NBFL Solidarity Awards - Kathleen Armstrong (2009)
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The Effects of the UnionBy Kathleen Armstrong
Sussex Regional High School
The greatest influence on my view of the labour movement has come to me through my father's work. Dad has been a union worker for the past twenty-five years. When I was a child growing up, I took for granted his steady job, insurance benefits, pension plan, and regular work hours. Looking around now, I realize that not everyone enjoys such benefits. In preparation for this essay, I asked my father for some ideas about his experiences, and he has shared some thoughts and stories about how his particular job and work conditions have evolved through the years.
My family lives in a mostly rural area in which agriculture is the main industry. There were not many organized jobs in the area and sometimes people's concept of union jobs was that they were more city and industrially oriented, and the attitude towards unions was not the greatest. Our area has had the development of two potash mines, and with these new workers came new attitudes on unions. Only one of the mines unionized, but it soon became apparent that the non-unionized mine provided its workers with many of the same benefits that the unionized mine negotiated with its staff, in order to keep their workers. One union benefited two workplaces.
My father has served on the local executive for more than twenty years and has been on the leading edge of change at his workplace because of this. Dad has served on the negotiation committee for six contracts. He has explained to me how the benefits of his work have evolved over the years through hard work and perseverance and how some issues are still being worked on to this day.
I now realize that unions not only benefit their workers' wages and benefits, but also the actual companies they work for. Dad related to me how in the early 1990s, the company he works for filed for creditor protection and it seemed possible the plant would close, with thirty local jobs being lost. I was just a newborn baby at the time, and Dad said it was very scary to have a new family and be faced with no job at the same time. The local president and my father, along with the company owners and two levels of government, formed an adjustment committee to determine the best course of action for the workers and company alike. Through many months of hard work, the committee managed to satisfy the creditors and develop a new business plan, which allowed the company not only to survive but to expand and grow, which it continues to do to this very day. Working so closely together has given the company and the union executive a better understanding of the other's needs, and both sides still benefit from that bond to this day.
Something else I have become aware of during this exercise was how the union has been one of the primary protectors of minority rights in the workforce. I have taken for granted that all people are equally entitled to the freedom from harassment and discrimination in the workplace, but often in the past this was not the case. Many times anyone who was different was the first to be laid off or fired and sometimes had to endure humiliation and discomfort in the workplace. It is through the struggle of the labour movement that this behaviour is now viewed as unacceptable, both in unionized environments as well as other workplaces.
The labour movement has a huge impact on workplace health and safety issues. Organized labour has led the way for many job sites to become more safe and healthy, not only while currently on the job but for years to come. Pushing for better ventilation, lighting, material handling practices, cleanliness, and machine operation along with participation in workplace safety committees have raised the standards in many workplaces. These practices have avoided countless accidents and saved many lives over the years.
The union has also afforded many individuals to personally expand their life skills and personal standards. Being involved in such an organization gives an individual the chance to participate in organizing and running a business meeting, learning and practising public speaking and presentation, working on various committees, and developing good interpersonal communication skills. For one example, some personal habits that can be cultivated by being on a negotiating committee are persistence, dealing with difficult situations and presenting persuasive arguments, and the skill of becoming a good listener. These are skills that apply to every facet of your life and will serve a person well in areas not necessarily union related. Learning to be sensitive to other people's needs and actually caring about other people's concerns, makes you a bigger person in all aspects of your life.
Being a member of a union also gives a sense of belonging and brotherhood to members of the work force. If there is a sense of everyone working toward a common goal, it can make the workplace and the time you will spend there a pleasant experience. Reducing job stress in this way also contributes to a healthier lifestyle. A good attitude at work can make the job seem so much easier, and friendships for life can be developed. It can be a large boost to productivity which benefits everyone. We all have had jobs where the thought of going to work was not positive, so a happy workplace is a large value to a worker's life.
Another part of my life affected by unions is the role it plays in my boyfriend's life. He has decided to become an electrician by trade and enrolled at the community college. After completing his first block, he has been able to find employment with a company that has a contract with a large local construction project. Luckily, the company only employs unionized trades people. My boyfriend will be able to continue his education when he wants to and will receive a corresponding raise in pay each time he completes the next block. This is a huge incentive to further his education and move up in his profession. Without a collective agreement, this would not be guaranteed, and he accumulates seniority within his trade which assures him of a fair share of employment amongst his peers. Also, the level of benefits and pension he enjoys at an early age will be a huge advantage in the years to come and is certainly the envy of people in his trade who are not unionized. He also realizes that the experience he gains from working with senior trades people will help him at schools as well as the workplace. Most importantly is the fact that he is able to find employment close to home and not have to follow like many young men his age to western provinces or out of the country. An opportunity like his trade has offered him enables a younger person to make plans and start out in life with some assurance and peace of mind.
For my own career, I intend to enter the teaching profession. It is something I have always wanted to do and have encouragement from my family, which includes several teachers. I have participated in the Co-op program at my high school and through this and my family I have had some exposure to the benefits of the teachers' union in our province. As I helped in the classroom during Co-op, I received guidance and advice from professional teachers in our school system. They have explained to me that some of the most innovative changes to the education system have came from the teachers' association, and that teachers' opinions and experience really do make a difference in the Department of Education. Also with the pressure from various levels of government for cutbacks and downsizing, the teachers' federations have been on the front lines for the defence of our educational standards, protecting what we take for granted in the public school system. Also in this profession, there is a constant availability to upgrade your skills and continue your education. I feel to be the best in your field, you must take this kind of opportunity. I believe that it is good to have a contract which enables this kind of upgrading. To get a job in a local school district and achieve some seniority will allow me to establish my career and have some assurance I will not have to move from my local area if I do not choose to do so.
In conclusion, working on this essay has made me much more aware of the effects of the union on my life. I had never given much thought to how many people are included in the union movement or what a diverse range of careers are involved. Looking back on my past, I realize that it has allowed me to have a stable upbringing as a child, including decent wages, insurance benefits, and good working conditions. Looking at my present, it enables me to choose a career with a degree of certainty of a good job in my area when I am done with schooling. Looking to my future, I can see that, with the hard work of the labour movement in the past, it should allow me to join my profession and raise a family with the assurance of decent pay and conditions and continue to upgrade my education. Having a career that I take pride in and a job that I love doing every day is my hope for the future.
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