About fifteen years ago, I was working with a union doing organizing work while on leave from my unionized job that I worked at to pay for my education. It was my first official role in a union other than being a steward on the floor.
The union had paired ‘newbies’ with ‘experienced’ people. I was paired up with a man who was much older than me and had been around that union for much longer than I had. We worked in pairs on a campaign to organize a local workplace. We went to workers’ homes, getting union cards signed, educating family members, talking about the importance of unions, etc. Working in pairs was supposed to be safer.
The man I was paired up with got very friendly, very quickly and was very flirtatious. As a very young person at the time, I tried to brush it off and ignored it or changed the subject any time I was made to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t really feel there was a place to raise my concerns because the last thing I wanted to do was ‘rat’ on another worker.
Eventually, there was in incredibly inappropriate incident that took place on a workers’ doorstep. The man I was paired up with was making sexual comments and hitting on me after we had already rung the doorbell. Within a split second, all while on a doorstep of a potential new union card signer, he reached over to grab me and kiss me. That was the breaking point where I knew I couldn’t let this continue.
I took a few days to figure out how I was going to report this to the male head of the organizing committee but I did. Upon speaking to the male rep, I was followed up with by one of the male executive members of that union. I had explained what happened and he told me that maybe the best thing for me was to go back to the work floor. The man who made a pass at me, both physically and verbally, stayed on the organizing crew. The head of the union is still in an executive position today. I was sent back to the floor because I was the problem. That summer I left for school and moved on to work in the private sector before ending back up in a unionized position a few years later.
From then to now
Fast forward to the last three years of my time with the WLC and my own union where I very publicly left my position six months ago for reasons of harassment and bullying.
For many months, things became increasingly disrespectful for me in my position and I went through the channels of approaching my peers and leadership regarding the way women in positions of leadership are mocked, bullied, harassed and disrespected. I got many words of advice to ‘just go with the flow’ or ‘we just have to outsmart them at their own game’. There was no plan to address it. The only way to get around this was to ‘be smarter than the men’.
The disrespect and shocking behaviour lead me to finally leave. I could no longer be a representative of an organization that was not serving the majority of workers, but mainly the interests of a few who squeaked the loudest, hammered their fists to be heard and worked back rooms to attack those who had a vision of the big picture and worked to advance all workers, not just those in elected positions.
A frenzy ensued when the movement was somehow ‘shocked’ to hear that these things were happening in our labour halls. But reality told another side of this story. I received hundreds, yes, HUNDREDS, of emails, phone calls and messages of support and stories of ‘#metoo in my union’. Six months later, I have yet to hear a peep regarding the so-called investigation the CLC insisted would happen after demanding I provide a formal statement regarding my concerns. I had and continue to have very little faith in a system that is in place to keep certain people in certain positions.
As a true believer in worker power, I returned to the work floor this summer with new knowledge and a new perspective of how ill-equipped many labour leaders are in the positions they occupy while attacks continue against me from those who preach and pump fists while singing ‘solidarity forever’. There’s no bigger travesty in labour than investigating and slandering a worker who files a complaint.
The majority of labour leaders are incredible organizers when it comes time to fill seats and slates of their supporters come convention time and ultimately their re-election. But the majority of leadership can’t carry a tune in a bucket when it comes time to get workers involved in massive campaigns, work floor organizing and most importantly, real life polls – government elections. Low voter turn out for everything from healthcare representation votes to referendums to federal elections is a telling sign of just how unorganized organized labour really is.
A pattern of dismissal
Just this week, I was once again reminded of how little faith workers must have in their representation when my own union dismissed sexual harassment and assault charges against another member following an 18-month investigation. Against a member who was and continues to be very active in my union. I was the only one who came forward formally, but I can certainly imagine that following testimony of several other women at the hearings, I will be the last. This person will continue to serve while I am forever unable to step foot at a union function knowing he will likely be there.
Many asked why not go to police but I think most women know very well that we should feel safe in our workplaces and unions without having to use a system that is there to oppress workers to begin with. It’s not difficult to understand why many people have a negative perception of unions ‘protecting the bad guys’ with examples as this. If our unions don’t take us seriously, who else will?
In less than twenty years, I’ve had three major negative experiences in labour, not to mention many others that would deserve an honourable mention simply for the shock value. While I’ve always been a believer in speaking truth and speaking out, the last twenty years have me feeling like I’ve been crying wolf the whole time. I’m just one of those members leadership always complains about and calls, well, a complainer and sees as a threat when their name is ready to be printed on the ballot.
What’s wrong with labour?
We talk about apathy among the membership when we should be talking about opportunity. The opportunity to work along-side your coworkers and fight with them on the ground level rather than ‘for them’ from the top with a salary they’ll likely never make. The opportunity to share your knowledge with the rank and file rather than gate keep and safeguard an elected position that’s not yours to keep. The opportunity to learn new ways to fight the boss with direct action rather than another newsletter with bios of the bargaining team. To feel valued, workers must be part of the equation, not just a name on a sign in sheet at a monthly meeting.
One hundred years following the Winnipeg General Strike, have things really gotten better for women? For workers of colour? For workers with disabilities, Indigenous and queer? To answer that question, I ask you to look at the people in leadership positions in our unions. Who do they look like? How do they act? Do they look AND act like the members they represent? Twenty years later, I find myself wondering…
What’s wrong with labour?