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Can we please lift the cone of silence over workplace abuse?

By guest blogger Karen Wirsig

It is no exaggeration to say we act as though workplace abuse is sacred. Unmentionable.

Though we’re only a tweet button away from revealing our innermost thoughts, how much oversharing on your timeline involves someone speaking up directly about a bad thing that is happening to them in their job? I am lucky to count a large number of rabble-rousers and loudmouths among my friends and twitterati but my feeds are bare of open discussion of how these otherwise garrulous people are being treated at work.

Why do we censor ourselves so?

As a union organizer, I get a certain number of emails and phone calls from people who recount harrowing experiences and wonder if there’s anything they can do to better their situation. I’ve never once talked to someone eager to put their name on a formal complaint. And the most honest answer I can give is to confirm that it is risky to take on workplace injustice alone: You risk serious blowback from the boss, if not firing and blacklisting.

I got the following question last week, laundered through two intermediaries: “See the message below from a friend: ‘A colleague just had a really bad interaction with [a company] today – the [person doing the hiring] flat out told her she wasn’t getting the job because she has a kid. Any suggestions of next steps, or how/what kind of complaint she can file? Of course she wants to do it anonymously.’ ”

We all know it’s flat out illegal to deny someone a job because they have a kid, right?

And yet employers can get away with this kind of stuff because of the cone of silence we keep over what happens to us at work.  A union can change this dynamic for the workers lucky enough to belong to one. In Canada, the law guarantees freedom of association to workers in a trade union. The boss doesn’t hold all the marbles and must meet with the unionized workers to discuss problems and negotiate solutions in collective bargaining. If bargaining breaks down, the workers have the legal right to strike.

At the same time, workers are protected from punishment by the boss for taking collective action. The ability to have a collective voice, and to use it to combat unfairness in the workplace with a legally binding contract, means you can fix things without risk of being let go and/or finding your name on a blacklist.

This should be good news for workers, and put union organizers like me out of a job. It’s a no-brainer. All workers should be in a union. But there’s a catch. The law doesn’t make it easy for workers to form unions in the first place. The unionized workforce in North America is shrinking relative to the non-union workforce and the biggest slide is in the private sector.

Workplace culture – the cone of silence – is being driven by a non-union reality where sticking your head up is to risk it being cut off. From my experience in the mostly private media industry, the culture of fear about speaking up is bleeding into unionized workplaces where even workers with a collective agreement in their pocket can be reluctant to call the boss on an infraction for fear it will lead to career suicide. This is a pretty good clue to how we will all benefit by helping more workers organize in our sector.

So how can we organize?

Law professors on both sides of the Canada-US border are grappling with the fact that it’s very difficult for workers to organize in the 21st century under labour law designed – and weakened – in the 20th century. Declining union membership has been linked to growing economic and political inequality.

York University professor David Doorey noted at a talk on February 6 that some unions are helping to organize private-sector workers outside the legal model of “majority unions,” in which a majority of employees in a particular workplace must sign a union card and/or vote in favour of the union in a subsequent vote. As failed Walmart drives have shown, employers have a lot of opportunity under the current law to “persuade” their employees not to join a union. And what about all the workers who are not considered to be employees, but “self-employed contractors,” or freelancers? This growth area of the Canadian economy is largely unable to form a union under existing law. Finally, even if workers succeed in forming a union, a deep-pocketed employer can thwart the process that is supposed to lead to a first agreement, as our 20-month strike at MBS Radio in Saint John illustrates.

Doorey has floated an addition to the current labour law in Ontario to help workers who may not be able to form a full-fledged union under law. They could form or join associations – that may not include the majority of people in the workplace – that would have a right to meet with employers and engage in meaningful dialogue. Under Doorey’s  proposal, the workers would be protected from reprisals by the boss for engaging in these associations.

Doorey suggests this might be an incremental step to help more workers organize together in an era when wholesale changes to labour law to make organizing formal unions easier seem highly unlikely.

In the US, Yale law professor Benjamin I. Sachs is proposing an “unbundled” union. He suggests giving workers the right to form a union that engages in political action but doesn’t do collective bargaining – that’s the unbundling – may be the best way to give working class Americans a renewed voice in US politics. He points out that one of the strengths of unions is their ability to piggyback on employers’ systems to collect information on, and dues from, members.  If the political union he’s proposing  focused on political projects – perhaps even projects aimed at improving labour laws – might find less opposition among the individual employers it has to deal with to sign up workers, communicate with members and collect dues.

Sachs’s proposal has been criticized for offering up a toothless alternative to collective bargaining, but both Sachs and Doorey point to the need for workers who are not in a union to be thinking together about how to improve their lot.

We are putting our health at risk and diminishing our humanity when we are unable to speak out about unfairness or lack of safety at work. Lifting the cone of silence and finding our voice is a must. It’s time to put more energy into finding ways we can do it together.

Karen Wirsig is the Organizing Staff Rep for the Canadian Media Guild (CMG)

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