Labour Movement Asks Youth for Help

Originally Published March 18, 2014.

Santiago Escobar is driving back from St. Catharines to Toronto. Riding shotgun is his friend and union colleague, Pablo Godoy, the national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

They’re returning home from Brock University, where they spent the last 10 hours talking with 300 students about the plight of migrant workers. On this particular day, they began at 8 a.m., and it’s just after six in the evening when Godoy answers the phone. He explains they’ve just finished their third presentation of the day and that they have nearly a month left to go of this.

Pablo Godoy attends Women Works and Union class at Brock University

Pablo Godoy attends Women Works and Union class at Brock University
Photo courtesy of S.A.M.E.

Godoy and Escobar are co-ordinators at Students Against Migrant Exploitation, a program begun by UFCW in 2010 to raise awareness about migrant workers’ rights. Their visit to Brock was part of a 30-day tour across campuses in Ontario just for that purpose, which began on Feb. 27.

“We talk to students about the…living and working conditions (of migrant workers),” says Godoy. “We try to get young people interested so they start their own chapters, build awareness, fundraisers, etc.”

It’s also one of the many strategies unions are using to reel in younger members, hoping they’ll join the labour movement and give it new life.

Put simply, Godoy says, the problem is that our population is aging. That means the labour force is, and will be, driven by new generations of workers that either bring new perspectives into the movement or allow it to die.

“Young people have energy and drive,” says Godoy, who is 28. “So even if we didn’t engage them, they’d eventually find a way to organize themselves. But unions…need to find ways to integrate them because of the energy and creativity they can imbue the labour movement with.”

The UFCW is campaigning to capitalize on the armies of unemployed and frustrated young people desperate to make a quick buck. But it’s also aiming for those already working in places with no unions and seeking help.

For instance, at an H&M store, a retail clothing shop, UFCW members helped a group of employees organize. The employees had reached out to them, says Godoy, because of problems they were having with their boss.

“We only provided them the know-how. They exposed themselves and put their feet out there and risked reprimands from the employers all by themselves,” he said.

About 40 per cent of UFCW members are under 30 years old. Many work in retail, and many also occupy posts at the union’s national office, Godoy says. All of this is an advantage, but also one of the main reasons why they have the resources – namely time and energy – to run around campuses and high schools recruiting potential members.

It’s also why Godoy and Escobar are travelling tirelessly across the province.

Yet, they’re not alone.

While the UFCW hits the road, Unifor, the recently merged mega-union between the CAW and CEP, has set its sights closer to home.

Internal outreach

Currently, Statistics Canada estimates about 14 per cent of 15-to-24-year-olds in Ontario are unemployed – twice the national average.

That’s apart from all those people bouncing from place to place in precarious work – temporary agency work, contracts and short- or part-time leave positions. Unifor is trying to target these sectors through Community Chapters.

“It’s associate membership,” said Angelo DiCaro, Unifor national young worker’s liaison.

People working in these types of temporary jobs, or even in between jobs, can band together and apply to become a community chapter.

“We’ve provided a platform for these people to come together,” said DiCaro. “They pay a nominal dues fee, but they get the full benefits of being in the union” – everything from information and education on union politics to benefits and collective bargaining power.

One of these chapters – Unifaith – is in London. It’s the country’s first union for clergy. So far, this is only the second of two chapters formed, “but dozens more are coming,” assured DiCaro.

There’s also a national Young Workers program that has set up youth committees across the country. Jim Reid, president of Local 27, in London, said one will be formed here over the next couple of months.

“You’ll see more focus doing outreach…to young workers but…also calling for regulation for (temporary) agency work, where a lot of young workers are starting out,” said Reid.

DiCaro said Unifor is also looking internally to educate existing members about the history of the movement and about ways to get active within the union.

“It’s reaching out to young members, so they can play an active role in building the union themselves…by impressing upon them the importance of… (coming) to meetings,” he said.

Pablo Godoy (top right) with three of the six team members who presented at McMaster University.

Pablo Godoy (top right) with three of the six team members who presented at McMaster University.
Photo courtesy of S.A.M.E.

Part of this effort involves a week-long, biannual young worker’s conference in Port Elgin, Ont., as well as a labour studies course offered at McMaster University, exclusively for Unifor members.

DiCaro is confident the results of this outreach are clear and evident.

“The role we play is transformative,” he said. “Members run campaigns, connect with the community…Some have gone on to become community activists… (Others) run for city council positions…and in federal ridings.”

Of course, the road to full integration is still long.

Overlooking associations

During the Founder’s Day celebrations at Western University, in London, Ont., one Saturday, a couple of adjunct professors took to Twitter to vent their frustrations over issues of low pay and job insecurity.

In an article in the Western Gazette, the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association confirmed these are important issues to be debated in upcoming negotiations with the university.

Unifor’s community chapters are trying to reach people like these professors, who are in unstable jobs, but some people argue that unions have failed to connect with the associations already representing them.

D.W. Livingstone, Canada research chair in lifelong learning and work at the University of Toronto, said one reason for this oversight is the huge change in the class composition of the labour force. The number of professional employees is growing while the base of industrial workers is shrinking. This means that more people consider themselves middle class and therefore decrease their support for the rights of the working class, he said.

Livingstone said although unions are “doing the best they can under the circumstances,” he would like to see them doing more to tap into these largely ignored organizations.

“Many professional employees, technologists and technicians, have not traditionally seen themselves as eligible for labour unions,” he said. “The reality now is that about 20 per cent of the Canadian labour force is in associations… (that) are becoming economic collective bargaining organizations… But the trade union movement has largely ignored (them).”

Yet, the fact remains that unions are aware of their apparent middle-age crisis, and they are doing everything they can to reinvent themselves.

The point is, young is in.

The importance of youth

As a teenager, Pablo Godoy became interested in joining the union at Loblaws because of a problem he was having with his boss. When he found out the place was unionized, he joined.

By 17, he played an active role in UFCW’s talking union program, which took young union reps into stores and schools to talk about unions and working rights. At 23, he became one of the youngest national representatives at UFCW.

Godoy’s enthusiasm for youth activism is unmistakable.

“It’s important to understand how important, enthusiastic, creative and capable the student mass and young people as a whole are,” he says, as he makes his way back to Toronto to finally get some rest for the day. “That’s not just unions but any type of social movement.”

Like many other labour leaders, he makes sure to point out that the issue with young people today is not that they are apathetic to the labour movement, but simply lack understanding of it. “A lot of young people don’t have the information for their organization,” he says, “or know that you actually have rights.”

That’s why he is so enthusiastic about Students Against Migrant Exploitation, because he’s seen what providing this information to students can do. Last year, more than 100 students from an alternative high school in Toronto set up the first-ever high-school chapter to talk to students about migrant worker’s rights.

“So you see pockets of students and young people really interested and informed, that really want to make a difference….But there are (many) that just don’t get this information….As a student in high school, I never learned about my rights at a workplace.”

Message of an elementary student from a workshop held last year.

Message of an elementary student from a workshop held last year.
Photo courtesy of S.A.M.E.

 

That’s why Godoy says for the labour movement to survive, it’s important to get them young. To educate them before they enter the labour force. And, more importantly, to teach them where they came from.

“A lot of workers today take for granted the things they have, including their breaks, vacations, Canada Pension Plan, employment insurance,” he says.

“It goes unnoticed and unappreciated that those things came from somewhere, and that if we don’t fight to keep them, they will be very easily rescinded and taken back.”

 

WHY I PICKED A SIDE IN POLITICS…AND HOW I LEARNED TO PISS PEOPLE OFF WITH THEM…

I remember that around at least six years ago (goddamn, time flies!), right around the time that I was starting University, I had already decided what my stance on the political spectrum would be. I must have been between 17 and 18 years old, fresh out of high-school and hell-bent on picking a side. But let me back-track a bit to give you some context.

For as long as I can remember, politics have always been discussed at family meetings (including our extended family), the dinner table, outings, and especially during those long nights fueled by Rum, heated discussions and a deck of playing-cards. Obviously, I was not always interested, but I remember that even as a kid I could hear the adults talking about Elections and Corrupt Politicians and Wars and other things that although were incomprehensible to me, appeared to hold a great deal of importance to the flabby adults rambling on about it and turning red from ire and too much drink. But it wasn’t until high-school that I became vaguely interested in politics, and it was mostly because I figured out that by taking a certain side or by stringing a few chosen words together, it was possible to piss many people off – and to do so without having to lift a finger.

I remember one time in my grade 11 or 12 politics class an incident with my teacher that I would now say was more or less a defining moment in my life. Well, a few weeks before the incident I had been sitting in a Chinese restaurant on the China-town strip on Spadina Road (in Toronto) with my father, mother and little brother who refused to eat Chinese food and would only fill up on sweets and tea until we left the restaurant and he got a pepperoni slice. While we waited for the food, I was telling my parents a little bit about what we had been discussing in class and about other things that I had heard or read. Then at one point, I remember that I asked them what it meant to be a socialist or a communist. Of course they did not have  a nice, short, compact answer (thankfully); rather, they first asked me why I was interested in knowing about it, what I knew about it, and then went on to give me a brief overview of what they knew of the Cuban Revolution and other such movements. I was smitten with what they were telling me, but when they asked me if I thought I was one, I told them that I couldn’t say so yet; that I thought I possibly would want to be one, but that I’d first need to learn properly what it was and what it meant to be one. We went on talking a little more about that, school and other things as we devoured some of the best Chinese food in Toronto (too bad I don’t remember the restaurant’s name).

Ok, skip a few weeks ahead. I was sitting in class, still rattling with the questions I had asked my parents and the things that I had read since then. Mind you, during the latter part of high-school I was hitting the bong pretty hard, and most of my classes after lunch consisted of either naps or “writing time” as I scribbled some half-baked ideas on my notebooks. But on this particular day, though very stoned, I was paying attention to what the teacher was saying. I had my arms folded across the desk and my chin resting on them, and my half-opened, red eyes were fixed on the hazy figure moving and talking in front. She started giving an overview of what we were going to talk about in the following weeks, or something to that effect. Then she started mentioning things like “capitalism” and “socialism” and “revolution” and “dictatorships”. I lifted my head and tried shaking myself a little more awake to listen better. Then she said it. I don’t remember her exact words (perhaps because I’m still hitting that bong), but the gist of it was that Fidel Castro was a dictator who drove around in golden BMW limousines while the rest of the Cuban people died in hunger and misery. Now, despite the political views of anyone that may be reading this, and whether they believe that or not, I found it arrogant and, most of all, utterly irresponsible for a teacher to state such ludicrous opinions as fact (when even stating them as opinion would be questionable) in a high-school classroom. So I began to protest as I simultaneously lifted my hand up to signal that I was questioning something she said.

“Wow, wow, wow,” I started, trying to sound sober. “You can’t go around stating your opinions as fact, miss! I don’t even think that what you’re saying is true…” And I went on saying some other things.  Now this was in high-school, so I may have been a bit blunter, but there was never any swearing or blatant disrespect but for the fact that I interrupted her tirade. Well, she was furious. She cut me off right away and told me that I had to put my hand up if I wanted to speak, to which I tried frantically responding that she was wrong and shouldn’t be saying things like that and blah blah blah. Ultimately, she told me that I shouldn’t be so rude and openly contradict teachers in a classroom, and then she gave me detention after school. I tried protesting a bit, but obviously it was to no effect. I didn’t say much else after that, particularly because I was paranoid being so stoned and for the dope that I was carrying in my pockets, so I just said, “I don’t think that’s fair, but ok…” and shut up.

When I got home extra late that evening after being held for an hour or so I told my parents what had happened, infuriated, and they replied, also infuriated with that hard-headed, immature teacher of mine. I don’t recall the exact details of their meeting, but my father tells me that shortly after that (perhaps the next day) he had a one-on-one meeting with her where they discussed that incident, among other things. I don’t believe that I was aware of that meeting, because the following day, as I sat in class, too stoned to hold a grudge with anyone, something the same teacher was saying caught my attention again. However, this time, it was not the content of what she said but rather the words that she was using: they were the exact words that I had heard my father speak a million times before. She began saying something about when people get old they often forget about what they were like in their youth and the mistakes that they may have committed; and that it was the gift of the wise adult to tactically deal with such situations; and finally that it is characteristic of the wise adult not to feel vindicated but rather happy when young people show any interest in what they are saying, even if they happen to disagree. It was like hearing my father speak, almost verbatim, in fact, because I had already heard that lecture many times before. She went on teaching the class regularly, but when we were done she told me to stay for a while so we could talk. She apologized for having given me detention, admitting that it was the embarrassment of being contradicted so bluntly in front of the others that pissed her off, and not the fact that I spoke out of turn. For my part, I also apologized for having spoken without raising my hand first, but I assured her that I would do it again if she said things like that another time, lest she shows where she got her facts from. And that’s how we left it. We never spoke again after that, except in class. Actually, I returned to the school on one of my days off three or four years later to visit some teachers and I ran into her. We had an amicable and brief conversation, though there was obvious tension. I have never seen her since.

But it was during that classroom that I realized that there would always be people exposing those opinions as facts, particularly about Cuba and about anything that had to do with Socialism. I did not start considering myself a socialist then, but I certainly took on an interest about the theories of socialism and capitalism, finding myself very naturally attracted to the first. It was at that moment also that I realized that by taking a side, I could piss people off, for better or for worse. This became more and more evident throughout University, where heated debates between advocates for both sides always left me wanting more, until eventually I started taking place in them. As the years went by, I began to understand all those things that the flabby adults would speak about and I even began contributing my own fractured and still not fully formed opinions during family visits.

During University my views solidified. Though I couldn’t say I know everything about it, I have arrived at a conclusion that only through Socialism can the Human Spirit flourish; that capitalism, despite its obvious benefits, ultimately leads to the impoverishment of the largest sections of any society that adopts it; and most importantly, that I live in a system that is inevitably filled with people that, like that teacher, will try to impose their views on the easily influenced rather than presenting facts to help us arrive at our own conclusions. Unfortunately, political views are just as capable of destroying as they are of creating relationships, connections, friendships and alliances. However, in my opinion, the biggest lesson I learned with that unfortunate experience in high-school and my subsequent time in University, was not that I like Socialism over Capitalism (that would have become evident as soon as I began reading up on those things). Rather, it was the fact that I realized that seeking the truth – or verification or clarification – behind politically charged statements or opinions can end up infuriating those who hold them, particularly when they themselves began holding these opinions as a result of others inculcating them inside their heads with preaching; and particularly when certain views are held for personal gain, economic or otherwise. And in my experience, when speaking with others of the benefits and shortcomings of both socialism and capitalism, the Truth is something to be dug out from deep under personal prejudices and complexes.

In my opinion, Socialism is alive and well in the 21st Century as it becomes more and more evident than Capitalism is a Goliath falling on its knees and decimating the society around it as it does.

So now I always fight my fights from the Far Left, with paper and pen as my Rifle and Knife.