NBFL Solidarity Awards - Ellen Underhill (2006)

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What are the Many Values of Unions to Workers and to Society?

By Ellen Underhill
Leo Hayes High School

The New Brunswick Federation of Labour - Logo Unions are there for all workers. They are there to ensure you are not discriminated against because of your cultural background, religion, disabilities, or gender.

Unions provide many securities for their workers such as job security, ensuring adequate wages, and benefits. Unions can work with employers to establish retirement funds and oversee the development of these funds. A union will bargain for the amount of sick leave, vacation leave, bereavement leave, and various other types of leave that an employee needs but would probably not get if working in a non-unionized environment. These benefits help not only the employee but also the employee's family. If a child is sick, a unionized working mother can, in all likelihood, be able to stay at home with this child with no loss of wages while a non-unionized working mother, who is not entitled to such leave, would lose the day's wages. A union will also help employees if actions have occurred that are contrary to the agreement between the employee and employer by following the grievance procedures in place.

Non-unionized workers can face poor wages, harsh, unsafe/unhealthy working conditions, long hours, and stressful office situations with abusive supervisors and co-workers. These working environments have a detrimental effect on families. The wage-earner is always worried about work and keeping their job and this takes away from family life.

My father now works for a unionized employer but has had several jobs in his earlier years that were not unionized. He was subjected to poor wages, hazardous working conditions, long work days, and released from work abruptly while trying to raise a young family. There were no benefits such as dental or medical, contributing to a retirement fund, or job security.

Without the protection of a union, a worker can be released from their job for no reason. Such a thing happened to my uncle. He was employed as a carpenter with a company upon leaving high school. He worked with this company for twenty years and then was let go at the age of 40 with no compensation. His job was given to a retired friend of the boss of the company. In all likelihood, this would not have happened with the protection of a union.

These injustices occur too often and families suffer because of them. Unions work to ensure that members are treated fairly and are there to help workers when problems arise in the workplace.

Large, national unions like the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) actively campaign in Ottawa for better federal government legislation for important causes such as health care, education, and senior citizen care. Unions actively fought against seniors losing their homes and possessions when admitted to senior care homes. This was achieved, in large part, by the union using the media and drawing the public's attention to this matter. The media is often a tool that unions will use to make the public aware of major causes. By doing this, the union helps to change or install legislation that benefits the public. One such example is that the provinces of New Brunswick and Manitoba were considering legislating user pay for medical services. This could have meant that people in these provinces would not have received the necessary medical attention needed as they wouldn't have been able to afford going to the hospital or doctor. Unions actively campaigned against this legislation by lobbying MLAs and drawing attention to this matter through the media.

Unions continually bargain with the government on the behalf of workers, some examples being: Medicare, pension funds, five-day work week, and overtime pay, all of which have gone a long way towards improving the lives of workers.

Unions had a major part in bringing in place within the provincial government legislation that discouraged harassment and unfair dismissal. Again, the media was used to pressure employers to discourage harassment and discrimination of all forms in the work place. Large, national unions do a large amount of research investing time, money, and effort into political research around the globe. Changes in legislation can be brought about by the unions lobbying politicians about such things as the dumping of toxins into the world's oceans by large corporations.

Unions are composed of members that vote in provincial and federal elections. By making members aware of negative government policies, elections can be influenced to the betterment of society.

In New Brunswick, recently, forest rangers were pushed to the brink of a strike because the government refused to offer a fair working wage that was being offered as a standard settlement to other government employees. This matter was only resolved when the union members voted for a strike.

If a worker has the security of a steady wage and no fear of unjust dismissal, they are more inclined to purchase luxury items that they probably wouldn't be confident enough to buy if this sense of stability was not there. This obviously is a positive influence on the economy and society benefits from this in more jobs being created, houses being bought and sold, and businesses being created. History has shown that the spin-offs in a community where workers are protected by unions and employment is maintained are positive, while areas of oppressed workers have higher crime rates and more family breakdowns.

From the global standpoint, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is continually sponsoring projects which help workers in foreign countries that are fighting for their rights. Support and funding is provided for workshops and forums to help educate these workers about their rights. There is a very serious problem in these countries with child labour and the exploitation of young women.

Someone living in North America may think there is nothing they can do to help these people. They are wrong. Action, such as not supporting large corporations that use child labour to make their products and instead buying union-made products, is one way that workers' rights can be supported.

If you are lucky enough to have your rights protected by a union, support your union, attend meetings, and take someone new with you to each meeting. Today's workers take union membership for granted because many are fortunate enough to have not had to worry about who would protect their rights. They don't have to look far to find a worker that is struggling and who worries about keeping their job: the person that serves you at a fast food restaurant or in a grocery store quite often is not unionized. At one of my previous places of employment, such a situation occurred. I had called my supervisor to say that I was sick and was not able to come in for my shift. The supervisor informed me that too many people had called in sick that day and that I was not allowed to be sick and had to report to work. I am only 17, but this and many other injustices can occur to workers of all ages when they don't have the protection of a union. Unions are world wide, growing steadily, and workers, their families, communities, and economy can only be better because of this.

When I began this project, I knew very little about unions and their roles. I have learned a lot and know that I have only scraped the surface. Education is a great tool, one that unions use to promote their causes.

To me, a union is like a big brother or an uncle: someone who is looking out for you and makes your life better by being a part of it.

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