Sunday, February 15, 2015

Unions (a "Just Doing My Job" memoire post)

I don't know why this came to me today, but I'll share it. Maybe it will give you something, and give something to me in the sharing.

Early in my career, when I was so green and clueless I had no business talking, I toured facilities across Canada to bring a “face” for head office HR. During a meeting about benefits, an employee asked me, out of the blue,

Why don’t we have a union?

I felt completely blindsided. I had never thought about unions at all. I basically knew what they were, but I’d never worked anywhere that had one. My answer was pretty na├»ve (but I might make the same one today, so maybe not). 

I said, well, unions are meant to stand between the employee and the employer, and the employees pay them for that. So I guess you don’t have a union because you don’t want one.

That’s right, called out another guy. I’ve worked in a union shop. Guys there, it’s all about working the system, not about the work. Here, we don’t make great money but we have benefits, the work’s not too hard, and the big guys take care of us. They bring in business, and let us get the work done. If I want to switch a shift I don’t have some 90 page process I gotta follow.

Well, said a woman, my husband works at a union shop and they make $10 more an hour than I do here, the salary bands are  posted. Four weeks’ vacation after five years.

And no favouritism, called another. Everything’s by seniority.

Seniority? Called a young guy from the back. Yeah, so old guys can sit back and let us do all the work while they get their pick of shifts and twice the pay. At least here, we have a merit pay system.

Whatever, said a disgruntled man. Favouritism’s everywhere, it’s just how it shows up.

I think we’re getting a little off topic, I floundered, completely missing the moment in my panic. Does anyone have questions about the benefits plan?

Then I noticed the manager standing in the doorway. He was pissed. No, he growled, I think it’s time for everyone to get back to work.  The employees scattered.

When we were alone, he closed the door and shook his head.

I don’t know what they’re thinking, sending a fresh-face like you out here. Do you know what a union would do to this place? We give these guys flexibility for their hours, so they can consolidate their shifts and do other things in their lives besides work here. We got a good system, it works for everyone. But business is slow, they’re looking to sell this whole operation or our plant might close. A union run at this point would destroy any chance at a sale. It would get us all tied up in negotiations and contracts and processes and procedures and drag us even further down the toilet.

And you know what, he went on, getting more agitated, they’ve got it good, here. Sure there’s favouritism sometimes, but it’s usually because someone’s doing a better job, not just for no reason. And some guys do get paid more than the housewives taking shifts for pin money or the students just working here til they get through school. Look, these guys have more skin in the game. If this place goes belly up, they lose their jobs, they got families, mortgages, what do those young kids have to worry about but themselves? They’d get another job right away. Some guys have more they gotta do with that money, people counting on them. The whole town gets affected if they can't work. No offense, sweetheart, but you probably make more than most of those guys for pushing paper, just because you’re head office, and you haven’t had time to know shit about life. None of it’s fair. But it’s good here. And if anyone ever asks you why we don’t have a union again, you tell them, because we don’t fucking need one and SHUT. IT. DOWN.

I wondered for a moment if he was going to slap me. He turned abruptly and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

I cried. For about a minute, then I pulled myself together, put on a smile, and headed back out to do my job. 

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