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Young People Have Been Betrayed by Canada. And Canadian Unions.

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The author with fellow young workers on strike in 2008/2009.
The author with fellow young workers on strike in 2008/2009.

There's a new interview with Unifor president Jerry Dias, "Young people have been betrayed by Canada" over at rabble.

I'm not going to argue with that statement, it's a fact. Young people have few job options, and huge student debts. In the major cities, they will never be able to buy a house. They expect to need dual paycheques to raise a family with no public childcare in most provinces. 

But let's not kid ourselves. Young people have also been betrayed by unions.

Two-tiered contracts for new hires. Unions like UFCW routinely take union dues off the paycheques of minimum wage employees. Fighting hard for severance packages, but not to keep jobs in Canada. These commonly accepted practices screw over young workers. They also hurt immigrants, racialized workers and women trying to break into sectors where they have been discriminated against.

Until we as unionists honestly face up to the problems of Canada's labour movement, we won't be able to change. It's time to take a tough look in the mirror and really scrutinize how unions have contributed to the tough deal faced by young people. If we don't do this kind of soul searching, we aren't going to be able to move into the future and build a better world for young people. The union movement has sold out young people, and everyone knows it. Youth themselves are no exception.

I'm 31 years old. Let me tell you a story about my own experiences with unionized workplaces, which I think is representative of a lot of younger people.  

When I was 19 I got a job with a UFCW-organized grocery store. I was trying to go to university at the time but had dropped down to part-time because I was having problems with student loans (not an uncommon occurrence). I was being paid minimum wage, which at that time was $6.85 an hour. I had union dues deducted from my minimum wage. When union officials visited my worksite I couldn't tell if they were management or not. They dressed and talked like management and I wasn't sure. And of course, as an entry level grocery store worker I had hardly any hours even though I lived on my own and had to pay rent. What was the union doing for me? I wondered. I worked in a grocery store and I couldn't afford food. My roommate and I visited foodbanks. I had to drop out of university for real.

The next union I was part of was CUPE 3903 at York University. This was a union of young people, full of insecure temporary workers in a weird sector. For the first time my job had real protections, organization and I had medical benefits. It was run mainly by people who were younger than 30. When we went on strike for three months in 2008/2009, I had a real experience of large scale direct democracy. I saw Tyler Shipley, a peer, my own age, on national and local T.V. defending the strike, defending unions. I participated in flying squad actions, and my first demonstration (where we were promptly attacked by cops). I had my first time meeting people from 6 Nations who were proudly carrying the Unity Flag in solidarity on our line. I had my first time blocking cars on a road, and my first time convincing other workers to vote for the union. This experience made me who I am today. But I also experienced my first back-to-work-legislation, a takeover by CUPE National, infighting, and a feeling of lack of support from larger unions. We were clearly too young and crazy, too invested in protecting our right and making gains even in an economic crisis. People questioned whether we were even workers at all. But a union full of young people, for young people, is bound to look different. After all, the material conditions that we are facing are not the same as our parents. But despite all the problems and stress, I was still hooked for life. I'll always be for unions because of the solidarity in struggle I felt on the picket line that winter.

My next experience was a bit of a let down.

I was an "intern" in a unionized environment, a library with another CUPE local. I was doing a government internship for minimum wage. Even though I had an undergraduate degree and most of a masters degree, this was all I could get. Worse, I was working only 10-20 hours per week. By now I was about 29, living with a partner, paying rent, and helping take care of my sick mother and school-age brothers. I had no union protection at all as I wasn't even technically an employee of the library I was working at. I faced all kinds of crazy and possibly unsafe situations such as being stalked by clients. A friend of mine was an actual worker at the library and a member of the union, but with a two-tier contract. It was flu season and an email had gone out that employees should stay home for their health and to not infect others. My friend showed up for work one day but got sick halfway through her shift, if I remember correctly she was throwing up and not able to see straight. She asked to go home and her supervisor told her she couldn't. She stayed another hour or so but after that really had to go home. She was fired later that week. The union told her there was nothing they could do.

If unions don't support young people, young people aren't going to support unions. It's as simple as that. I wrote an article about how CAW was considering linking up with Occupy London Ontario to occupy the Caterpillar plant as it was closing. This would have kept good jobs in Ontario: for young people and new immigrants. But instead of occupying the plant, perhaps starting a wave of "Occupy" labour actions across North America, the union settled for better severance pay. Which helps the older workers who already had jobs, but keeps us young people from ever finding any.  

My hometown of Oshawa has the highest youth unemployment in the province. Why? Because unions didn't fight hard enough to keep auto sector jobs in the province. And if a young person *does* manage to get a job in the auto sector, it's probably non-union, or worse, is unionized but without representation or rights. People get dues deducted and don't even know they are in a union.

I look at the mainstream union leadership and I don't see myself, I don't see young people with a baby at home, living in substandard housing and trying to pay off huge student loans for jobs that never came through. I don't see anyone like me. And I'm a white person, do young people of colour see anyone who represents them in union leadership? Do they feel represented? When I was in CUPE 3903 I saw a union leadership that, for all its flaws looked like me, and worked the same or similar jobs while living in the same conditions. Did this help me feel empowered to get involved in my union? I'm sure it was a factor. It’s not that I can't sympathize with workers who are older than myself, but I also need to feel that my issues and life are represented.

Young people care about democracy. Look at the Quebec student strike, with it's Assemblies and department level democratic bodies. Young people developed Occupy, which if anything was *too* democratic in its decision making structures (fetishizing a perfectly democratic consensus that represents everyone all the time). Unions talk about how they want to mobilize young people, and then have founding conventions like Unifor's, where the leader is practically anointed prior to the convention? Where a challenger for the leadership (a female auto worker no less, Lindsay Hinshelwood) is barely allowed to even speak and the election machines don't register abstentions? Where a "diverse" union executive of 25 people means 1 non-white person? This isn't how you organize and mobilize youth. Not for the long term anyway.

Unions have to stop implementing two-tier contracts, charging union dues off minimum wage (or less than minimum in the case of migrant workers), and having "unionized" workers with no representation. This is a minimum start to actually representing young people.

I love unions, but love shouldn't be blind. We can't just be cheerleaders for union leaders. I think that steps towards pro-youth rhetoric is a good start but without really representing those youth, it's empty words. It's not just "Canada" that has betrayed young people. The unions have been complicit.

If you want more youth involved in unions, you'll have to give them something like I experienced in CUPE 3903 that bitterly cold winter: participation; democracy; the freedom to experiment and try and fail; to use our creativity to organize ourselves; to create media both for internal use and public consumption; to represent ourselves; and to write our own union songs and sing them proudly. These things are dangerous to the status quo. But the status quo is dangerous to us.


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Megan Kinch (Megan Kinch)
Toronto Ontario
Member since December 2009


is a writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op.

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