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(Grant Harder)
(Grant Harder)

Do unions have a future? Add to ...

Union leaders like Pearson recognize that “brand” cuts both ways—using it as a lever against companies won’t be of much use if the union’s own brand is not up to snuff.

So, as a “56-year-old white guy,” Pearson counts himself an imperfect labour spokesperson. Some 60% of the members of his UNITE HERE unit are women and nearly half belong to visible minorities. “The next person in this job should more accurately reflect our membership,” he says flatly.

Pearson makes the argument for reasons of strategy as well as equity. “When it’s me or [BC Federation of Labour president] Jim Sinclair standing up defending labour, the public just turns off,” Pearson says. They just look like more well-fed white guys protecting their privilege. “It’s a lot harder to dismiss a hotel housekeeper who spends every day breaking her back changing rooms.”

Tieleman takes this branding discussion a step further, suggesting (to the horror of some in the labour movement) that unions are themselves a kind of free-market entity. “Unions are in the business of representing people,” he says, stressing the word “business.” Unions—the organizations themselves—are part of what we now understand as “the service industry.”

And to succeed—to get back on track—they have to be a “full-service” player, says the CLC’s Georgetti, who adds that union leaders can’t just drop in at contract time: “You have to be responsive to your members all the time. Otherwise, they just start looking at you like an insurance company: ‘I pay dues in case I get fired or there’s a strike.’” And no one feels particularly attached to their insurance company.

 

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As for the other piece—the traditional job of organizing the unorganized—the labour movement’s targets are fairly obvious: white-collar workplaces and the service sector. PSAC illustrates the point.

Like many public-sector unions, PSAC is fighting off retrenchment. Thompson, who is now an organizer in B.C., says he spends much of his time defending contracts or trying to reorganize workers whose jobs have been contracted out. The aggressive privatization at Vancouver International Airport alone has created a revolving door through which he himself must keep passing in an effort to reclaim members that PSAC thought it had already organized.

But while PSAC membership in B.C. has slipped, from 18,900 in 2009 to 17,900 in 2012, the national count, at 180,000, is growing. This is largely because, over the last five years, PSAC has added 20,000 members in the post-secondary education sector—post-doctoral researchers, teaching and research assistants, support staff, part-time faculty and student employees.

One of the point people in that success is MaryAnne Laurico, who got involved as a student at Queen’s University in Kingston. Like Daniel Bastien, she wasn’t born or raised a firebrand. A Toronto-born PhD candidate, she was (like most graduate students) just trying to cover her tuition and some of her expenses by working as a teaching assistant.

Depending on your point of view, TAs are either the luckiest or the most vulnerable members of a big-university population. By distinguishing themselves as among the most promising undergrads, they win the right to continue their studies and to perform relevant work—teaching in their chosen field. For this, at Queen’s, they get a funding package of $18,500.

Laurico says that if you were to ask most TAs what they thought of this deal (and she did, dozens of times), their usual first reaction would be, “The working conditions are great!”

Still, in 2008, Laurico got caught up in a PSAC organizing drive. It was fun. There were big events—barbecues on campus—and the conversation was all about being part of what Laurico calls “this big movement.” But the campaign failed, as had every other TA organizing drive on the campus.

But by the time that happened, Laurico was no longer convinced that the working conditions were all that fabulous. In 2009, she took a position as a PSAC organizer and kicked off a new drive. On nights and weekends, in coffee shops, between library stacks or at kitchen tables in the student ghetto, she interviewed TAs. Were their working conditions good? Yes. Had they ever been bullied? Well, sometimes. Were they paid regularly? Not always. Had their contracts or duties ever been changed mid-semester? Yes. Laurico and other organizers collected a host of complaints, which they used to prepare “Rave Cards” identifying the most common grievances. Then they distributed the cards to other TAs, finding an increasing number of willing takers.

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