Robyn Benson, PSAC

Young unionists

Young worker psac.JPG

Anyone who thinks that unions are a thing of the past, once necessary but not anymore—how many times have we heard that?—should have a chat with Debra Moore.

Jeannie Baldwin, REVP-Atlantic, recently blogged about the unionization of the Just Us! Cafe in Halifax, and the spreading drive to organize coffee shops elsewhere in the city. Here’s Moore—who happens to be the founder of the Just Us! chain:

I don’t hear them focused on money, I don’t hear them focused on benefits…I hear them focused on, ‘Well, we’ve been to university, we’ve got stuff to contribute. How can we do that?’ I hear, too, that they feel vulnerable and the union gives them somebody behind them.

Up until the last few years the retail world was more about people who wanted part-time work, who wanted transient work. That was what that industry has been built on but of course that’s not our reality.

Kudos to Moore for finally, er, waking up and smelling the coffee. Unions don’t spring from nowhere, and they don’t get imposed from above. They arise as a force against unequal power in the workplace, and, more generally, they are a natural pushback against inequalities in the economic system as a whole.

Young people today are facing often bleak job prospects, even with a university education. Low-paying jobs in the service sector look better than they once did, and, as Moore notes, they are no longer confined to part-timers and transients. Small wonder, then, that college graduates looking forward to years in the same service occupation rather than “what they trained for” are motivated to improve their working environment. Despite the CBC report just linked, there is no sense of “entitlement” here, but rather a determination to make the best of things.

And clearly that includes organizing:

Sabrina Butt, 26, is a recently unionized sales associate at a Toronto-area H & M store. She is among the cohort of young workers entering the labour market in a soft economy, looking at their after-school retail and service jobs as long-term employment, and hunkering down.

“You come in thinking that it’s just convenient with your school schedule and so on and so forth but I started when I was in college, and I’m still there,” she said.

The proportion of Canadian workers belonging to labour unions declined considerably since the 1980s, but has remained stable since the late 1990s, at slightly less than one-third of the work force. In 2012, the rate of unionization went up slightly, to 31.5 per cent from 31.2 per cent the year before. Part-time jobs have been cited as the source of recent unionized job gains.

Sister Butt is obviously an up-and-coming union leader. This summer she helped organize retail employees at a Sirens store in Brampton: they joined UFCW Canada Local 175 just last month.

“Having Sirens on board with the union is a huge step,” she said. “It shows that there can be young leaders and not all hope is lost because these are young girls in their twenties and they want to make a change in their workplace and that fear didn’t stop them. They were able to take that step.”

Unions in the private sector are getting the message: it’s time to get creative, to find new organizing strategies that will appeal to millennium-generation workers. But a key part of any such strategy must be to encourage those workers to speak out and to lead themselves.

We can already see the results of that approach in the public sector. The PSAC regional youth committees, formed just over a year ago, are a growing, vibrant presence in our union. The PSAC as a whole is already benefiting from their energy and ideas. But lest I sound patronizing here, let me clarify: I’m looking at members and activists of a certain age, including myself, and suggesting that we listen to younger unionists, learn from them and adapt.

Youth members are rightly impatient with the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approach. We were, too! So let’s be open and welcoming to the new, and (a tougher task) be unafraid to question the old. These young workers will make us challenge ourselves, and that’s never a bad thing: given what we are facing today, quite frankly, our survival as a union may depend upon it.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on August 7, 2013 8:30 AM.

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