When “the Man” is a Union

Reflections and Responsibilities in the Ranks of Labour

By Sheetal Rawal

My job was precarious, as were the jobs of six of my colleagues. We worked on an ongoing Pay Equity project for a trade union Local that represents about 7,000 mostly female administrative and technical staff at the University of Toronto. Our backgrounds were rooted in social justice movements: feminist, labour, anti-war, queer rights, anti-racist, and on. So, of course, we unionized. Not only out of principle, but to rationalize a workplace in which, until then, employment relationships were arbitrary. As an example, four people from the same family—who were close friends with the President of nine years, and who is now the current Vice President—were brought on to work at the Local without open calls or a transparent hiring process.640px-Harthouse_toronto

To be clear, I am not calling us “precarious workers.” We were paid well, the market value for our work. We had benefits. We had vacation pay and sick days. And, for this, I was grateful. The precarity aspect of these positions is not unfamiliar to those who, like me, are looking for work in Ontario’s turbulent labour market: these jobs were casualized and indefinitely term-based through the use of ad hoc spending motions. We had no contracts setting out the terms and conditions of employment. Members authorized spending for these positions by voting on motions regularly recommended by the Executive.

So we unionized. And then, we were laid off.

It seems that the Local’s parent union, a U.S.-based International, was not down with the fact that we unionized. While staff had been working for the Local on this project for years without interference, once we unionized, the International’s representatives directed the Executive to let the spending motions lapse and to no longer pay for these positions. The directive came in the face of delays from the employer – a union – to meet us at the bargaining table, despite the fact that we hadn’t yet negotiated a first collective agreement.

Members of the Local, the direct beneficiaries of our services, brought three motions at General and Special Membership Meetings to maintain the level of staffing. These motions were filibustered and tabled, or ruled out of order by the Chair. To my knowledge, at least one such motion was ruled out of order under threat from the International of putting the Local under administration. The Local has since been put under administration by the International. That’s top down democracy.

We were laid off, thereby gutting the Pay Equity project. Members with active and upcoming cases were left in a limbo created by this sudden gap in services with no transition plan in place. This was especially frustrating to see, as pay equity is an invaluable strategic tool available to unions that is more often than not underused or mishandled. Just take a look at Jan Kainer’s book, Cashing in on Pay Equity?, on supermarket workers in Ontario. Our layoffs meant a drastic cut to services provided to members of the Local, particularly with respect to an endeavour that had resulted in material gains for workers and the union. It should be noted that the pay equity agreement for this Local only applies to full-time, “staff-appointed” positions. Casual workers, the most precarious workers in the Local, do not have a pay equity agreement in place, and it doesn’t seem to be a priority for either the employer or the union.

As staff, we were able to develop specialized expertise over a period of time, providing professional and consistent services across the three campuses and with a view to over 500 job classes. We supported members through all stages of the process, ensuring better outcomes for them. We organized and engaged members in the workplace. Most importantly, we were able to do this work, which involves the rights and interests of workers against their employer, without fear of retaliation from the employer. This meant that we were able to zealously advocate on behalf of members. We never expected to face retaliation from our own employer.

A whisper campaign began, referring to us as “outsiders.” The Vice President stood in front of the largest membership meeting of the year and called the Project Manager’s understanding of the work “BULLSHIT.” The Project Manager also happens to be our steward. We started our own campaign to get our jobs back.

Members of the Local’s Executive expressed displeasure that, in our campaign, we had labelled these actions as “anti-union.” They appeared more concerned with reputations on ‘the Left’ than in operationalizing trade unionist principles such as solidarity with all workers. A member of the Executive said to us, apparently frustrated with how things were playing out: “what can I say, working for a union sucks.”

Which brings me to the crux: I’ve long heard stories about negative experiences people have had working for unions; they have faced racist/homophobic/ableist/sexist harassment, bullying, and a complete disregard for their rights as workers – actions that we would not tolerate from (non-union) employers on the other side of the table. Yet, a culture of silence appears to surround these instances, which most often result from a nexus between individual problematic behaviour and entrenched structural issues.

What is to be gained by maintaining what seems to be an open secret that allows those with power and privilege within these institutions and movements to operate with impunity? Or worse, with the outright endorsement of those who consider ourselves to be progressive. Is it because we are so desperate to claim these heavyweight actors in the provincial and national political arenas as our own?

When I told folks that I was thinking of writing a reflection on this experience, some warned me that I was shooting myself in the foot if I ever wanted to work for a union again. Concerns ranged from my own reputation to the airing of dirty laundry for ‘the Right’ to see.

Having cut my teeth as a part of a feminist movement that successfully pushed the Ontario government to introduce a Gender Studies course into the high school curriculum, I am familiar with the feminist principle of critical self-reflection, both on an individual level as well as collectively, as organizations and movements. Without being critical of institutions—and especially those to which we lay claim—we lose our ability to live up to our responsibility to ensure that they, and individuals within them, are acting appropriately, legitimately, and with social justice as practice and goal.

The path to social justice hell is paved with good intentions. Trade unionists, progressive movements, and ‘the Left’ can and must do better.

This particular institution is a multi-million dollar organization based in the United States that operates in Canada with relatively little oversight and with few legal options with respect to members’ democratic rights vis-à-vis their union. And I understand the labour relations principles underlying this hands-off approach. And I do mean “democratic rights” in a non-‘right to work’ way. Its leaders, decision-makers, and upper management are mostly white men who make six figure salaries with benefits, healthy pensions and permanency (that is, they are positioned in close alignment with “the 1%”). Women, racialized persons, and especially those with actualized anti-oppression politics are few and far between in these roles. Lip service to “strength in diversity” appears far more often than actions resulting from a lived commitment to social justice.

The path to social justice hell is paved with good intentions. Trade unionists, progressive movements, and ‘the Left’ can and must do better.

“He may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole” is not the way forward.

Sheetal Rawal is a Toronto-based lawyer with an MA in English Literature and Women’s Studies from the University of Toronto. She is a cofounder of The Miss G Project for Equity in Education and has also acted as Director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Sheetal is currently working on a screenplay that examines themes of individualism, groupthink, and institutional power. She describes it as a period piece set in the ‘90s (the 1990s) that is The Facts of Life meets Dead Poets Society meets the Glenn Close-Rose Byrne relationship in Damages.

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5 thoughts on “When “the Man” is a Union

  1. Like the names of both the union that employed you and the union you joined, this article leaves the reader to speculate wildly as to what has actually happened here.

    I don’t think anyone who reads Rank and File would be surprised that unions can – like all institutions in our society – often exhibit the very problems they should be fighting.

    The question is what are you and the union you joined doing about this? When did this happen? Is there a campaign to get your jobs back? Have you sued them in court for violating your rights?

    How can we engage in the process of being ‘self-critical’ if we don’t even know who/what you are talking about?

    I would support your struggle, but that calls for action, not a think-piece.

    1. I’ve actually done some solidarity work with these laid off workers as part of their campaign. They are members of USW 1998 and deserve our full support. As I understand there is an ongoing campaign and facebook page: USW 1998 Member Services Matter.

  2. I liked this reflection piece. I was also curious about the union so I googled, and it looks like it is about the United Steelworkers Local 1998.

    According to their website, the USW 1998 president now vice president who hired her friends is Allison Dubarry.

    Also, looks like it was CUPE 1281 the staff organized with and they have a campaign:

    http://usw1998memberservicesmatter.tumblr.com

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