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Not Your Mom and Dad's Labour Movement

Young workers prepare to re-shape unions for the 21st century.

By Tom Sandborn 2 Apr 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy stories for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net.

They sign up new members, they organize picket lines and demonstrations, they conduct high school classes in labour rights and workplace safety, and they cook meals for fundraising events to send young workers on solidarity trips to Cuba, South Africa and Central America. One even came back from a vacation in Las Vegas with a tattoo declaring their commitment to the cause. (You'll find out where in a minute.)

A new generation of Canadian union activists are cheerfully working overtime to educate others their age about workers' rights and on the job safety issues, organize progressive political events and build up membership in their unions. In B.C., many of these keen new organizers are associated with the Young Workers' Committees of the Vancouver and District Labour Council and the BC Federation of Labour.

Young workers are emerging as an important cohort of organizers, educators and activists within the labour movement. They will be the ones who contend with the multiple future challenges facing a movement that has lost some of its strength over the last decades as anti-union legislation has been actively promoted across North America and anti-union views have been regularly dispensed by a well-funded network of right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute and by mass media outlets far more sympathetic to management than to labour.

Meanwhile, union density (the share of the workforce represented by trade unions) in North America has diminished as big business has shifted production off shore to take advantage of cheaper non-union labour abroad. And a new generation of young workers is facing unemployment rates of over 20 per cent for those under 30 and an array of part-time, contingent jobs as baristas, burger flippers, rest home cleaners or Walmart shelf stockers. And the average age that a worker first joins a union, around 25 in the 1990s, has gone up to 35 now, according to one union source who spoke to the Tyee.

Listening to young Labour

On a rainy March afternoon recently, The Tyee sat down with a group of young workers involved with the Vancouver and District Labour Council's Young Workers Committee (together with VDLC president Joey Hartman) to talk about their committee and their hopes for the future of a movement they have joined at a difficult juncture in its history. Little they had to say supports the often-expressed view, most recently promulgated in a Globe and Mail feature the weekend before that organized labour in North America is on its last legs, with no idea of how to reach out to young and unorganized workers.

Don't try to persuade Bonnie Hammond that unions are on their way out. The sturdy, buoyant young woman, newly elected co-chair of the VDLC's young worker committee, is wired for optimism and willing to put in alarming amounts of energetic work to see her hopes realized.

A member of Canadian Auto Workers local 114, Hammond, who will age out as a "young worker" when her next birthday takes her over the line to 30, shares the chair of the committee with George Christou, a tall, beefy 19 year-old with a Liverpool accent and a long family tradition of trade union activism. Christou, who like the other young workers at the table says he foresees he will stay involved in union activism for the rest of his life, reports like Hammond that his volunteer involvement in young worker activity includes attending meetings most nights and weekends of demonstrations, and teaching high school students their workplace rights.

Their colleague, Brett Small, who belongs to CUPE 116, says that his involvement in the young workers' committee keeps him busy too. But none of the committee members around the table with The Tyee seemed to grudge their exhausting rounds of union work.

"It doesn't feel like work at all," Hammond said, to enthusiastic nods from Christou and Small. "It feels like hanging out with your friends and making the world a better place."

"My experience in the union movement has been life altering," Small said. "I've always cared about social justice and fairness. Unions embody that."

"When I was a kid," George Christou remembered, "I was always the one who got in trouble for standing up in class and saying something wasn't fair. In the union movement, I have allies to work with when that happens now."

Travel and other forms of education

Small said that his involvement last year in a CoDevelopment Canada trip to Honduras and El Salvador, also made possible by young worker committee fundraising, was a crucial part of his deepening commitment to union work. On the trip he met with local young workers, women's rights organizers and progressive radio journalists, and came back re-energized for his work in Vancouver.

Membership in the young workers committee at the VDLC, open to both union members and non-members, has a similarly energizing impact on many of its participants. One committee member, for example, is currently leading a unionization drive at a local outlet of a national coffee shop chain. And former members of the VDLC committee are moving up into positions of movement leadership, most notably Aaron Ekman, who was recruited by the VDLC's then-president Bill Saunders and served as chair of the young workers committee in the middle of the last decade. Ekman is now the president of the North Central Labour Council, representing the interests of over 10,000 union members across B.C.'s north.

"I came out of the Canadian Federation of Students before I joined the young workers committee," Ekman told The Tyee. "I believe we need to remember the role of unionism in changing society. If we drift into 'business unionism' we lose our identity. We need to work offensively as well as defensively, and reaching out to young workers is an important way to do that."

'Taking it to the streets'

The VDLC committee coordinates work and shares a lot of membership with the BC Federation of Labour's Young Worker Committee. Together, the two bodies work on BC Fed initiatives like the classes on labour rights they deliver in local high schools and the safety education "Alive After Five" program, which operates on a grant from WorkSafeBC. Small and Christou are currently training to act as facilitators in the classroom programs, and Hammond currently leads a dozen sessions a month in various schools.

Another favorite initiative the young workers who spoke with The Tyee mentioned is the Employee Action and Rights Network (EARN). Currently boasting a membership of over 1,500 young workers, EARN is planning a year of aggressive organizing and public education in 2012 among young workers who are currently outside formal union membership, in hopes they can learn more about the protections built into the Employment Standards Act and about the further benefits available to union members.

According to Stephen Von Sychowlski, formerly chair of the VDLC's young worker committee and currently leading the BC Fed's equivalent grouping, "This means taking it to the streets, to the workplaces, and into the realm of political action. We will be launching the Make Work Better campaign which will take aim at the unfair server wage, campaign for improvements to the Employment Standards Act, and fight to defend and restore Grant's Law. The Make Work Better campaign will take on the issues at the root cause; bad bosses and the provincial government that represents their interests. We are welcoming all workers, union and non-union to join in those efforts."

Von Sychowski said plans are in place to train all 1,500 current members of EARN as worker educators and organizers. He wants the EARN membership list to be more than just a simple contact or mailing list, he said.

"We are building bridges between the labour movement and non-unionized workers. The Canadian Labour Congress has a young workers' committee and so do many locals and labour councils across the country. We want to encourage a lot more of that, and persuade young Canadians that the labour movement is an important part of our fight for change. This offers young people an opportunity to do something meaningful fighting for the kind of world and labour movement they want."

'A terrific group'

The CAW, Hammond said, has more than 100 young workers' committees across the country, and many other unions and labour councils are also sponsoring young workers' groups.

The VDLC's Hartman, whose support and mentoring drew praise from every young worker interviewed for this story, knows from her own experience how important unions can be for young workers.

"I grew up in Kerrisdale and I didn't know much about unions until I got a job as a child care worker at a union organized daycare at Raecam in 1981. Soon after I got the job, we went on strike, a fight that lasted for 14 weeks. It turned into a fight for pay equity for day care workers, and although we didn't win full wage parity with city garbage workers, which had been our goal, we did come back to work with a significant pay increase. I discovered myself in the union movement."

If the young workers are fond and respectful of Hartman, she feels the same way about them.

"They bring out 15 to 25 members to every meeting, and they are a terrific group," Hartman said. "They are so supportive and nurturing of each other, and they work their asses off, all the time. There was a time I thought that the only thing young workers wanted was for us older ones to get out of the way, but these young people have a real desire for intergenerational partnership. They are not dogmatic, but they have a strong sense of social justice. It isn't too much to say that the way they work is rooted in love. They are not apathetic at all."

Talking across age lines

Hartman made a point of crediting her predecessor as VDLC president, Bill Saunders, for the "instrumental role" he played in the creation of the labour council's young worker initiatives. Saunders spoke with The Tyee by phone on March 21 and said that his role had been simply to "open the door and welcome them in." He described his role in supporting the creation of a young workers committee at the VDLC as one of the things in his long labour movement career he was most proud of.

"The young workers are way more radical than we are, but if you give them real, not token work to do and listen to them, they do great things. They have to be offered a meaningful role. Of course, sometimes they'll make mistakes. I told them I was willing to take heat for them as long as they didn't blindside me."

Committee co-chair Hammond also stresses the importance of intergenerational dialogue and partnership within the labour movement.

"I tell them that the decisions they make now will be affecting us for the next 30 years, long after they are retired. Sure, sometimes we run into a little condescension -- guys calling us 'kiddo' and wanting to pat us on the head. But mainly, we get wonderful respect and mentoring. We get to learn from them and they listen to us."

Hammond emphasized that her committee was open to all workers under 30, whether or not they currently belong to a union. She said that anyone interested in joining the committee should call her at 604-715-9553 or the VDLC office at 604-254-0703.

It is Hammond, by the way who, in a variation on wearing your heart on your sleeve, came back from a Las Vegas vacation with a permanent emblem of her union enthusiasm. She now sports a large and ornate "Solidarity" tattoo on her foot. Apparently not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!

Open to new militancy

When asked about their long-term goals, the young committee members who met with The Tyee all cited organizing new union memberships among the currently unorganized, increased gender equity both at work and inside unions, and an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

They hope to help reverse negative stereotypes about unions and young people in the mass media, and help put an end to inter-union raiding, which Hammond characterized as "lazy and disrespectful of the union movement."

They hope to help restore and further extend legal protections for workers and build a much larger, stronger union movement.

Like their union elders, they see supporting the NDP as a part of their ongoing strategy, but they are also willing to consider more militant tactics such as alliances with the Occupy movement. They speak matter of factly about organizing a general strike across the economy, a move that current union movement leadership tends to view with skepticism.

"In a couple of years," Christou told The Tyee," I could see a nation-wide general strike being organized against Harper. We have to do something about how the right to collective bargaining is being attacked."

Small agreed that a general strike might be a good tactic, but emphasized that it would only make sense when a lot of people were ready for it.

[Tags: Labour and Industry.]  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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