NBFL Solidarity Awards - Caroline Morrison (2008)

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The Value of Unions to Workers and to Society

By Caroline Morrison
University of New Brunswick, Fredericton

Caroline Morrison - NBFL Solidarity Awards 2008 The words labour movement conjure up a picture in my mind's eye of a sea of people walking along in unison with a set of common goals and objectives. I see power in the numbers, unity in their purpose and direction, and strength in this movement of workers. I see solidarity there as well like a wall that cannot be brought down by any force. Movement itself implies a dynamic process that grows and changes with time. It is not static and satisfied with the status quo. Movement means always pushing forward, making progress, but not always in a rigid, straight line. Movement can also mean a change in direction and flexibility according to the needs of the time. But it is the power and solidarity that has the greatest significance to me personally.

I have grown up in a home where the word union has great meaning to me. My father, grandfather and uncle are or were members of a union. My other grandfather worked diligently for the formation of a police union or association that guaranteed members better working conditions, pay, training, and health benefits back in the 1960's. The first grandfather I mentioned sat on the executive of his union also back in the 1960's and talks of negotiating directly with the mill owner on many issues. He also helped obtain better working conditions and hours, better wages and health and insurance benefits for he and his fellow employees. He worked hard to keep the lines of communication open between union and management so that issues could be resolved fairly and quickly to the benefit of all and with as little work disruption as possible. This type of commitment and dedication on his part helped pave the way for the present working conditions for my father and uncle and for the lifestyle we enjoy at home today.

I am also aware that my father and uncle must continue to be vigilant and not take for granted the gains my grandfather and many others helped make for them. They too are involved in their locals and keep fighting for their rights as workers. The issues at work they face today may not be the same as back in the 1960's but that doesn't make them any less important. This is the dynamic side of a labor movement to me, to change and grow with the workers needs and issues in these changing economic times. With a reduced work force through automation and specialization many workers' jobs have been eliminated. Later on these workers find themselves being replaced by outside contractors. These people are brought in from outside the company to fill union jobs but they are not paid union wages and they do not receive union benefits. This is not fair to them or to those workers who lost their jobs through this process. They often do not have the same training as company workers or the same commitment to the job. The use of outside workers is a huge issue today for my father and uncle and the preservation of union jobs is their top priority. Many issues have stayed the same since my grandfather's day including wages, benefits and safe working conditions. But many have changed and the union has had to change focus as well to deal with these different concerns.

My family has benefited from the work the union has done to gain health benefits so that my sister and I could both get braces, my sister could wear glasses and contacts, have coverage for prescriptions when we were young, and not have to worry about where the money might come from. I know there are a lot of families out there who do not have extra health coverage and cannot receive the proper care that they need.

My father's salary has given my mother the option to stay home when my brother, sister, and I were younger, to take care of us. This allowed us to have a constant presence in our lives when my dad was a shift worker. She was able to drive us to our soccer games after school, be there for any school events, which allowed us the freedom to take part in any activities after school, and not have to miss out.

Having begun my second summer as a student employee I have learned of many instances where employers have taken advantage of an employee's naivety, inexperience or fear of losing their job to get them to take on much more than they are trained or prepared for. Being vulnerable means not having any power or strength in a given situation. It could be a personal vulnerability such as a woman being harassed in a male dominated job, a financial vulnerability, such as a student facing enormous university fees in the fall, or youth, where you are young and eager to please an employer instead of being aware of your basic rights to safety on the job. With no recourse vulnerable employees often put up with difficult or unsafe work place conditions for the sake of a pay cheque. This is another part of the labor movement's significance that impresses me. It shields workers and empowers them so that they no longer have to feel vulnerable on the job. It gives them a voice when dealing with the objectionable practices of employers. As a young woman about to enter the workforce in a few short years I will be looking for job security, a good wage, benefits and equality with other workers, male or female. I know that a union job will be able to provide that and much more. The thoughts of having a strong group to watch your back is very appealing. I feel for those workers, especially women trying to support a family, who have been denied the opportunity to unionize and benefit from the labour movement.

I remember seeing the movie North Country and being completely shocked at the way the male workers and management treated the females in a predominantly male workforce. The women had only had two choices at the time: either put up with the harassment and torment from the men, or quit. It is hard to believe that in this day and age women would have to face this kind of behavior, let alone be forced to make such ridiculous choices. They should never have to put with it, and definitely should never have to result in quitting. In this movie, she had two children at home that she had to support, such as the case of many single working mothers today, therefore quitting was never an option, but neither should being forced to put up with such actions. Women should be allowed to work wherever they want, and be treated just like any other employee. Unions give women back their rights to equal pay for work of equal value, a harassment free environment, and a voice to management if such problems should occur. As a woman, I can hope for the same conditions in my future employment with a good union backing me all of the way.

So what does the labour movement mean to me? Well, I know that I, as well as thousands of other hard-working people out there, will be rewarded and treated with the respect that we deserve in our workplace that my grandfather, and so many others like him, have worked so hard to achieve. The labour movement has reached many workers but their work is not done as there are so many more people to reach who can reap the benefits of good wages, safe work conditions and good, secure jobs. You know unionizing employees is a very good thing when you hear about so many corporations opposing their formation in their companies.

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