A legacy worth protecting
The following is a collection of thoughts and opinions that I, the author, feel compelled to share. I know full well that it might cause a very wide range of reactions and that is my intent. I want to spark conversations, cause people to look at themselves in the context of what I am about to share and decide on their own – is this right? If you are a young person in any union environment or someone who has been around for a while, yet have never really felt an affinity for the union, I hope you read this.
Most of all, for whatever reasons you have, please share not only my musings, but your feelings as well.
When you first come into a union environment from any other work situation, you know it is different. Without a doubt you cannot help but feel that in some way things just might be better than in non-union jobs. The first clue, you are not working for minimum wage. Then people start telling you about opportunities, benefits and wage scales for different classifications. There is an awareness that there is so much more to a job than just a paycheck. You also find out that there is a price to be paid for those differences – union dues. Yep, a certain percentage of your paycheck goes to “the union” each time you get paid.
Now a lot of what those “lost” dollars seem to be for nothing. After all, if you never get into trouble and need representation for a discipline meeting. If you never get sick/injured or disabled and need a rep to protect your rights to ensure you are provided with a proper and respectful accommodation. Or if you never have a manager who does not respect the rules and policies that all are expected to follow, such that you need to file a grievance to get what is fair and right well what did those dollars do for you? It would seem like with car insurance when you never have an accident, then nothing.
But that is not entirely true. Many things go on behind the scenes at the workplace in regard to making it safer, more respectful, fairer and as much as possible – better than it would be if the union were not there. Between the Health and Safety committees, Local Employee Relations Committees (LERC), Ministry Employee Relations Committees (MERC) and management/labour efforts, there are many things that happen to not only help in times of need, but to ensure that many of the potential issues that could crop up to have a negative impact on you at work do not. Without the efforts of not only local member volunteers (often elected by the members themselves) but the large support network of the union head office and regional office staff, I guarantee you that your workplace would be far different today than it is now.
The main reason for that is what is called a collective agreement. Many only think of this in terms of pay and benefits details and what is often needed in regard to discipline matters. But the collective agreement is much more than that. It often describes how the employer can do the work required of the organization you are a part of – while respecting rights and entitlements of the workers. It is the process of enforcing a collective agreement that the folks mentioned in the paragraph above are tasked with. Your dues go towards the constant enforcement of the current collective agreement to your benefit whether you know it is happening or not.
But I will let you in on a secret. You can follow your dues at work in the background by doing something as simple reading the minutes of meetings that take place for committees. Minutes are usually posted either electronically or on bulletin boards in the workplace. You can get additional insight as to what your dues do for you by reading up on activities on the local website and the main union site. Information is available if you want it. So unlike car or house insurance where nothing really happens until you have a crisis and a need, your dues provide you with a very important support network that is constantly at work for the benefit of all.
So having given you that background information I need to get to the nuts and bolts of this missive. Ask yourself this: What did I personally do when first hired into this union environment to earn all of what I now get? Folks, the answer is that when we are first hired into a union environment we have done absolutely nothing to earn those entitlements and rights. The plain and simple truth is that each of us is the recipient of a “gift” that is the result of great effort, sacrifice and determination of those who were the members before us. The past efforts and events that many have given up so much time and effort voluntarily to shape into what you now benefit from is a legacy. I challenge you to find such legacies in non-unionized workplaces.
Show me where in the private sector, nonunionized workplaces you have just those protections I have already mentioned. Show me a nonunionized workplace were you have rights such as we are beneficiaries of for when the employer decides that your job is no longer needed. Show me where in a nonunionized work environment where you do not have to hire a lawyer yourself when you have an issue with your employer as opposed to having support provided up to and including legal representation at the Grievance Settlement Board should your situation come to that.
Now we have many who have the years of experience and service in such that they were involved in shaping what we benefit from in our collective agreement. Some went through the strikes, the long negotiations, the many and tough committee meetings and other events such that they can say they earned what they now have. Many more who have contributed to our current employment situation are now retired and we owe them a large debt of gratitude and a very heartfelt thank you.
But along with those rights and entitlements in our collective agreement that they left us to prosper with, they left us with an even bigger legacy. They left us with the responsibility to our current co-workers and those who would become members of our union in the future, to make our best effort to protect and preserve what they fought and sacrificed so hard to achieve. Each of us has to look back to when we started and how lucky we felt to have benefits, a chance at a good career, a pension plan to contribute to that will stand us in good stead when we retire. Then we have to decide will I accept my role in protecting what was given to me and that which I want others to have in the future or will I just be a bystander or worse and let everything slip away?
The results of our vote back in December has shown that the vast majority of members get it. They know that we are fighting for what was handed down to them and what they might lose should the employer be successful in this latest attack on our hard fought and won collective agreement rights. They know that to be successful “solidarity” cannot be just a word found in the dictionary. It has to be a united effort to achieve a common goal.
Each of us must do what we feel is right for our personal circumstances. But we must all be aware of the consequences of those actions we take and weigh whether or not the end result is worth what we thought we would get. (fact, those that cross a picket line to work do not get their full pay for time worked. There is a deduction <sizeable> that is given to the union from the pay of those who do not support the efforts of striking co-workers by honouring picket lines) There are not only financial consequences but also definite changes in the way such employees are perceived at work for a very long time (rightly or wrongly – it does happen). It is for these reasons that I strongly recommend that anyone who is having doubts or thoughts about not supporting a strike talk to someone who is aware of what the issues are. If you have financial concerns, ask for help. If you have a moral dilemma based on your personal thoughts on the union as whole (or even specific individuals – me included) you too can benefit from talking to someone neutral you trust. I will suggest though that if you are in this group and you truly love the position you have, your pay rate, expected pension and the entitlements and rights of your collective agreement think about how withholding your support will not help you persoanally in any positive way. You will be bound to the new collective agreement the same as everyone else.
And if you are in a group that really does not see the necessity or wisdom of a strong show of support in the form of a strike if necessary, then I would suggest that you enjoy the last few weeks or months of what you have as it will soon be greatly diminished or gone. And if it is not, then you owe those who stand strong and make every effort possible to organize, support, contribute, participate and stand strong a very heartfelt thank you. To use a simple metaphor – this is a parade that we should all march in as the full effect is weakened if we all stand on the sidelines watching.
As mentioned at the beginning I hope to initiate a discussion that makes us think about where we are and why as well as what we will do from here. Any dissenting opinion is welcome as long as it is respectful in presentation. I will never claim to be right all the time and I know that I learn much from listening to those who often disagree with me. If you wish to add a message of support for what I have shared and add your own thoughts as well, please do. Reaching out can only be good and helpful for all. Sitting back and just isolating yourself can lead to it’s own group of issues. Remember folks – this is about your job, your pay, your pension, your ability to support your families and your future. It is important.
President, OPSEU Local 468