By Jennifer Mathers-Piper
Unit Chair, Unifor Local 433
Note from the author
I would like to start by stating that my purpose in writing this article is to increase social and cultural awareness among union workplace leaders so they can better communicate, educate and empower members. Please do not view cultural differences as problems that need to be solved in the workplace while reading this article. Also be careful not to generalize and label the thinking of any single cultural group of workers.
Have you ever experienced this reaction from a member? When a member complains to you that they have a grievance, you tell them the first step is to tell their manager and try to resolve the issue. Then the member looks at you horrified and even after you offer to go with them, they back off and won’t commit to the grievance.
As a shop steward of 12 years, I have experienced this all-too-common scenario in workplaces. It is really easy as a rep to leap to the conclusion that the member is lazy and wants you to do everything for them. Let us break this situation down a bit before we assume that.
Clearly this member is educated enough to know that they have rights, so good job. You may have properly educated them on their workplace rights.
Next, this member knows that they should come to you to say that their workplace rights have been violated. Again, way to go! You are sending the right message.
The problem seems to be that this member clearly is worried that something is wrong or scary about approaching management with their concern. In this situation, as a rep, you have an opportunity to help them get to the next level, but you can’t do that if you are not sensitive to culture or other factors that may be causing this member to be afraid to stand up for themselves.
In this situation, I would attempt to talk with the member and find out why they are worried about approaching management. Then I would determine if there was a way to make the member feel safe so that I could attempt to solve the grievance. Thankfully they are not alone and they have a union to back them up.
The importance of well-trained, diverse leadership
If your workplace is fortunate enough to have elected a diverse leadership that works together, then it can increase overall social and cultural awareness for the entire group.
When well-trained, diverse leadership is both aware of how to represent the interests of the membership while at the same time being sensitive to culture, it can lead to greater solidarity and strength within the group.
I have observed that members tend to identify with their union leadership and learn from the example that they set. So it’s not a stretch to say that if the leadership works together towards collective achievements, members will see that collective success is possible and find empowerment in solidarity with their fellow union members.
Something to consider as workplace union representatives is that the thoughts of workers are influenced by multinational perceptions of how workers are supposed to behave in the workplace. It is only natural that someone who grows up or is taught social norms from, for example, a country like Canada, will identify with themselves as workers differently than someone who grows up in India, Germany, China, etc.
Consider workplace culture
It is important to consider many things such as, what is the work culture or social system in the place where this worker has worked before? Another consideration is, has this worker been influenced by experiences of close friends or relatives working in other places?
Work cultures differ from country to country but also from province to province and city to city. Understanding other work climates can help reps be more aware about where workers may stand on filing grievances or participating in direct action.
Cultural experiences can also factor into how someone feels about their ability to seek other employment options, and depending on individual or social circumstances, that may be a legitimate concern. They then may be fearful of losing their current job.
Some may believe that to be disciplined or lose their job would somehow make them a failure. These perceptions could lead to fears that might affect the way members make decisions about whether or not to participate in union activity.
If union reps are aware of these insecurities within the membership, then it gives union workplace leaders the opportunity to offer counsel to members and challenge these perceptions.
You may also encounter members who think they can take on management alone. If a member has had social or cultural influence where they have been nurtured to assert themselves in the workplace, they may perceive the union as unnecessary.
From what I’ve experienced, these members may be inclined to follow the group if they realize it is stronger than going alone. With a bit of education, these members can also be key to strengthening the group if they recognize the value of working collectively to achieve gains.
In some workplaces, workers are oppressed and fearful, so it might seem normal to have little to no workplace rights. Other places may encourage and respect assertiveness in their workers.
I have had experience with members who feel they are entitled to things way beyond what the local labour climate would allow.
On the other hand, I have also dealt with members who are afraid to talk to me where management could see because they are scared that if they are seen talking to the union rep, they will get in trouble.
In both these scenarios, I have noticed cultural belief systems played a part in the way members were behaving. In the first scenario, members came from places where there were higher standards for workers and it was the social norm to push for more. In the second scenario, members came from places where it was considered disrespectful to disagree with someone who held a title that was higher than theirs.
Also, workers were made to feel that their needs did not matter and if they asked for something they would be punished somehow.
The best way to find out is to talk to members and listen. Ask about other jobs and work experiences they have had to better understand how to approach them with union education and show them they have rights, as well as support from their union.
How to approach disputes between members
Another question to ask yourself is, how do cultural differences affect workers’ views of each other in the workplace? This is a very important question with no simple answers.
It seems that in most workplaces, workers complain about each other sometimes. I have observed that manners and communication play a part in internal social conflicts in the workplace.
What some members may consider to be good or bad manners may also be a factor in how your group of members interact with each other and form opinions about each other.
Personal and group awareness about differences in norms for mannerisms can help workplace union leaders resolve conflicts arising from them.
For example, if I have a member come to me and complain that they are offended that another member was rude to them, while I investigate the basis for the complaint, I keep in mind things like, was there a verbal and/or body language communication barrier? Was the person using manners that are familiar to them but are being received as rude by the other member?
An example is that in some cultures, it may be considered polite to stay quiet and avoid eye contact when someone is talking to you, where in others it may be perceived that you are uninterested and therefor rude.
To overcome potential misunderstandings regarding manners, I find it’s important to keep people talking to each other. To resolve this conflict I would talk to each member individually and try to get them to agree to discuss it with each other. Then I would try to help them communicate better by guiding them to a place in the conversation where they understand each other. These conversations take time but I find it is well worth it because it builds valuable relationships and understanding within the group.
The bottom line is that it is beneficial to recognize and be sensitive to culture in the workplace.
If members are constantly in a heightened state of conflict with each other, then it will prevent the group’s ability to work towards the collective goal of improving working conditions and creating a more democratic work environment. It can erode solidarity and weaken the union.
Being sensitive to culture in the workplace can help union workplace leaders better understand the dynamic of their group and be sensitive to the needs of their members. In doing so, members will feel empowered and will be more likely to stand up for each other and themselves, which can build a strong foundation for successful collective actions, and decrease workers’ sense of vulnerability.