By Peter Votsch
“You don’t have a grievance” and “our members are apathetic” are two seemingly disconnected complaints heard at various times in unionized workplaces. A union executive delivers the first one to members seeking relief from an abusive manager or change in work rules. The other is muttered by local executives in frustration with the membership. Those same executives were once the very members seeking to enforce their rights. How can we get out of this impasse?
Whether we be stewards, executive members, Health and Safety reps or engaged members, we can begin to rebuild a fightback in the workplace that engages all members of the Local, and begins to build a tradition of militancy that will be a fertile ground for recruiting the next generation of union officers. Here’s a couple of hopefully useful suggestions.
Make grievances a collective issue
It may indeed be true that a worker “does not have a grievance” that will succeed in arbitration. But how about filing the grievance as an organizing tool? A little creative grievance writing, using some of the general clauses to be found under “management/employer rights”, such as not managing in an “arbitrary manner”.
File the grievance, let the department, and other workers know. Management inevitably says the issues in the grievance are private – nonsense! Tell them it’s a “collective” agreement and move on. An injury to one is an injury to all!
Now you will have many eyes on management’s response. But do not stop there. Insist that you be allowed to bring co-workers of the grievor (maybe the whole department?) to the step meeting. Management will hate it and object to more than the rep and the grievor being in the room. You may know this will be management’s response, but bring along as many of your co-workers as possible, even if they are not allowed in. Management will know we are watching them, and is more likely to settle as we apply pressure. Remember, this “wasn’t a grievance” in the first place. Now you’re in line for a little victory – and the department will feel empowered.
Campaigning on grievances
If it doesn’t fit under the title of ‘grievance’, at least at the start, there are other ways to deal with the issue. Let management know the worker, or group, is angry at their actions. This can be done by a simple email, or raising it at the Labour-Management Committee. Make sure to report publicly on their answer – exactly where management stands. Never let them off the hook!
If an issue is common to a group of workers, other tactics can be used. On a given day, the whole workplace can wear ribbons, bracelets, t-shirts etc.. Or a petition campaign. Or an open letter. These need to be organized in advance. Even the mundane departmental meeting. Organize a response to management’s new rules, or victimization. As many members as feel comfortable can speak to this. We can give management a taste of our collective power.
A newsletter that takes up issues at work and generalizes them, distributed throughout the workplace, can help break the isolation that one group of workers feel when confronted by arbitrary, punitive managers. Post it on the union board. Management will see it there too and in our workspaces – all the better!
General Membership Meetings
The General Membership Meeting (GMM) should be the place where our experiences are reported, debated, and out of which a course of action is decided. Sadly, in most Locals, this is not the case.
The GMM, conducted according to the applicable by-laws, is just a series of reports, elections etc. – all necessary for the functioning of the Local, but creatively applied, can lead to a very different outcome over time, not to mention increased attendance.
It is particularly demoralizing to hear a grievance report that simply states what stage grievances are at, and how many grievances there are. Politicizing these reports, from the front of the room (the Chief Steward or VP), or even a steward in the meeting can lead to a lively discussion of what are the issues that keep coming up, and the workforce can confront them. This may even lower the Local’s arbitration fees!
New business and elections
New business, in any standard agenda, can be moved to the start of the meeting. Members can do this by altering the agenda prescribed in the by-laws by changing its order. A motion on the floor can do this. Put the issues at the front of the meeting, before we lose quorum from an exhausted workforce.
Finally, the issue of running for executive positions. Many of the best activists feel obligated to do this. It can be a good thing. We need to not just to remember where we came from, but to organize like we remember. That means supporting and encouraging many of the activities as above, on not seeing them as an attack on the ‘union structure’, as many executive committees do. It means being open in opposition on the executive, in executive meetings, but also at GMMs – just not in front of management. It means using your position to encourage activists – not tamp them down.
This sounds like a lot, and may take some time. But when the Local goes into bargaining, it will pay off. It will let management, and our members know, that we will not back down, and we have a structure that can enable us to win, whether we have to go on strike or not. As the farmworkers say “Si Se Puede” – Yes We Can!
About the Author
Peter Votsch is a long-time trade unionist and member of CUPE Local 7797 (retired)