By Ben Sichel
A worker approaches a union staffer to discuss a problem in the workplace.
The staffer has heard about this problem before. “We’ve brought this to the labour-management committee,” they sigh. “We can try to bring it up again.”
The worker is disappointed. Is there something else we could do? Can the workers at the site take some sort of action? Could they refuse to do certain tasks?
“Things don’t really work that way,” says the staffer. There are protocols to follow, chains of command to respect. Labour actions can only take place at specific times in the bargaining cycle.
The worker gets up to leave, frustrated. “The union seems to be very good at telling us what we can’t do,” she says. “Maybe it could get better at telling us what we can do.”
This is a true story (paraphrased), told to me recently by a veteran labour activist and former union staffer. If you’ve ever asked your union to take action on an issue, it may sound familiar to you too.
At their core, unions are about solidarity and collective action. A single worker has no power against the whims of their employer.
For most members of modern unions, though, that core purpose can often seem distant. Union staff are good at helping members access group insurance and other benefits, and members are called upon to ratify contracts every few years. But rarely is there a sense of members actually coming together to fight for improvements at work. Union meetings tend to be dry, top-down affairs and are attended only by a committed core of reps/stewards and executive members.
Labour action today most often takes place within a fairly narrow legal framework. News stories talk about unions being in a “legal strike position” once other options in a bargaining cycle have failed, and unions rarely consider striking or applying other pressure tactics outside this cycle. The same principle applies with workplace grievances: workers are urged to call the union office and let them handle it, which can sometimes take years.
This state of affairs wasn’t always the case, though. As per historian Tyler Shipley:
By the middle of the 1960’s, strikes [in Canada] were happening at a rate of more than a thousand per year, with roughly half of those illegal or “wildcat” strikes. Workers were emboldened – the 1965 postal workers’ strike forced the government to make real concessions – and the Canadian government increasingly took coercive measures like the passing of legislation to make strikes illegal and the use of police to physically end the strikes. At the same time, the processes by which legal strikes could occur were made increasingly complex, requiring a wider layer of professionally trained lawyers and staff to help workers navigate them. The effect was to make workers more dependent on professionals whose incomes were not directly tied to the outcomes of particular workplace negotiations and who served to conservatize their movements by bogging them down in legal processes that dampened militancy.
Besides disconnecting members from their union, this “professionalized” approach to unionism hasn’t been particularly effective. Increases to the cost of living consistently outpace increases to workers’ wages. If workers do strike, they are routinely legislated back to work, especially in the public sector; their union officials respond by spending millions on lengthy court challenges.
When workers re-discover the power of collective action, they can revitalize their unions and make concrete gains for their members. We saw this in 2018-19 during the “#RedForEd” teacher strikes across several U.S. states, notably in West Virginia, where teachers defied their own union leaders and flouted anti-strike laws in order to win salary increases. In Arizona, teachers won a 20 per cent salary increase over two years as well as the restoration of broader public education funding that had been cut in recent decades.
My own union, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, had its own recent experiences of member power. In 2015-17, members rejected three straight tentative agreements presented to them by their executive, and overwhelmingly approved a strike mandate. While the resulting strike was short-lived and ended with a contract imposed by legislation, the pressure applied by teachers did result in a few modest gains compared to the original contract offer.
A year later, when the Liberal government tried to impose a package of corporate-inspired education “reforms,” union members leafleted, held public town halls, circulated petitions and even took an (illegal) strike vote, which again was approved by a huge majority of members. Last-minute talks averted the strike, but again, the attention teachers brought to the issue did force the government to make a few concessions.
The victories in these cases were small, in the context of what were, overall, disappointing results. But they did give many teachers a taste of the power of collective action. Coming together in the street to demand concessions from an employer is – or at least, should be – the essence of what it means to be in a union. Conversely, many workers ordinarily think of “the union” as something external to themselves. The union means the president, executive, and professional staff. But no matter how eloquent a spokesperson a president is, or how experienced their staff, the real power of a union is in its members’ willingness to act together. The members are the union.
It can be hard to change the internal culture of a union, but here again, collective action is key. In some cases, social media can swiftly bring people together and channel anger into action. Members can bounce ideas around and quickly and efficiently organize demonstrations or similar actions.
Over the long term, though, social media platforms can get messy (as any member of a large Facebook group can attest), and initial bursts of energy fade. Social media is a powerful tool, but it doesn’t replace sustained, strategic organizing as a way of creating lasting change.
In many large unions, especially in the U.S., members intent on re-energizing their unions have formed caucuses. These are groups who come together independently of official union structures to strategize about moving the union in a more activist direction. A caucus can help members feel less alone in navigating the often-complex structures of a modern union. Members with various levels of “official” union experience learn from each other about what channels to work through, what structures need to change, and what kind of action can be taken independently.
Several well-known teacher union successes in recent years started with the work of caucuses. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) made headlines in 2012 with a strike that brought important gains for teachers’ wages and working conditions, while fighting back against a corporate-led education “reform” agenda. The CTU victory was made possible by years of organizing work by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), who worked independently to organize union members for action before eventually winning elected office. In Los Angeles, the Union Power caucus won office in 2014 and led United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) members to a historic strike which won smaller class sizes and increases to support staff, along with salary increases.
Key to these victories and others has been the slow, steady work of organizing members for action – and not just at contract time – as well as consistent coalition work with the broader community. Both Chicago and LA teachers went so far as to put demands for affordable housing and other community goods into their bargaining demands, which went a long way toward building trust and gaining support from parents and the public.
Here in Nova Scotia, Educators for Social Justice – Nova Scotia has been organizing on educational issues since 2015. We meet monthly (on Zoom since the start of the pandemic) to work for a more active and progressive union, and on other issues in education. Among other things we’ve: hosted a weekend symposium on social justice education; done a study on teacher workload and morale following our contract dispute; campaigned successfully to get our union into the provincial federation of labour; organized a demonstration for a COVID-safe return to school in September 2020; and hosted a press conference on child poverty during the 2021 provincial election. Currently we have an active workload campaign in the province’s largest school district, an ongoing campaign against child poverty, and a regular reading group on the topic of teacher unions and social justice.
Unions remain one of the best tools we have to create a better, fairer society – if their members remember what they can do, not get wrapped up in what they can’t.
Ben Sichel is a high school teacher in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and a member of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.