There Is Power in a Canadian Union

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – October 21, 2004

This month, Canada saw over 100,000 federal government public servants on strike. Many of us in Ottawa who were on strike walked about like a bunch of space cadets with our heads up our asses not really knowing what the hell we were fighting for or why. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) strike was bloody confusing.

For those of us who knew the strike was for a wage increase, we either didn’t think it was sufficient since the “increase” simply correlated with inflation, or we didn’t see the need to have more money handed to us without a promotion awarded on the basis of hard work.

In addition, some groups were fighting to retain their five paid days off for marriage leave. I heard it said that Treasury Board, the guys making or breaking the deals, were threatening to drop it down to three. PSAC was fighting to have the five days apply to same-sex couples. Treasury Board’s solution: five days extra vacation for one year, then scrap the entire thing, period.

A local gay-rights contact speculated that this hinted at the government’s fear that gay marriage laws could spark a mass influx of men wanting to marry men, and a whole bunch of ladies going out to marry women, just to get that week off. That’s like jumping in front of an OC Transpo bus to get sick leave.

The whole experience was a bit disillusioning. The days of Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid seemed to have vanished; at least it appeared that way in light of the many feds who instead of freezing their balls off manning picket lines used the opportunity to network and “illegally” brainstorm on projects.

Many just stayed home and caught up with Days of Our Lives, roasted chickens, housecleaned or refinished furniture.

Some became scabs when they tried to cross the picket line or waited outside their buildings hitting “redial” on their cell phones, trying to reach managers to get credit for attempting to get into their PSAC union-guarded buildings only to be sent home to telework and earn their full day’s wages.

While loyal picketers stood wearing god-awful placards protesting for four hours at a flat rate of $75, others were topped up by their union to $90, then cleverly disappeared after signing in, returning only to sign out for the day.

We discovered discrepancies in strike pay, and mixed messages depending on which group you belonged to. Some groups were told they would only get paid if they picketed for three consecutive days, while others were paid by the day.

It was unclear what would happen if caught working: if you’d be kicked out of the union, have to hand over your earnings, receive harassing phone calls or get kneecapped. We were so lost and it was embarrassing.

The concept of the union has obviously changed from our parents’ age.

Once a powerful and respected voice for struggling workers and the subject of drinking songs, it has become a faceless force fighting for a cause for which there appears to be little buy-in or understanding.

Unions exist to protect workers’ rights and to fight for you when no one else will.

Got a problem with your boss? Call the union.

Bad working conditions? Hello union.

But as a public servant close to retirement said to me on the picket line, “Unions deal with 10 per cent of the problems made by 10 per cent of the people.” I wonder how accurate this is.

A busboy working at a Centretown restaurant with no union argued that if federal government workers’ wages keep up with inflation, then inflation will continue to rise while minimum wage remains the same.

“Labour is labour,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I be making as much as a postman?”

Something about a union, I guess.

Up until the recent strike, I didn’t pay any attention to my PSAC union. If I was happy in my government job and content with my wages, why should I organize and strike for more? Two people – a friend’s old-school East Coast father and a Northwestern Ontario small-town girl –told me to back the union. And my aunt told me to stop analyzing. But if you’re not reflecting on the cause, how are you supposed to support it or reject it responsibly?

Finally, it was a politically aware friend who advised me to think more about a single-parent family trying to live off my wage and highlighted the thrust of any union: solidarity.

She said unions are about sticking together and, just as people did before us, we have to fight for reasonable wages, paid holidays and other benefits for the next generation of Workers.

“But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand,” sings Billy Bragg. “There is power in a Union.”

I wonder if the union will keep going strong into the next decade? Being blocked from office buildings by picketers is having less of an impact as people can now just turn around and go home to telework or, more creatively, sneak in via the backyards of entrepreneurial 10-year-olds like Todd.

Yep, in case you missed it, CBC TV featured a newsbrief on how public servants paid $2 to Todd for his backyard access route to Tunney’s Pasture so they could bypass the picketers and get to work.

That menacing kid. And those pesky scabs.


Raise your pint, lock arms and jig with your fellow workers to the sounds of Siobhan’s CD release party on October 23 at Barrymore’s Music Hall, $7. The raucous six-member band plays “kick-in-the-ass” Irish music like Great Big Sea, Spirit of the West and The Pogues. “So, if you like the Pogues,” Siobhan says, “come and see us. If you don’t like us, we’ll set fire to your face and put it out with a big shovel.”

– Sylvie Hill