Pssst! Wanna Join A Union?
A Short Story About How to Unionize
Jenny worked in a restaurant franchise and was fed up with her low pay and the unfair way she was treated by her supervisors. Jenny got no benefits, either, which made it really hard for her when she had to go to the dentist. She and her co-worker Mohamed had complained to each other, and to their friend Serena, for months. At the restaurant where Serena worked, the employees had formed a union.
Finally, Jenny’s frustration boiled over one day when she was having coffee with Serena and Mohamed. “I’ve had it with this job,” she said. “Now they’re cutting our hours so they can hire new people and pay them a lower salary. I wish I could quit, but I don’t get enough hours at my receptionist job to live on, either. I’m so mad! How do they expect me to live?”
“You know the restaurant owners don’t care, Jenny, as long as the work gets done and money keeps rolling in for them,” Mohamed replied. “What I can’t stand is how our supervisors tell us we must work harder for them and not take our breaks, while, at the same time, one of them pressures you to sleep with him and another makes racist remarks to me.”
“Serena, what did you guys do to form a union?” Jenny asked. “Maybe it’s about time we started to think about doing that, Mohamed. What do you think, Serena?”
“Well, sure I’ll tell you about it,” Serena smiled and sighed. “It was a lot of work, but it made a big difference in how we were treated once we formed the union and then got our first contract. What do you want to know?”
“Well, how did you start to do it?” Jenny asked. “Tell us everything, please.”
“Okay,” grinned Serena, “you asked for it.” She settled back to tell her story. “For starters, we did pretty much what you’re doing now. Me and three co-workers had complained to each other for months about our jobs.
“Management never gave us enough hours, and kept everybody begging for more. Supervisors made sure their favourites got more shifts and a higher rate of pay. One supervisor regularly made us miss our breaks and then wouldn’t pay us any extra at the end of the shift, or let us go early. Two of the jerks used to ask us out every week and, when we refused, said we must be lesbians. The funny part was, some of us are. And when one of my co-workers told them she was a lesbian and had a partner and wasn’t interested in their propositions, they harassed her even more.” Then one day one of us came in with a magazine article that talked about some workers who had formed a union. We got really excited by this and began to wonder if we could form a union, too.
“We called a few union offices right out of the telephone book - we looked under “Labour Organization” in the Yellow Pages - and talked to them. We also found some ideas from one of the union websites.
“The people we spoke to all said the same thing. We had the right, by law, to form a union. But we had to have the support of a majority of workers at our restaurant in order to have a good chance at forming a union. People had to be fed up and ready to take some action and some risks to change things. We had to decide if we had enough support to start a union drive: to get everyone to pay a small fee and sign a union card. Everyone we talked to warned us to keep our efforts around the drive as quiet as possible, so management wouldn’t interfere. They also made it clear that the owner and the supervisors would never know who signed cards: that would be confidential.
“We had to set up a small organizing committee of workers and only talk to the co-workers we trusted, at first, in order to keep the union drive quiet, so management wouldn’t find out and try and stop us. If we got a good majority of our co-workers signed up, then there would be a secret-ballot vote on whether or not to form a union. The vote would be supervised by the government’s labour relations board. If we won a majority of the vote, then we would have a union in our workplace.
“We were warned that if management found out we were trying to form a union, they might harass or threaten us, cut our hours or, worst-case scenario, fire us. Legally, management is not supposed to do any of that, but they do, several union reps told us. Most of the unions we contacted said they’d fight for us if any of that happened.
“One of the unions said they would teach us how to do a union drive and form a union in our workplace. We decided to work with that union. The training was fun. It gave us a lot of knowledge and confidence, which helped us when we started the union drive.
“It was a lot of work, quietly talking to everyone, trying to convince them, and getting everyone’s names and phone numbers. But we had fun, too. It brought us all together, knowing we were working together to try and change things. There were only a few people who didn’t support us. But they disliked the supervisors,
too, so they didn’t tell them about what we were doing.
“It took us about five weeks to talk to everyone and get enough cards signed to apply for a vote. Our owner and the supervisors never knew a thing until the government called them to set up the vote. Once they knew about the union drive, they called a meeting and told us that we’d all get more hours and a raise if we
voted No to forming a union. But no one believed them; they’d told us too many lies already. They tried to get some people taken off the list of eligible voters, but that didn’t work either.
“The day of the vote was so cool. Everyone came in to work in order to vote. We had a witness watching the vote process, and so did management. Our supervisor looked so mad, but there was nothing he could do; it was too late. We won the vote.
“Then we got some more training about how to start our own union local, and got ready to bargain our first contract.” Serena smiled as she finished her story.
“Gee,” said Jenny. “Sounds like it worked well for you guys.”
“Yeah,” Mohamed joined in. “I think we might be able to pull that off, Jenny. Shall we give it a shot?” Jenny grinned. “Yeah, let’s do it!”
Lynn Carlile is a member of CEP-CULR1 (Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union - Canadian Union of Labour Representatives Local 1). She lives in Ottawa, where she does labour education work for the Canadian Labour Congress.