It's been a rough year for CUPE Ontario chief and self-styled militant Sid Ryan. Despite the fact that his union is being toasted for its successful legal challenge to Ontario Hydro's sale (along with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union), Ryan finds himself knocked down a few rungs on the prestige ladder.Newspaper readers may have noticed the photo of an unhappy-looking Ryan next to national CUPE prez Judy Darcy at the press conference welcoming the Hydro court decision just weeks ago -- a photo that would not have included Ryan at all if he hadn't found out about the presser at the last minute and made a big stink about not being included.
Anything that happens within CUPE these days has to be seen through the filter of the problematic relationship between Ryan and Darcy. The national union's rationale for leaving him out, Ryan says, was that it -- and not the Ontario division -- had bankrolled the court action. But he says that explanation overlooks an important point. "I'm quite clear who speaks for Ontario from a political perspective. We have a constitution that says the division president is the spokesperson in this province."
Darcy would not respond to calls.
Ryan faced another set of obstacles last week at the Ontario CUPE convention in Windsor. For this microphone-loving union leader, elections are usually pro forma -- he's been acclaimed his last four times out. Not so this time, when -- embarrassingly -- he faced a surprise candidate who managed to rack up a quarter of the votes with a last-minute campaign.
In many ways, the politicking in Windsor was the continuation of another campaign, Ryan's bid last fall for the coveted national treasurer spot, a strategic perch from which to line up his ducks for a fight to succeed his nemesis, Darcy. Alas for Ryan, not only did he not bag the treasurer job back then, but he also saw a sizable number of the delegates from his own province support his opponent.
Emboldened, some of his detractors got behind an obscure candidate from northern Ontario to face off against him in Windsor. "The membership has to be foremost in every decision, including whether the union should financially support the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty," Ryan's adversary, Bob Cullens, told me on the phone before the vote last Friday. (The delegates ended up supporting continued funding for OCAP.)
Of course, Ryan emerged the victor -- that was never in doubt -- and he's putting the best face on the vote. "Being elected gives me a stronger mandate than being acclaimed," he says.
As for his relationship with Darcy, "It probably boils down to nothing more than relatively strong leaders who are both highly opinionated," he says. Two strong leaders, it seems, who don't always agree on who speaks for CUPE in Ontario.