I used to work at Bell Canada. When I was hired, I automatically became a member of the union. Although I appreciated the benefits of union membership, at first I didn’t think much about what it had taken to get the union or even what it took to keep it working for all members. You may not have thought about it much either, but you may well hold the key to growing our union. The biggest part of the job is simply getting the word out about what a union can do and how people can get help to create one in their workplace.
It was only after becoming president of my local that I found out about how unions are actually formed. And when I learned about organizing unions in workplaces where people didn’t have the same advantages I did, I wanted to be part of it. My union assigned me to an organizing drive at a box factory outside London, Ontario. It was trial by fire. Although we knew we had the support inside the plant, we lost the vote for the union because the boss was intimidating the employees. Luckily, the labour board agreed that the employer’s actions were offside and granted the employees their union anyway.
It took a few years from the beginning of the campaign to the first collective agreement at the box factory– you need stamina to form a union– but it was worth it. The employees hadn’t had raises in a long time and were tired of being treated with disrespect by their employer and having no recourse. The boss had appointed a “workers’ committee,” and even the hand-picked members of the committee had tried to raise concerns for years with no results. With the union, the members chose their own representatives, stood together and now have real bargaining power.
So often, when people decide to form a union, it’s not about pay. It’s about all the things that may seem minor in and of themselves but chip away at peoples’ sense of themselves: rules and goalposts that appear to change on a whim, favouritism, how shifts are assigned, lack of good communication with the boss, feeling unappreciated and unvalued. These are the things that make people think they need a union.
Recently, I’ve been talking to freelance court interpreters in Ottawa. They’ve told me that their biggest complaint is the lack of regard the government, who hires them, has for them. They get paid much less in the Ontario courts than in other provinces and in the private sector. And yet they do an essential job in ensuring people whose first language isn’t English get a fair hearing. But it’s not only the pay; they weren’t consulted on the new accreditation system, which excluded a number of skilled interpreters from getting work and the workload of those who remain is often unrealistic. What’s more, their shifts can be cancelled with no prior notice and no compensation. This is a situation that should worry all of us: with conditions like these, the government risks running out of people willing to do this important work.
The workplace has changed and continues to change. Good paying jobs that used to be held by union members have been shipped overseas; technology has eliminated not just jobs but entire industries. The way we work is different. Employers demand flexibility. Freelancers and contractors abound. Entire new industries have replaced old ones. Part-time and precarious work is the new norm. Workers feel heavy downward pressure on wages and benefits when the economy stumbles and unemployment is high.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that unions bring democracy to the workplace and more fairness to the relationship with the people who sign the paycheques. The union gives the worker a voice. Improvements can be made through collective bargaining. An individual has almost no chance standing up to an employer. It’s when we stand together that we are strong.
Growing the union by organizing new members makes all of our other work easier. We know and sometimes take for granted what it means to be a union member. Most folks don’t yet have the assurance their coworkers will stand together with them, the option to file a grievance or even demand a fair hearing with the boss, the chance to vote on a new collective agreement.
By stemming the decline in the number of unionized workers, and adding new members, we add diversity, new ideas and talents. We ensure that our union can continue to function and provide service to our members. In other words, organizing more unions among more workers is good for us unionized folks, too.
And that’s where you come in. You probably have friends or family members who aren’t in a union that grouse about their workplace. Please let them know that a union can help with many of their complaints. And if they are interested in talking about them, please pass along my phone number and let them know I’m here to listen and to help them. Together, we will grow our union and our movement.
Dave Bosveld is the Organizing Director with CWA-SCA Canada, CMG’s parent union. You can reach him at 416-948-0539 (cell) or at email@example.com .