NBFL Solidarity Awards - Charles Cook (2009)

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The Value of Unions

By Charles Cook
Riverview High School


Charles Armstrong - NBFL Solidarity Awards 2009 Many people today take for granted the benefits they enjoy in the workplace. They do not realize that even the benefits they reap in their non-unionized positions trickle down from the standards enforced and secured by unions. The benefits of unions are many, especially to those who wholeheartedly get involved in their leadership. One of the issues that union leadership promotes is safety in the workplace, and this has benefited the whole country. Legal protection for workers is a specifically Maritime victory, accomplished through the unions, which I hope to highlight.

The labour market is competitive. Even non-unionized positions must offer higher workplace wages, standards, and benefits, because they must compete for workers who have access to unionized jobs. Without the unions all Canadian workers would suffer. I have personal experience with the value of unions to my own family members. My grandfather is a member of the Canadian Auto Workers Union. My uncle, employed by GM Canada, is also a member of that union. My aunt, a registered nurse, is a member of one of the many nurses unions. Because of unions, my relatives have high-paying jobs and benefits. They have increased security in their jobs and an excellent retirement plan. The union also secures for them safety in the workplace.

Safety is an issue that has special importance to mine workers. I personally know people who lost a parent in the Springhill mining disaster. I also grew up in a mining community in Thompson, Manitoba. Bob Desjarlais, the then head of the United Steel Workers Union Local 6166, was a family friend who attended my church. Along with negotiating contracts for the Inco workers, Bob was also involved in labour activism at the provincial, national, and international levels. He was also a voice for the aboriginal community in Northern Manitoba. Through Bob and Bev Desjarlais, the Churchill Riding MP, I learned that people involved in unions have a passion for the well-being of people that extends beyond their fellow workers.

The people who manage unions can see the power of being one voice connected to many. Through their union experience, they know the potential they have to be influential with decision makers. Thus, unionized employees often become involved in democratic institutions. Union involvement also gives these individuals experience in management, human relationships, networking, problem solving, and negotiation. What a truckload of skills they bring to any political organization!

Bev Desjarlais, though she lived in Manitoba, was critically involved in making the Westray Mine Disaster an issue to be dealt with by Parliament. Here is a quote from the Hansard where she took up the concerns of Maritime Canadians and recounts the Westray disaster:

Ms. Bev Desjarlais (Churchill, NDP)
Mr. Speaker tomorrow marks the sixth anniversary of the Westray disaster. In 1991 the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy bestowed upon Clifford Frame, owner of Westray Mine, the John T. Ryan award for mine safety. At 5:20 a.m. on May 9, 1992 the Westray mine exploded taking the lives of 26 miners. The Westray tragedy was not an accident and it was not a natural disaster. It was the end result of management that had no regard for safety and of governments that failed to ensure the well-being of workers. It was profit before people. The United Steelworkers of America provided support to the miners and families from Westray. Together they were the driving force behind the Westray inquiry. It was the United Steel Workers of America who questioned the awarding of the John T. Ryan award to Clifford Frame and Curragh Resources. After a lengthy campaign by the steelworkers, on April 9 of this year the award was rescinded. The Westray tragedy is a reminder of why we need unions to protect workers' rights and lives.

The Westray tragedy is a specifically Maritime example of why we need unions. To highlight the importance of the union, look at China. Just three years ago in 2006, 6,000 workers across China were killed in mining accidents. Mine operators in China, motivated by soaring profits, push production past safe limits to fuel the booming economy. This demonstrates the effects of a lack of union in a free economy. Big Business can get away with, and will continue to get away with, treating people like slag. Ms. Desjarlais attempted to amend Bill C-284. This bill would be added to the Criminal Code to make corporations, directors and officers responsible for manslaughter through negligence. This bill was made because of the inquiry into the Westray mine disaster. Desjarlais proposed to put a maximum fine of $2 million for corporate manslaughter through negligence [found on paragraph 4467.3.(3)(a)]. Though the bill was not likely to succeed, it caused changes to be made.

Bill C-45, the Westray Bill, became law in October of 2003. The Steel Workers Union backed up the bill, and Ms. Desjarlais led the way to victory. It is an example of the power of unions to force real change, benefiting not just workers, but all Canadians. It is an example of one voice, backed up by many, being heard loud and clear in the most powerful institutions of our country. It is an example of the quality of persons, specifically Bob and Bev Desjarlais that get involved in unions. It is also an example of a horrific tragedy that continues to happen in countries like China, and in Africa, where there is no voice, and therefore no legislation or will, to protect the workers.

Wherever my education carries me, managing a company or as a worker under management, I will carry with me respect for unions. I will also remain inspired and spurred on by the life example I have seen in union leadership. I hope I can follow in the footsteps of Bob and Bev, to be a source for positive change, looking beyond the bounds of my own community for people who need help.

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