Latjor Tuel, Ukraine, and the role of labour unions in building a better world

In September 2021, we stood in front of our staff and told them that we were launching a new slogan for our union: A better workplace. A better world.

The idea behind that motto is that you can’t truly separate a person’s life into “work” and “non-work.” The you that walks through the doors of your workplace is ultimately the same you who sits down at your kitchen table for a meal or connects with friends at your favourite local gathering place.

As the world becomes more interconnected, so too, do the various parts of our lives. So, when we talk about improving our members’ lives, we can’t just focus on their “work lives.” To make good on our promise, we must be involved in improving every aspect of our members’ lives.

Events of the last week and a half have brought that truth into sharp focus.

On February 19, 2022, Latjor Tuel was shot to death by police in Calgary. While details around Tuel’s death are still emerging, the city’s Sudanese and larger BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities have voiced outrage and are in mourning. Not surprisingly, many Black and other racialized persons in Calgary have expressed feeling unsafe as a result.

A sizable proportion of our members are racialized, belonging both to Calgary’s Sudanese community and the city’s larger BIPOC community. Their potential concerns around safety do not evaporate the moment they go to work.

“Are we truly committed to improving our members’ lives if we write this tragic death and its impacts off as a “non-workplace” occurrence? I think the answer speaks for itself,” said UFCW 401 Secretary Treasurer Richelle Stewart.

UFCW Local 401 joins the calls for a full accounting of the events surrounding Latjor Tuel’s death and a commitment to ensuring a strategy of de-escalation is exercised by Calgary’s police to avoid lethal outcomes wherever possible.   

Less than a week later, the world was rocked by the February 24, 2022, Russian invasion of Ukraine. These global events have also torn a hole in our local union.

While issues of global politics are rarely black and white, it is clear that Russia’s unprovoked aggression demands condemnation in the strongest terms and decisive action to both support and defend the Ukrainian people.

Many of our local union’s staff with deep Ukrainian roots have conveyed both dismay and anger as events have unfolded in their homeland. Some staff and union members still have family in the country over whose safety they agonize as lines of communication have been difficult to establish.

“As the grandson of Ukrainian, Polish, and German immigrants, I feel a deep empathy for what is currently happening in the Ukraine,” said UFCW 401 President Thomas Hesse. “I have met many union members in numerous workplaces who are recent Ukrainian immigrants. As a result, I have asked our union to be on high alert for anxiety and pain expressed by our members and staff of Ukrainian heritage. As a humanitarian organization, we must do what we can to rally around our Ukrainian brothers and sisters during this time of crisis.”

It has been inspiring to watch Ukrainian communities across Alberta come together to provide support and resources to those families affected by these horrific events.

UFCW Local 401 expresses unequivocal and unwavering solidarity with Ukrainian peoples in Alberta and across the world. We call on world leaders to rally together in opposing what can only be described as acts of inexplicable evil.

We are also mindful that there are those who would argue about the impropriety of our statements. They would tell you that unions should stick to filing grievances and keep their noses out of geopolitical events and issues of social justice.

While the representation we provide our members in their workplaces remains a cornerstone of our work, we fall short of acting as a true advocate for their needs if we fail to acknowledge the fullness of their humanity. None of us can be boiled down to the description: worker.

We are also parents, siblings, family, and friends. We have hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities, past experiences, and future aspirations. We bring all of these things into our work lives as surely as we carry the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the workday home with us each evening.   

“We are a humanity-first organization,” continued President Hesse. “And that means, first and foremost, we stand with and support our members as human beings and people. It is people who make up this union, and it is the strength of their shared humanity that propels us forward.” 

We urge our members who may be experiencing challenges with recent events to reach out to their union for assistance and support. Though we may not have the resources to address every situation, we will always offer a human connection with someone who cares about your well-being and can work to get you the help you need.

Know that we are with you in these difficult times and that, as is always the case, we will stand together, arm-in-arm, strong in the face of whatever storms come our way.

In solidarity,
Thomas Hesse, President
Richelle Stewart, Secretary Treasurer
UFCW Local 401