Voices from the Ground is a new series on RankandFile.ca that is produced in collaboration with CALM (the Canadian Association of Labour Media). The series will feature the experiences, struggles and achievements of rank-and-file workers as they fight to improve their lives and workplaces.
By Richie Le-Catequista
I’m a Chef de Partie at Kensington Place Retirement Residence. About 9 years ago when I started here, I didn’t realize how steep the learning curve would be: in a strictly kosher kitchen, we have to go beyond simply not mixing meat and dairy! But I love my workplace. Through a mix of being patient, understanding and compassionate, I’m proud to do work that nourishes the elderly residents of Kensington Place Retirement Residence.
I’m also a chief steward as well as a local president of Workers United Local 2742. These are challenging roles and I love doing them. Both on the job and in my union, I bring people together to talk about our problems and find ways to fix them rather than screaming and yelling at each other.
We’re a unionized workplace, but it hasn’t always meant that we’ve had the support that we need. After all, unions are only structures, their success and strength depends on the work undertaken by the people involved.
Four years ago, I decided to speak to some of my coworkers about changing to a different union because I was fed up with the way the previous union treated us. It was not an easy task. Navigating through the world of inter-union politics can be overwhelming for a rank-and-file member, but I was confident that it was time for a change. My coworkers and I needed something better.
There were a number of reasons why we chose another union. Our concerns ranged from individual issues, such as the freedom to choose which dentist we wanted to go with, to broader ones, like wanting to feel as though our union really cared about us. We felt that our relationship was very paternalistic, when it came to what we would like in our contract they essentially just decided what was good for us.
The turning point for me was when our contract expired for the second time since my work started at Kensington Place. Neither the workers nor the stewards heard from the union, despite our contract having expired. After six months, it was clear to me that we needed a change.
When we held the vote we lost, as some of the workers changed their minds. It was heartbreaking for me. I was under the impression that everyone was in agreement that changes were needed and that my coworkers were united in this campaign.
However, we still had a couple months before the next anniversary date so we were able to approach another union. We did the whole process again except that this time, we did it quietly. With all the help of my teammates from different departments, we won and we got a new union, Workers United. Though it was again very challenging, and took a lot of convincing of my fellow workers and a lot of hard work, it was so worth it.
Throughout this process, it didn’t cross my mind to be a steward. My only focus at that time was to find a union who would better represent us and help us improve our benefits. Our previous union representatives did try to convince me to be a steward and each time I refused. The big reason for my refusal is that they didn’t provide training for stewards and I won’t put myself into that situation. What good is a steward who isn’t clear about the role they play? For me, the element of union education was absolutely critical.
So when Workers United came in they asked me to get active and be more involved. When the election period started, one of my coworkers nominated me. I didn’t say yes right away but when the representative said that training and education would be provided, I accepted the nomination.
They not only nominated me to be a steward but everyone agreed to make me the chief steward. From there, I was voted to become a local president and also now sit as an alternate member at the executive board.
When I finally got involved in my union I was so surprised of how much there is to learn and know what the labour movement is all about. Even though I had been a member, it was important for me to learn what it has done to help not just union members but all workers. I learned how important it is to have a union that will represent the workers and fight for their rights.