one. So, I think they'll accept it.
The EWMC is not just about the internal politics of the union local, but also about service to communities in need. We are building safe homes for the homeless in partnership with Adinkra Farms in Barrie. We built one, and we started working on the second one. So, I'm hoping on the 21st (November), we'll get at least another one done. So, what we're trying to do is show a model for the government of what they look like and how affordable they are. As somebody who's [been] homeless before, I would have really liked that.
SW: This is a great initiative, given the housing issues that affect so many in the city. I learned recently that you also now have a new job at the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN)? (TCBN works to ensure that public projects, such as the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project by Metrolinx, benefit the communities impacted through apprenticeships, training, and jobs for local residents along with other tangible community benefits)
KF: Now I'm working there as a training liaison, and part of my job is to get them up to date, culturally, with what's going on with my union. Specifically, I've been hired to review an apprenticeship training program curriculum. We want to make sure it is available for free to our over 120 community partners, no matter where they are, letting them know we want to start a program that teach young people in your area to get in and access construction trades.
It's a joint venture between TCBN and the Afro-Canadian Contractors Association (ACCA), which I'm proud to say I helped start. It's relatively new. My brothers and I noticed a deficit, that there's not a lot of Black contractors and when Black contractors did start up, some of the bigger guys [construction companies] did not give them a chance. And so, our community had a couple of successes, for example, ACCA president Stephen Calendar - he has one of the biggest Black-owned sheeting companies, so he does windows, sidewalls, trim. But outside of the few like him, we don't have a lot of those presences, so we came together we created ACCA. Our drive is to get more contractors of African Caribbean Canadian descent into the industry and thereby create a wonderful community for our community. We partnered with TCBN, it's an excellent partnership.
SW: With all the changes that have happened over the past year, how are you feeling about the future?
KF: I now have a business manager [the top position in the IBEW 353 local] who is supportive and not overtly racist - may need to confront some assumptions and such - and willing to listen.
Recently the various union halls in the local all met together, with Barrie and Pickering halls connecting into the Toronto meeting. This means that the local can meet, as a whole, for the first time ever.
I used to think that I don't make a lot of difference, but after the Human Rights rep, with Ticha, I feel like I made a small difference. It's gonna take a really, really, really long time but I'm not gonna give up. I was trying to get that rep for like five years, on the human rights committee. Kept putting the idea forward in the human rights committee for five years with no progress. After taking action to put pressure on the executive board, the human rights rep became a reality - militant action works!
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