NBFL Solidarity Awards - Julie Hendsbee (2005)

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The Value of Unions to Workers and to Society

By Julie Hendsbee
James M. Hill Memorial High School

Julie Hendsbee - NBFL Solidarity Awards 2005 It was the spring of 1995. The sun was shining bright, while I and my three older siblings enjoyed our time outside after school. My Father had been a proud employee of Ultramar for the past sixteen years and we had become accustomed to his routine, leaving in the morning at 8 o'clock and arriving home for supper at 5 o'clock. As we anxiously awaited his everyday arrival, we helped my mother prepare supper for the family. As my Father walked through the door we attacked him with hugs, but there was something different about him that day, something just wasn't quite right. As we continued along with our routine, my brother asked him the same question, “How was your day at work, Dad?” It was then that we discovered that my Father had lost his job and wouldn't be returning to work the next morning. Our family was now left with no income, as my Mother was a stay at home mom. I didn't understand much about what had happened, but all I knew is that it had something to do with the word “downsizing”. Now, ten years later, my views on the world of work have changed drastically.

As I think about the labour movement many different thoughts arise. If you would have asked me in the spring of 1995, what the labour movement meant to me, I probably would have asked what it was. However, as I approach my high-school graduation this question has become a bit easier to answer. To me, the labour movement means the continued growth of the union over the years and the benefits that it has given my family and the rest of the working world.

When my Father lost his job, he was a member of management at Ultramar, Canada. Throughout his sixteen years of work, we had moved several times due to work advancement and he had shown nothing but dedication to the company. It was because the company was not unionized and there was no seniority that he had lost his job and now yet another worker was left struggling to find a job to support a family of six.

Fortunately my Father was able to find another place of employment. However, it was fourteen months until he found that job and we once again had an income. The wait for new employment had become so long because my Father had refused to take another job that was not unionized. As a result of the loss of my Father's job, my Mother took up a job as a District 16 School Bus Driver, where she continues to be an active member of her union. My Father is now currently employed at Weyerhaeuser, Miramichi, where he has proudly worked for 9 years. Since his employment at Weyerhaeuser our family has felt nothing but stability due to the fact that my Father is also an active union member.

The labour movement isn't always such an easy thing to explain, especially to people my age who have never experiences a position that has a union. My Father has always told me that it is because of the labour movement, that we have unions and that because we have unions, workers feel safe in their place of employment. A world without unions would be a world of chaos.

Take myself, for example. I am now a young woman who has entered the work force on a part-time basis. I have been working in a well-known franchise for the past year and a half. Like all other part-time workers, I do not have a unionized body to represent my concerns at the work place. In the past year and a half I have been paid minimum wage. I have no medical benefits and my views on the irregular hours that I work are not a major concern to my employer. Therefore, if this was the way that all job positions were, no person would be able to function in the work place.

Without unions, today's worker would still be making less than what they need to live. Hours of work would become long unbearable shifts and health and safety wouldn't be half as important as the profit that the company is making. Other benefits such as vacation pay and sick leave would be taken from a person's pay as a penalty for taking time off from the company and just something else to think about, maternity leave would most definitely not exist. Now can you just picture what it would be like if everyone was in the same situation that I am with no bargaining power or representation?

The labour movement has come a long way. It first started off with the thought that if a group of workers began to make joint decisions, then the employer would eventually be forced to consider the feelings of their employees. Not only has the labour movement brought the world a long way, it has certainly benefited my family in more than one way. Not only am I proud t say that my parents are members of their local unions but also that my Father can now feel stable in a job where he is guaranteed no sudden loss of employment because of his seniority position, unlike the situation he had experienced in the past. He also has a wage that meets the necessary needs to live and support a family and works healthy regular scheduled hours, where he is entitled to breaks and time for lunch.

Above all, one of the greatest things is the medical benefits that the union has been able to supply my family with. I feel comfortable knowing that I can walk into a pharmacy with a prescription and not expect to spend more than a manageable and affordable amount. As for the doctor, the optometrist and the dentist, I feel no fear in making an appointment whenever I feel the need because I know that through my parents' unions we have excellent medical coverage. Also, when my parents are ready to retire they know that they can have a pension to fall back on or to substitute as income for the remainder of their lives. Unions have most definitely played a huge role in being able to support my family with many issues and also help to support the lives of others.

Recently, a local mill has been on strike, and the father of my best friend is an employee fighting for his rights through his union. Formerly known as Repap, the mill was bought by a company from Finland and is now known as UPM. Since the short time that UPM has owned our local paper mill, the needs of the workers have seemed to be pushed aside. The workers of UPM have now been on strike for three months and it is because of their union that they have the support from one another that allows them to go on strike and fight for their rights and benefits that they have worked so hard to achieve. Also, the workers' are supported by another benefit that their union provides known as strike pay, which allows them to have some income while on strike. If it weren't for the union at UPM the company would be allowed to have all control over wages, hours, benefits, etc. However, it is because they are unionized that the company is not allowed to make any final decisions without negotiating with the union.

Throughout the better half of my life my parents have both been active union members. My Father has been Shop Steward and Vice-President for his local union and my Mother has been Secretary and Shop Steward for her local union. I have grown to learn that the union is a caring family of people that will help and support you at the work place at any given time. In the next four years I plan on attending university and becoming a registered nurse. When I graduate with my nursing degree, I know that I will be automatically a member of a great union the day I take my first step into the working world of nursing. It will be my mission to follow in the footsteps of my parents and become an active union member so that I will be able to ensure a stable work experience for myself and maybe someday my own family.

In the end I have discovered that it means that I will be able to go to work in a safe place and come home to my family at the end of the day. It means that I will be able to go to my union when I believe myself or somebody else is not being fairly treated. I will know that I have the support of my fellow co-workers and can count on them in any way shape or form. When the rights of my union are challenged I know I can count on the full support of my brothers and sisters in the labour movement. It means that I will have above average benefits and it means that I will be respected as an individual and have equal rights in a safe and healthy work environment.

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