'It was always a matter of dignity and self-respect': Testimonials from inside organizers

Ming Pao workers on strike before securing their first collective agreement. Courtesy Simon Sung

Workplace conditions that barely meet the minimum standard. Low wages. Lack of respect. These are just few of the reasons workers called us up to help them organize a union at their workplace. Today, these workplaces all benefit from the protections that a union can offer. We asked inside organizers from different workplaces to share their stories of unionizing in their own words. Here's what they had to say:

'All things are possible when you stand in your integrity and dare to find your voice'

David Nield, EC Toronto

I was not an inside organizer of the union; the union was pretty much handed to me on a plate by the brave people who discreetly set up the vote. However, I had always wanted to be in a union, as the English as a Second Language private sector has always been an exploitative one with precarious work, no matter which country I was working in. So I jumped at the chance to be on the Bargaining Committee and now, we have our very first Collective Agreement where we got average wage gains of ten per cent, our first pension plan, and more.

Yes, it took a long time; we, my co-bargainer Emily Parkinson and I, had the great responsibility of voicing the teachers’ needs properly and wanted to create something special that our industry would hold up as a blueprint; we also had the relative rarity of a teacher-training department to build into the agreement.

There were many obstacles in our way, but we stayed true to the task of professionalizing our workplace. With the great skill, experience and selflessness of our National Representative Gary Healey and Local Unifor 87-M President Paul Morse, the aid of our Strike Committee and many of our co-workers, we achieved our aims: a more transparent, fairer work contract with conditions going someway to respecting the job that we do and the people we are.

It wasn’t easy stealing the Sunday afternoons from my family and weekday evenings from The Walking Dead; nor was it easy negotiating against a highly-paid legal team and a largely absentee upper management. Progress was slow and stuttering, bargaining days long with a focus on detail that really challenged me. Because of the protocol of confidentiality during negotiations, which we honoured, relations were sometimes strained with our colleagues at work who wanted to know what was going on. Rumours abounded, many twists and turns unfolded, and eventually a strike vote was called, but we surfed the learning curve and did not blink.

Through this experience, we grew as people, so much so that I can now see over the horizon in an empowered and creative way I have never been able to before. I’ve come to realize that all things are possible when you stand in your integrity and dare to find your voice. To my beloved profession of 38 years I say: ESL teachers, yours has become a noble profession and you deserve respect for the work that you do — find your voice too and join us in moving our industry forward into this new reality. Believe, and it can be done.

'It's almost impossible to face your superiors if you don't have collective power backing you up.'

Simon Sung, Ming Pao

I had been working in a place that provided very limited benefits and relatively low wages compared to the industry standard. Vacations, hours of work, public holidays, severance pay just touched the basics of the Employment Standard Act. Despite the problems, I was happy to work there because of a good supervisor and colleagues that created a good atmosphere.

Everything changed when management changed. I witnessed superiors judging an employee's style of dress, even though it wasn’t a violation of dress code, I heard a superior using foul language towards employees and when some of us tried to stand up for our labour rights, they attempted to fire us.

Respect and dignity are essential to everyone! Whenever someone crosses the line by stepping on you, either you give in or fight back. However, it's almost impossible to face your superiors if you don't have collective power backing you up.

That's why you need a union! That's why I chose to unionize my workplace.

My co-workers and I underwent a few months of a secret organizing drive, a two week open-campaign, a secret-ballot vote, a nine-month-negotiation and a 73 day strike to win our first arbitrated collective agreement. The fight was tough but it was worthy!

With the help of the union, the people who got fired for exercising their labour rights got fully compensated and reinstated to their original position. Wages and benefits improved dramatically. Job security was enhanced. A grievance procedure was established and the ability to arbitrate provided us a way to fight unjust discipline.

These are protections we never had before.

'In our first contract we had some long-serving members get raises of more than 30 per cent'

Nevil Hunt, Metroland Ottawa 

Metroland Ottawa organized after a member asked an HR rep why we were paid less in Ottawa than people doing the same jobs in Toronto.

"Because they have a collective agreement," he was told.

Within a few weeks I took some vacation and had a coffee with 30 editorial staff spread from Ottawa to Smiths Falls to Renfrew. I shared a copy of the Toronto contract, which really got people's attention because the difference in pay was about 35 per cent.

I took more vacation and returned (more coffee!) and asked people to sign cards. Nearly everyone signed one.

The company was surprised when the labour board called for a vote, and a week later we had a vote of 80 per cent in favour.

In our first contract we had some long-serving members get raises of more than 30 per cent. We now have a pay grid (never had one before), seniority to protect us from arbitrary layoffs that used to target staff who had annoyed management, and a grievance process to make sure the contract is followed.

We've also seen our crazy rate of turnover slowed down because members can see that they will progress, not stagnate.

'Through good times and bad, employees were much better off with the protection of the union'

Rob Reid, Waterloo Region Record

It was a vastly different newspaper world when I was involved in organizing the Waterloo Region Record in 1990. Newspapers were flush, expanding and concentrating assets as a fistful of chains purchased and consolidated family and independently owned properties. The Record went through a few years when it was traded like a hockey card from family owned to Southam, to Hollinger, to Sun Media and finally to Torstar — eventually falling under the control of Metroland.

Our organizing drive was one of the most successful in the Local’s history. We organized 98 per cent of 90 editorial employees over two weekends. Eventually we organized advertising and circulation. At our unit’s peak — before staff reductions through layoffs and buyouts became the norm in the 2000s — we had 250 full-time and permanent part-time members.

Working conditions (in terms of wages, benefits and pension) were good at The Record when we first organized, a tactic employed by non-union papers to keep the dreaded and hated ‘Guild’ out.

What the six local organizers under the guidance of union organizer Peter Murdoch discovered during the drive was that, while monetary working conditions were satisfactory, many workers were seething with complaints. Although specific in effect, the cause of these complaints were amorphous including abuse of power and systemic harassment. Employees were not treated with the respect to which they believed they were entitled. Many employees couldn’t sign cards fast enough.

I was unit chair at the Record from the day we certified until I retired in 2015 — a quarter of a century. I suspect I sat at more bargaining tables over that period than any other union activist in the Local. We processed hundreds of grievances, some of which resulted in landmark arbitration awards — our famous bluejeans arbitration attracted headlines on the front page of the Globe’s business section.

Through good times and bad, employees were much better off with the protection of the union. Even when the union exercised limited control in terms of what transpired, it ensured that members maintained their dignity and self-respect through terribly difficult times. We held the company to account in terms of the collective agreement so union members were treated fairly and equitably. I hate to think how The Record would have negotiated the transition from have to have-not had it been allowed to execute its intent and will unfettered by the union. In the beginning and in the end, it was always a matter of dignity and self-respect.