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Labour + Industry

Hard Work, Big Gains for Young Union Worker

Her job isn't easy, but Krissy Murphy loves the challenge -- and financial freedom -- it offers.

Tom Sandborn 2 Sep

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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"I found out what I was good at," says longshore worker Krissy Murphy.

Imagine this. You are sitting in a plexiglass cabin perched high above the Vancouver docks, looking down a long 50 feet to the surface below as you maneuver a huge, cumbersome, rubber-tired gantry crane you're driving over the top of a 53-foot-long freight container.

You work the controls again and the gantry grabs the container and lifts it. You roll the gantry and the container in its clutches to a new position and gently ease it into place. Welcome to Krissy Murphy's world.

Murphy, a member of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 500, is a muscular and enthusiastic woman of 30, with bright red-henna hair and an infectious laugh. She's been working on the docks now for eight years. Shifting containers, she says with a grin, is "like playing a giant Tetris game."

Fewer young union workers

Most young workers in Canada are not fortunate enough to have the kind of well paying, gratifying work that Murphy enjoys.

According to Stats Canada figures cited by the Canadian Labour Congress this April, 14.5 per cent of those between 15 and 24 are unemployed. Nearly 47 per cent are employed only part time.

Meanwhile, union density, the percentage of a workforce represented by unions, has declined precipitously in the private sector where Murphy works, from 26 per cent in 1984 to 17 per cent currently.

Big gains in public sector unionization over the same time period -- with public employees belonging to unions at a rate just over 70 per cent, a figure that has held steady since the mid-80s -- have kept the national union density numbers strong at about 31 per cent.

But union membership among younger workers has been eroded. A study by the Canadian Auto Workers showed union density among the 17-24 age group in Canada falling from 26.4 per cent to 13.6 per cent between 1981 and 2004. There was also a dramatic drop for the 25-34 age group over the same period, from 39.8 per cent to 26.1 per cent.

In B.C., union density among workers 25-44 years old stood at about 17 per cent in 2012.

'The economy as a whole has changed'

"I always knew I wanted a union job," Murphy said in an interview at a coffee shop down the street from the dispatch hall where she's sent out to new tasks most mornings.

Her father was a unionized railway worker, her mother a postal worker and CUPW member, and she remembers early childhood lessons in labour solidarity -- like not being allowed to cross a picket line outside the movie house in Prince George.

Her parents taught her how important it was to stand with other workers, and she observed the ways her parents' lives were better because of their unions. They were both able to retire this year at 55, something she said would not have been possible without their union contracts.

Asked by The Tyee about the lower numbers for union density that have emerged during her lifetime, Murphy observed:

"I believe that union membership has gone down because our large production shop and industries like new vehicle assembly have now been outsourced overseas.

"Our lumber industry has collapsed, and so has our fishing industry. The large union based industries have collapsed. Perhaps its time we look at membership with smaller industry. The economy as a whole has changed in the past decade. And we need to learn and figure out how to address this issue to survive as a union."

When she heard from a friend in 2005 that the ILWU was accepting applications from young people who wanted to work on the docks, she was the first one in line, 13 hours before the doors of the dispatch hall were scheduled to open. She was the first to file her application that day, among 14,000 other job seekers who applied.

Later, when names were drawn at random for the first applications to be considered, she "won the lottery" when her name was drawn early. Over the next three years, she said 1,200 of the 14,000 who applied with her that day were hired.

Strong enough

A self-described "tomboy" and middle sister in a family of three girls, she was the one most likely to hold the flashlight for her father while he worked on home auto repairs or join him on fishing expeditions in the bush outside her hometown of Prince George. Murphy loved BMX and dirt bikes and dreamed of becoming a mechanic or going into the military.

Once out of high school, she enrolled in the five-month-long women in trades program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

"I found out what I was good at -- taking things apart and putting them together," she said.

She next enrolled in a motorcycle mechanic training program that provided her with eight months of pre-apprenticeship training and saw her elected by her classmates as valedictorian when they graduated. She worked in that trade until her 2005 move to longshore work.

"On my first day at work," she told The Tyee, "I was sent onto a freighter to lash down containers on the deck. No one wanted to work with me, I guess because they thought I wasn't going to be strong enough. But my friend Paul, who had gone through orientation with me, said he'd be my partner."

Although she was met with some skepticism from older workers when she started on the docks and occasionally still senses a little negativity from men who don't yet know her, Murphy said she's learned how to handle it.

"I have to walk into that hall like I own it, like I belong there," she said, "and that's what I do."

On the odd occasion when a man on the docks gives her grief, she'll smile and make a rough joke in return. "That usually shuts them up," said Murphy. "You just have to be able to give as good as you get."

A woman's place

When Murphy started working longshore eight years ago, she was one of fewer than 100 women in the workforce. Now there are more than 250 on the Port of Vancouver docks with her. Her union represents over 3,000 longshore workers across B.C.

She says she has good relationships with her fellow workers, and appreciates the way her union has won good wages and benefits for all members while insisting on zero tolerance policies against any of the sexist harassment that can sometimes make life difficult for women in non-traditional jobs.

Another reason that she doesn't get much pushback from male co-workers, she said, is because of the respect she's earned as a trained first aid attendant.

As a first responder when someone is injured, she has to take control of the incident scene, give orders to supervisors and foremen and move quickly to save lives. That gives skeptical co-workers reason to take her seriously, she said.

Murphy says she stays strong for the demands of her work by regularly working out at the gym.

Her two workout buddies, a firefighter and a police officer, are also women in male-dominated trades. They are part of what Murphy describes as "a wonderful support network," which includes her parents and a new boyfriend, also a dock worker.

Murphy often speaks to high school classes as part of the BC Federation of Labour's Alive After Five program funded by WorkSafeBC, telling students about her job on the docks while teaching about workplace safety and the right to refuse unsafe work.

She says she often urges other young women to consider non-traditional jobs like hers. She points out that her unionized work has helped her buy her own home already, take off for hiking or surfing vacations when she chooses and maintain her beloved horse in a local stable.

Stephen Von Sychowski, a COPE 378 member who heads the BC Federation of Labour's young worker organizing initiative EARN (Employee Action and Rights Network), told The Tyee that Murphy and other workers going into the schools as part of Alive After Five play an important role in educating students about both workplace safety and the role of organized labour.

In an Aug. 26 email, Von Sychowski wrote:

"I think young workers are important to the movement because they bring with them new energy, new ideas, and new militancy all of which we need. And, of course, they are the future in that they will be the ones who will carry the movement forward and hopefully continue to open the door to those younger workers coming up behind them."  [Tyee]

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