Oh Brother

State of the Union Family

"Stop calling me your brother I find it offensive. You are not a member of my family and I do not want to be referred to that way."

That was an e-mail I received at work. And it's not the first. I get an e-mail like this about once a month. I work for a union local made up of teaching assistants and contract lecturers. Most of them are unionized for the first time, and most of them give me a strange look when I call them Sister or Brother.

It's not that I'm such an old hand at this myself. I've been working in the labour movement for only four years, and, at 26, my union considers me a young worker. For the first few years that I was a union representative, the terms seemed strange to me, too. Was I really part of a labour family? Was I everyone's "sister" because they couldn't remember my name? Did anyone actually mean it?

I started using these traditional union salutations myself about a year ago, and most of the time I love doing so. Most of the time, they seem like the perfect way to tell people around me that I identify with what they're going through, and that I care about them. But it doesn't always feel right. What about the people who feel like they're in competition for scarce resources and jobs? Or the people who see more differences than similarities between us? And what about those other young people who e-mail me, asking me to stop being so familiar with them?

I asked Dayn Gray, one of the co-chairs of his union's young workers' committee, what his feelings were about the traditional terms. "I've embraced them," he says, "because I believe very strongly in building a culture of solidarity. It's a part of building our working-class culture."

Gray meets a lot of people who feel positive about these words in his local at Brock University in Ontario, many of whom are enrolled in labour studies programs. Still, in his work as a teaching assistant, Gray says it's a challenge trying to share lessons of solidarity with students. "Trying to explain the concept of a society based on solidarity is hard, because it's totally foreign," he says. "We're trained to think of ourselves as individuals. It's been pounded into our heads that we're doing these jobs until we get something better, and, if we just work hard, we'll get there." So much for being sisters and brothers.

Janice Folk-Dawson first heard people calling each other sister and brother on her uncle's picket line, when she was 13 years old. Today, in her union work, she calls everyone she meets sisters and brothers.

"It showed me workers could be part of a family, that they cared about each other," she says of her early introduction to the language. "They were fighting for family issues, like not having enough food to put on the table, or because people were being injured. And it was a family, many families out there on the line, trying to survive."

The impact of this memory on her union work today? Folk-Dawson says it makes her stronger. "One of my best skills is being a good negotiator. At the bargaining table, I think of the members as family members, not as individuals who have special needs. When you truly believe that, it's powerful, and when you negotiate from that power you can get the best possible deal."

Folk-Dawson and I are sitting in a park, in the middle of summer, surrounded by families playing and laughing together. There is also another side to family dynamics. People who come from families that weren't supportive, didn't meet their needs, or where there was abuse, are not always as ready to seek a relationship of trust with anyone, especially their co-workers, in today's highly competitive environments.

Recently, members of my union have begun to discuss the elephant in our union hall: the degree to which racialized members are absent from positions of power, particularly on national committees. While everyone is politely called sister and brother, that's not enough. More concrete action and change is needed.

Ajamu Nangwaya, second vice-president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (Ontario Chapter), says "a lot of racialized people aren't involved because they don't see a commitment to a frank discussion around race and privilege."

In the current issue of Our Times (check your local bookstore and get a copy!) we look at labour history. There is a lot to be proud of, and there have been many concrete gains that improved people's living and working conditions. Still, we can't forget that part of our union history was based on exclusion: though there were exceptions, trade unionism was built by groups that often excluded "unskilled" people, preserved men's power, and maintained very clear colour lines.

For many trade unionists, calling other members of their union brother or sister has a positive feeling, and helps build solidarity. Others, new to the movement, warm to the terms over time and claim them as their own. Still others find the terms alienating, and hope the labour movement will create more gender-neutral language. Some find the terms used, at times, in a condescending or hurtful manner: "I'm sure our sister will have something to say about this."

One way or the other, we're hearing a call to look at how our history is being recorded and shared, and for the process to be changed to be more inclusive. If we can't find ways to make this movement relevant to more people, including young people, and racialized people, many more will move away from the ideals of collective justice and solidarity reflected in the terms "sister" and "brother."

We have to ask where our energy should be spent: on re-energizing the past, on creating new structures and new language, or on marrying our past to our present, to reflect the contributions of all the people who will build labour's future.

Erinn White is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and is an executive member of the Guelph District Labour Council, in Ontario. She's also an experienced journalist who's reported on labour and other social justice issues in print and on radio for the past six years.