Monday, May 21, 2007

A word or two about unionism.

My belief in unions and unionism, despite their flaws (see Brecht's St. Joan of the Stockyards for one literary instantiation of them), is strong. This is, undoubtedly, on account of the fact that I was raised in a home where both parents were union members in good standing.

I grew up seeing my father and his colleagues weather a six-plus month lockout to win more equitable working conditions. I grew up marching in along with my father and his local in Labour Day parades. And I had a mother who was a union steward.

Then, when I was 18 and applying for union scholarships for university, I had the opportunity to learn about unionism beyond that which could be gleaned from my family's personal history and the depersonalized labour history taught in schools. I was able to learn how unions function on both theoretical and practical levels.

At that time, there were rumours that then-Ontario Minister of Labour Chris Stockwell was going to change/try to abolish the Rand formula in order to make unions more "democratic." One of these union scholarships asked me to interview my local M.P.P. and a high-level local union member, and to write a paper on the tenability of the proposal (i.e. that no Rand formula = democracy.)

I did. My conclusion? Changing the Rand formula to allow workers at companies where there is a union to opt out of the union/paying union dues would do the opposite of what Stockwell et al. were spinning. It would weaken the resources that the union has for collective bargaining, etc., and, as a consequence, weaken workers' agency and voice. It could, in fact, open the door to all sorts of abuses and denials of fundamental workers' rights.

I share all this to illustrate how these experiences, these life-lessons inform both my relationship to labour (I'm an outgoing union steward--outgoing only because, nearing completion of my degree, I am no longer employed as a teaching assistant) and to politics (all that union-related research I did when I was 18 was the cause of my joining the New Democratic Party.)

I share this also so that there will be no surprise when I post the following links to labour-related news you may have missed (though if you've read this blog for a while, none of what I've written today should come as a surprise):

- Courtesy of the National Union of Public and General Employees: "Despite progress, discrimination remains a global challenge: Major new report by the International Labour Organization." This article includes a link to the original I.L.O. report in case you'd like to read it yourself.

- "Online voters to select most abusive corporations."

- This is older, but it's still very important if you're Canadian: "Anti-scab legislation killed."

- Liza Featherstone writes about how "Workers of the World Unite Against Starbucks." Having worked not only as a barista (not at Starbucks--the job title is not their invention, but a coffee industry term for the person who prepares specialty beverages) but in various jobs in the service industry at large, this article struck a particular chord in me. Lower-level service employees in North America are treated like shit. (I'm not saying that they aren't elsewhere--I'm only saying that to which my own experiences can attest.) Many of these employees work at low wages, without the breaks accorded to those employed in other industries, and with few or no benefits. Interestingly, many of these workers are non-unionized. Coincidence? I think not.

- And on that note, I give you the website for UNITE HERE, a union that does represent workers in the service (as well as textile, etc.,) industries.

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