NBFL Solidarity Awards - Caroline Morrison (2007)

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What is the Value of Unions to Workers and to Society?

By Caroline Morrison
Harbour View High School


Caroline Morrison - NBFL Solidarity Awards 2007 When I first read that statement on the application form my reaction was nothing. What would the value of unions have to do with me, a seventeen year old high school student? I thought of the movies I had seen about unions such as Norma Rae and North Country. The unfairness of companies towards workers made me angry, and the need for unions made sense. Also, the way women were taken advantage of by the employers opened my eyes to the need for protection of their rights. No one should have to work in unsafe conditions that could cause injury to their health or bodies, let alone their lives. People shouldn't have to work without health benefits or with the fear that they could lose their jobs at a moments notice without having any place to turn. I know the labour movement has worked over the years to protect workers and fight for their rights, but what does that mean to me? Well, I know my father belongs to a union and attends the monthly union meetings. When I talked to him about this, I learned a lot about what it means to him and, in turn, to me.

It means my father gets up and goes to work each morning to a job that is safe, clean, and has a healthy work environment because of the union's fight over the years for workers' rights in these areas. He doesn't have to put himself at risk to keep his job. He is protected from hazardous materials and dangerous situations. He has to wear proper safety equipment and, over the years, has had a lot of general safety training and training to do his specific job properly which keeps him, and those around him, safe from injury and death.

His job is secure in that he cannot be fired at the whim of his employer. There is an involved process that they must go through to show “just cause” for their actions. There are grievances that the union can make to the company when an employee in the union feels he has been treated unfairly. It is this group effort, on his behalf, that allows him to go to the union representative, who has been trained by the union, to hear his complaint, have it written down, and presented to the company on his behalf with the full backing of all the workers. My father says it gives him a feeling of solidarity with the other employees, a sense of power when dealing with a powerful company, and the security of knowing that his job is safe.

I know that my father is paid union wages and these wages are usually a lot higher than non union workers. For me, this means we can live in a nice house, wear nice clothes, never worry about what to eat, and drive a nice car. It also means that my mom has been able to stay home and raise my brother, my sister, and I. This mattered a lot when my dad was a shift worker. My parents did not have to juggle schedules and work around babysitters. Someone was always home to care for us. Even when my dad started on a regular day shift, it meant that he could be there for more of our evening and weekend sports games and other activities.

My father was on tour for seventeen years at the mill as a papermaker. It was the union that negotiated with the company the deal so that he was able to go back to school, with no loss of wages, to become a journeyman electrician, something he had always wanted to do. He was able to fulfill a career goal with the union's help and backing. My father liked his years on the paper machine, but having study electrical engineering for a few years without getting his degree he was really glad to have the chance to continue in this field. Now he loves what he is doing and this reflects on his home life.

I know that with the health care plan the union negotiated with the company we were always able to afford medications. With three children only a few years apart in age, someone always needed something, and it was a relief to my parents to have prescription coverage when we needed it. A few years ago, my sister and I were able to get the braces and glasses we needed. It was a huge expense to the family that was made possible by our health care coverage. It has helped a growing family and it has helped me realize that not only do the unions protect the workers at work but the families of those workers as well. My mother remembers when her father's union negotiated a health care plan when she was in Grade Three. Even something like a visit to the dentist was a big deal to a family with six children back then. Someone always had to wait for care as things were done in the matter of their importance. Once they got a dental plan it seemed someone was always visiting the dentist, whereas before, dental visits were rare. That seems strange to me, not to have all of these things in our lives. I take them for granted, but it wasn't too long ago that the labour movement was working hard to get these benefits for workers and their families.

Someday I will be working and hope to have the support of a union. Even university students have a student union. They have a president and an executive who are elected to represent all students. There are union fees that are paid as part of the tuition. They take students' concerns to the administration to make sure their voice is heard in decisions. It is nice to know you have the power of a group of people united on issues to represent you to a powerful administration. Now, I know how dad feels about having the union's backing when the workers have problems with the company. It is important not to feel powerless in this world. The student union also goes to the government to be heard when the government's educational decisions affect us. Having thousands of young voters wanting to be heard on issues makes the politicians listen. That is the strength of numbers and that is what unions are all about, uniting together with one voice in support of a cause and making change happen.

It is in the news that some companies fear their employees might try to form a union. It seems that they would treat their employees better and try to keep them happy so that they won't be tempted to unionize. Even in this roundabout way, unions help to improve things for those workers who have no unions. When talking to my dad about these things, he says that supervisors and foremen who are lower management often get raises and benefits from the company when the union negotiates a contract for its workers. So, even in this way, non-union workers benefit indirectly from the work the unions do on behalf of their members. Other benefits to non-union workers from the work of unions are especially significant to me as a woman. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada's (CEP) backing of the legislation for equal pay will mean a significant increase in women's wages which traditionally have been lower then men's. With so many single parent households nowadays, this will help to improve the quality of life for so many women and children. It makes me proud to know my father is a part of the union that supports this law.

So, what is the value of unions to the workers and society? It's a lot more important than I realized. It means people are working to keep good paying jobs in our community, it means health benefits are there for workers and their families, it means power and respect for workers on their jobs, and it means workers are free to do their jobs in a safe environment. But what I have come to realize, most of all, is that the labour movement is just that, a movement: something dynamic, not stopping once rights have been won, but moving forward while keeping a watchful eye out for any attempts to take those hard fought rights away. The work place is always changing and so are the needs of workers. When I get into the work force, I will have a better understanding of how things are for an employee and what some of my rights are as a worker. With any luck, I will have the backing of a union and a greater appreciation of the work that goes on behind the scenes to protect me and my job.

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