His Girlfriend’s Job

Why I’m a Union Man

"Can you get my girlfriend's job back," he asked. Just like that. It's almost nine. I'm working late. The phone rings and I pick it up. Nobody calls us this late. We're a union for chrissake, not some pizza joint. Regular business is over for the day. That's the way we do it, nine to five. (Although why we do it that way when a lot of folks don't just work nine to five still eludes me, but that's a whole other ball of wax.) So anyway, I'm curious about who could be calling and also at a loss to come up with a brilliant headline for the ad I'm working on, so I answer the phone.

It's some guy I don't know who tells me his girlfriend is a clerk at a drug store in Hawkesbury, Ontario, and she just got fired because she was 93 cents short in her cash. Not all at once; the first time a few months ago it was 57 cents and now 46. So she got the axe.

Now, at the time I'm working in Ottawa at the head office of the National Union of Public and General Employees. We don't represent any drug store clerks. Most of our 300,000 members are provincial government workers. So how in hell did this guy get to me? Desperation.

His girlfriend was desperate. He was desperate to help her. She needed her job. Like most folks she was just one or two paydays away from the street. Who was going to help them, two solitary twentysomethings, trying to make it on their own in Hawkesbury. Maybe unions.

Somewhere along the way it had come through to them that unions help everyday working folks. Maybe from half-listening to guys swapping stories over beers in some club; talking about how shitty their jobs were, but how they knew somebody who had a brother-in-law or a cousin or something, who went down the road and scored a great job at some plant up in Ontario and got union wages and overtime and vacation pay and a pension and the whole nine yards and all.

They probably learned about unions the way we all learn about sex: in the schoolyard from the older kids who just know. Never in the classroom, never from textbooks, never from a curriculum that teaches it properly, the history of unions and - more importantly - the legal rights all workers have, even without unions. These two just had this hazy idea that unions could help folks like them.

So what they do, he tells me, is get out the phone book and look up "Unions" in the Yellow Pages. The heading in the index tells them to check "Labour Organizations" - no one wants to make it too easy for workers to find unions after all - and he starts calling and I am the first one to answer.

So, I'm sitting there on the phone in the night in this great big office building on Riverside Drive in Ottawa, talking to this stranger and his girl who need a friend and I can't help myself, I start thinking about what it must be like to be them: to be stuck the way they are stuck, to be completely adrift, with none of the famous Dr. Phil "life skills" to help them through, no one to turn to just the friggin' Yellow Pages! And I start to get angry because I know what I have to tell them. I have to tell them that I can't help.

Unions just don't work that way, I tell them. We can't just ride to the rescue when some worker needs help. Even when we want to, we can't. The law won't allow it. That's not the way it is set up - the Byzantine, down-the-rabbit-hole, Alice Through the Looking Glass mystery that is labour law in Canada. It takes months, years, decades for workers to get a union, to get help. Most never do.

So, I tell them her job is gone. No union can help her. Not tonight, or tomorrow or next week or ever, probably. Her job is just gone. For less than a dollar, in 2006, her job is gone, her life is in pieces and that's that.

I always think of that call when someone asks me why I am such a strong "union man." Why I had a sweat shirt embroidered with the slogan "Born union. Die union." I think of that call, and a lot of other times and places and situations I've been in where people get treated like Kleenex, something disposable that is thrown away after it's used - and I don't like it. That's all. I don't like bullies. I don't like it when somebody thinks they have a right to lord it over somebody else. To push people around. To make them feel small just because they can.

That's all. No great theories. No Marx. No struggle of the proletariat. Just an objection to being stepped on. Just a desire to be generous of spirit and kind of heart whenever we can. Unions can help us be that way, not all day every day - but a lot more often than anything else I know of.

So, I'm a strong union man. Not for the greater glory of my union or the "union movement," but for the people. The hard-working everyday people who get up and go to work every day to make Canada work. People just doing their level best to get by. They need and deserve help to do that. I'm happy to give it. It's just the way I am - a union man.

Skip Hambling is a strategic communications consultant, who lives and works for the day of the glorious revolution, in Delhaven, Nova Scotia.

These days, in Toronto, there is a worker-based organization called the Workers' Action Centre, which is committed to improving the lives and working conditions of workers in low-wage and precarious employment. Some unions are experimenting with associate memberships.