Strike Over; Back To Work

On June 19 the union I am a part of voted to begin a work stoppage and today July 11 is the first day back to work now that the strike has concluded. As I write this, I have yet to leave home for work, and there are many thoughts running through my head.

First and foremost is gratitude for returning to work, and being able to once again serve the clients I do who are among the most vulnerable in society, receiving social assistance. I imagine some of them have in that 3 week interim, lost housing and are now homeless, have ceased to apply for jobs because they lack the means to access the internet, may have lost employment because they couldn’t reach someone for advice and help dealing with some issue and some may even be in jail or worse. Those who don’t work in the profession may scoff and think I’m attributing too much credit to the role I and my colleagues play, but it’s the truth.

Secondly of course, I’m glad to be back because of the income. It’s not that I’ve lost a house or had a car repossessed, but no matter who you are, the money from employment is counted on to live a certain way, and in my case, my wife and I live modest lives. We’d just negotiated new terms for our mortgage and changed amounts we pay on various financial commitments prior to the strike, so getting that income back is important to us.

What is difficult I imagine is going to work and working with those who lined up on the opposite side of whatever position one took in the strike. Even within a union which screams solidarity, there are divisions and differences of opinion. Some like myself, think the strike should never have happened in the first place, and others thought differently and voted to be out there striking still. Working together may take longer for some than others.

One thing I did like in the agreement we voted to accept was language that talked about repercussions for those who intimidate, bully or coerce others in the workplace. And the organization itself takes a negative view of bullying in the workplace at any time. I hope no one ends up being disciplined, but for some who wear their emotions on their sleeves, it may be harder.

I don’t think it appropriate to share what the details of the strike were about here, even though the employer gave a synopsis on their website for the general public who visited it. Suffice to say, for the majority of the members, in settling, an extra year has been added to the contract making it a 4 year deal. What was proposed prior to the strike and rejected was accepted 3 weeks later. For a minority in the union, there are some changes that affect them from the original proposal. As 81% of us opted to return to work, let’s get on with it and move forward.

Oh my goodness it feels good to be going back to work! You see, one of my 3 weeks off was a prearranged vacation and I’m fortunate to therefore be paid for that week. While that’s good, I can tell you that my wife and I did not enjoy that week as we had planned. No camping trip, no ‘stress-free’ relaxation. No it was checking employer and union websites for daily updates, and conserving money because it could have dragged on and on; hardly relaxing.

The strike has caused us to opt to cancel a 3 week driving vacation to Newfoundland – a distance of several thousand kilometers. Quite frankly, there’s enough money in the bank to go, but we’re not comfortable taking a financial hit due to the strike and incurring the cost of that vacation in the same year. So we’ll stay home and make other plans. What’s important is to be together after all, and it’s that, not what we do that’s important to the two of us.

One of the most upsetting things about this strike is how the employer – my employer – was portrayed. I didn’t like the use of words like, ‘bully’ or ‘fight’ when we were assembled and being talked to by my own union. This is the best employer I’ve ever worked for. I don’t want to pick a fight with the employer, and I’ve never seen the employer act as a bully in any way. My employer has leadership circles, strives to have us all understand and reinforce corporate values which I endorse. When words like this are spoken, it’s not always easy to flick a switch and then just forget all those nasty words and tactics.

Ah, but it is good to get back. Today being Friday, I imagine we’ll have to get our security back, get IT to reinstate our passwords and email access, retrieve keys to the building in my case, and start getting caught up. Maybe some of us will be asked to do different jobs to help out others. Who knows? It’s all good.

In the coming months, some of us will be on vacations, and all of us will be immersed in learning a whole new software program which is being launched in November of this year. That means lots of training and re-training which will need rescheduling. We’ll all get there eventually (I hope), it just takes time.

So it’s back to work, and back to blogging!

Walking My First Picket Line

When I applied for a job as a Social Services Worker with my current employer, I was attracted to the job itself, the nature of the work, and the location. As an Employment Counsellor now, I have always maintained the job is a privilege and one I’ve always tried to do my very best in. I love my job.

What I had no choice in, was my involvement as a member of a union. Oh I understand that I could have opted for a job doing something similar in a company that wasn’t unionized. In short with this employer however, if you want the job, you join the union; mandatory. Okay so for years now I’ve paid some of my salary into the union fund and had no choice about that either. Had I a choice, I’d honestly prefer to not be in a union, and have my annual salary based on performance and merit rather than a negotiated plan that others negotiate on my behalf and those whom are in the union like me. But that’s not the present reality.

So here I am on a Monday afternoon. On Saturday, there was a vote to see if we as a group would accept the offer on the table and return to work, or reject it and stay on strike which went into effect last Thursday. I don’t want to get into sharing what the specifics of the offer are, but there’s a modest increase in wages and benefits over the next three years, and for one specific group of workers in our union, there’s some changes they see as good and bad.

The result of that vote yesterday was 51% in favour of rejecting the offer. 49% of us voted to accept the offer. So by the slimmest of margins, the strike continues.

Today I went to picket not because I support the cause, but for two reasons; the $300 per week for 20 hours of walking a line, and to be seen by my co-workers as having not crossed a line, because apparently there were rumours going around I had. In any strike I’ve heard about from people directly affected, there are rumours aplenty, and because I’d not been there Thursday and Friday, I was apparently a convenient target for a bulls-eye.

As I walked around, I was listening to people either agree with my position who also find the strike unnecessary or people talk about how the it’s necessary to support everyone in our union and not have a small group targeted for different treatment.

One of the people I have great respect for is a co-worker of mine. This person said to me how angry they are, and how it’s affecting them outside of work and right into their personal life. Strikes do that. They can change people’s moods. The people I saw there who were smiling, laughing and appearing to be happy to be there were largely the most vocal of those wanting to reject the offer and strike. Union stewards get extra funds to hold their positions, and so while you may walk beside someone, they might be getting paid to be there while you don’t.

Oddly enough, one such steward paraded around with his megaphone and told all who would listen that the 4 or 5 people he was with drove 3 hours to join us from another municipality where they just returned to work after a 10 month strike. 10 months? No work? And this is supposed to rally support for we who are on the line but 3 days? I hope he keeps telling everyone that I thought. Many on the line who vote to strike probably are looking at a short turnaround, not 10 months. That might bring some reality to our situation.

What bothers me and some I spoke with most, is the loss of control over our own income when we cannot cross a line and work at jobs we love, for employers we respect, supervisors who treat us well, and get paid for doing it. After all, it’s my employers name on the cheque, not the unions. It’s a tough situation to walk a line, look like you are counted as being in favour of the strike, when in fact you aren’t. But you could hardly wear a sign on a picket line that read, “Only here to collect my $300 strike pay. I vote to work.” You wouldn’t be very popular.

I respect people’s rights to walk off a job if they believe they are being mistreated. And union’s have done a great deal of good over the years. So we don’t have child labour or unreasonable working conditions in 2014 North America. But it seems to me that if you don’t think you are being mistreated, and you want to work and you want to serve your clients and get paid to do it, you should equally be allowed to do that too. Unions of course don’t support such thinking, because it would weaken their numbers, and numbers is what it’s all about.

And speaking of numbers, how can a union cry, “Solidarity!” when only 51% vote in favour of rejecting a proposed agreement?

I like my co-workers my boss and my employer. I want to work, I want to provide my clients with support and they aren’t getting this, being caught up in this labour dispute. Hopefully there’s a swift resolution, I just have my doubts. I hope it doesn’t turn ugly.