NBFL Solidarity Awards - Luke J.J. Couture (2008)

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The Value of Unions to Workers and to Society

By Luke J.J. Couture
St. Malachy's Memorial High School


Luke J.J. Couture - NBFL Solidarity Awards 2008 In researching the value of unions to the workers and society, I found that unions have changed our society and our country for the better. Only fifty years ago workplaces were much different and workers did not enjoy the rights that people today have come to take for granted. Many jobs paid low wages and workers had little job security. Workers were at the mercy of their employers and were often fired for no good reason. If a relative wanted the job they had or they were sick and missed too much time they were replaced without any recourse. There was no job security, health benefits or pension plans in place for most workers. Unfortunately, this is still the case for a lot of non-union jobs.

The Union Movement has protected workers against discrimination of all kinds; the right to refuse dangerous work as well as ensuring adequate maternity and paternity leaves. It is because of unions that Canadians enjoy a quality of life and a standard of living that is admired and desired all over the world. We are in danger of losing those rights and protections if we do not understand the value of the union movement and how hard our parents and grandparents fought for these things.

My family represents the importance of unions to me in a very personal way. Both of my grandfathers and my parents were union members. My mother often stresses that she probably would not have made a decent salary nor had a pension plan if she had not been a union member.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of unions is to cite a personal situation. My father worked in an industrial plant and was a very hard worker. Unfortunately, he developed heart disease and suffered two heart attacks at the age of 33. He was unable to do his job any longer. Initially, management wanted him to retire on long-term disability. This would have meant that after 24 months he would have been cut off his disability if he could do “any job of which he was qualified by education and experience.” At the time my dad was only 33, and he didn't want to do that. He felt he was too young to retire and he also felt that if his own employer would not help him find another job then who would! He was very upset by the situation and this did not help his recovery.

Fortunately, he was a part of a union, and he moved directly towards the union executive to help him fight this situation. The union fought for his case saying that if he couldn't do his job, then management should give him a job that he could do. His employer then started considering moving him into an office job that was available. They were skeptical because the job was technical and required computer experience and a lot of specialized training. My dad had no training in that area and no computer experience but he was a very intelligent man, and he knew he could do it, as long as he was given a chance and proper training. The union fought his case and pressured management to give him training and an opportunity to do this job. They were successful and my father did so well with this position that it was soon upgraded to a higher classification and he actually started getting promotions. He was able to work for an additional ten years until his health once again deteriorated. During his later working life and up until his death at age 49, he received numerous calls from people with health and financial concerns. They wanted to know what steps to take to achieve what my father was able to do with union assistance. He was always very helpful to them and worked with the union to assist them in any way he could. All of this would not have happened if he had not been a union member.

So when the question of the importance of unions is asked, I didn't need to look any further than my own family story. Because my dad moved out of working in a heavy labor capacity his health improved, he increased his education and thus his income and pension benefits and most of all he was able to keep his dignity and continue his working life another ten years. He became an example to other workers, the union and management as to what could be done to help those in a similar situation. The fact that my father and mother were union members ensured that they and subsequently I had a good quality of life. If my father had not had the protection of a union he would have had much more difficulty retraining and maintaining employment. If my mother had not been a union member she would probably have had a much harder time financially as a single parent after my father's death.

A very recent newspaper article illustrates what is happening to the detriment of Canadian workers. “Nothing illustrates how much the working world has changed in a generation better than Statistics Canada's new report on earned income. Earnings for the richest fifth of Canadians soared by more than 16 percent between 1980 and 2005. Earnings for the poorest workers plunged more than 20 percent. Immigrant workers are lagging badly. And, perhaps most unsettling, median earned incomes - the pay packages for the backbone of the nation - have barely budged in a quarter-century, edging up only $53.00 after inflation.” The article clearly outlines what is happening in Canada and North America to the downfall of the poor and middle class. It is very important that my generation understand the importance of the union movement or we will not enjoy the standard of living that our parents did. It is alarming that the article stated that ... “The number of private-sector unionized workers has dropped far since 1980, reducing the bargaining clout of some middle-income earners. Technological change has left behind those with fewer skills. Many employers are not putting enough money into advanced production methods, which could raise the value of their products and the pay of their workers.”

I begin my University education in September. After I complete my education and begin my career I hope that I will work for an employer who values the importance of fair wages, equality and quality of life - I HOPE TO BE A PROUD MEMBER OF A UNIONIZED WORKFORCE!

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