Adapt To Change

          I read the article “Organizing at a Crossroads” with           great interest. I think the author, Bill Murnighan, might have           been less pessimistic about the labour movement’s future if he           were more familiar with the remarkable organizing momentum of unions           such as UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers), the union           I am interning with this summer.

          Since its founding in 1979, UFCW Canada has grown faster than the           Canadian workforce. Last year, the union’s membership grew by four           per cent (9,500 workers) and was, once again, the leader in organizing           the retail-trade and service sector workers who, Murnighan rightfully           points out, are under-represented. UFCW Canada now represents over           230,000 members, a majority of whom work in the private-sector           service industries.

          Murnighan says that “a good measure of the attraction of a           union to unorganized workers is the idea that a union can make           gains.” And a union that makes gains has happy union members           who help organize prospective members just by their very existence.           With this in mind, UFCW Canada is continuously adapting to shifting           demographic currents within the workforce and its own membership,           finding out what the members want, and acting on it.

          The union’s efforts to meet the employment-related needs of women           and youth are good examples of its ability to adapt. Women now           make up nearly half of Canada’s paid workforce and more than half           of UFCW Canada’s membership, and the union has been paying attention           both nationally and locally. Local unions have their own, individual           approach to addressing women’s issues, depending on the nature           of the workplace they represent. As well, more than a decade ago,           the national union established a women’s advisory committee to           give more recognition and resource support to those issues that           are widely shared by working women, such as sexual harassment,           reproductive health and safety, equity of opportunity, and family           leave. The union’s achievements in these areas are attractive to           women who are deciding whether or not to sign a union card.

          Another good example of the union’s ability to adapt to change           is the attention it pays to its younger members. UFCW Canada is           the youngest union in Canada, demographically speaking, with well           over 30 per cent of its membership under the age of 30. Many of           these members are students who work full time in retail stores,           earning money to further their education and help contribute to           their families’ economic well-being. Having a union on their side           gives them respect, seniority and job security, things they would           never have in most jobs populated by young, part-time workers.

          As well, virtually every one of UFCW Canada’s retail-sector collective           agreements provides for health care and dental insurance benefits           for part-time workers, as well as membership in the union’s national           pension plan. It is not uncommon for a young, part-time clerk in           a UFCW Canada-represented supermarket to have better benefits than           her parents. The union also awards hundreds of thousands of dollars           in scholarships every year to members and their children. Plus,           there is a national program directed at young members, and a very           popular youth internship program aimed at developing the union           leaders of tomorrow. All of this attention that is being paid to           young members and their concerns not only makes members happy,           but it also means their friends and acquaintances hear good things           about unions.

          While there is no substitute for the face-to-face contact so essential           to organizing and servicing success, UFCW Canada has also not been           slow in adapting to technological change and using it creatively,           both in organizing drives and in servicing members. For example,           during the recent BSE (“mad-cow disease”) and SARS crises,           more than 1,700 UFCW Canada members were laid off, with no warning.           The union quickly challenged Human Resources Development Canada           Minister Jane Stewart to urgently address the economic pain being           suffered by its members. An Internet-based fax-your-MP campaign           was developed in just a few days and resulted in a flood of written           pleas to members of parliament in every province, not just those           in Alberta and Ontario. The government responded with a range of           programs to assist workers hit with this sudden change in their           lives.

          The fax-your-MP program is just one of the innovative ways the           union has adapted to new communications technology and used it           to reach not only its current members, but prospective ones as           well. The national union as well as every major local union has           a main web site, and special-purpose web sites are used for large           organizing campaigns.

          The union’s experience and technical savvy is now being poured           into two new organizing drives.

          The first is an intense and aggressive drive to organize workers           at the retail giant Wal-Mart, possibly the most anti-union corporation           in the industrialized world. Besides doing traditional leafleting           and home visits, the union has established a bilingual hot-line           and a web site specifically devoted to the organizing campaign           (www.walmartworkerscanada.com).           And it’s working!

          On May 8, 2003, the British Colum-bia Labour Relations Board found           Wal-Mart Canada guilty of unfair labour practices for interfering           with the formation of a trade union in a store in Quesnel, British           Columbia. UFCW Canada Local 1518 was awarded time with all employees           without the presence of management. Management was also ordered           to read aloud the decision summary to all employees. Six weeks           later, the Manitoba Labour Relations Board conducted a vote at           a Wal-Mart store in Thompson, where UFCW Canada Local 832 had signed           up the majority of workers. Many more local Wal-Mart campaigns           are underway, helped along by the union’s reputation as a strong,           dependable voice for retail workers, young and old, male and female,           full-time and part-time.

          The second organizing campaign is aimed at agricultural workers           in Ontario, who had their right to union representation and collective           bargaining rights stripped away in 1995 by the province’s Conservative           government. UFCW Canada spent seven years fighting the Tory legislation           through the courts and, in December 2001, they won a landmark Supreme           Court of Canada decision that stated that denying “right of           association” and “equity under the law” to agricultural           workers violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Amazingly,           the Eves government has tried to sidestep this decision with a           sham law that gave these workers a feeble right to “associate,” but           not the right to bargain collectively. The union immediately defied           this law by organizing an overwhelming majority of workers in a           Kingsville mushroom factory and applying for certification to the           Ontario Labour Relations Board. (The board conducted a vote on           July 7, 2003, but sealed the ballot box. It will hear arguments           from all sides, including from government rep-resentatives, UFCW           Canada, and the plant’s management, before determining if the vote           will be counted. The union expects ongoing legal battles until           either a new government respects the letter and spirit of the Supreme           Court decision, or until the Court itself makes its prior ruling           clearer and overturns the Conservative ploy.)

          Both of these union drives are expected to take years. Nonetheless,           UFCW Canada is committed to helping these two large groups of workers           win the benefits of a union, no matter how long it takes. With           such signs of energy, creativity and commitment from unions like           this, I think there are grounds for optimism about the future of           the labour movement in Canada.

Megan Flannigan is from Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia.