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Examples of unions improving working conditions

Last December, I wrote about how 2023 was the “Year of the Strike.” It seems that employers have finally begun to sit up and take notice, as 2024 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Worker.
Gayla Thunstrom is president of the Union of Northern Workers.

Last December, I wrote about how 2023 was the “Year of the Strike.” It seems that employers have finally begun to sit up and take notice, as 2024 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Worker.”

Since January, we have seen many high-profile job actions held off at the eleventh hour by employers who suddenly realized the impact striking workers would have on their industry and the public.

Last month, airports and border crossings across Canada were facing down the possibility of picket lines when PSAC’s members at Canada Border Services and Customs and Immigration threatened to job action. Rather than deal with the economic fallout of a strike, the employer (the federal government) agreed to return to the bargaining table.

Teachers in Saskatchewan have spent over a year battling against their government employer – engaging in work-to-rule and single-day walkouts to show how much they care about what they’re fighting for.

In both these instances, a strike would have huge impacts on regular citizens’ day-to-day lives – which is the whole point of job action. It’s inconvenient, and neither workers nor unions want to go on strike, but it’s the last card in a union’s hand against an employer who refuses to bargain in good faith.

Ideally, employers come to the bargaining table ready and willing to negotiate – which is the process by which two parties reach common ground through discussion and compromise. Too often, we’re seeing employers coming to the table to stonewall their workers, offering a package with little to no room for negotiating.

Fortunately for workers, unions in Canada and around the world are currently experiencing a surge in popularity – especially among young people who are entering a workforce that has suffered from decades of anti-union employers and governments who have suppressed wages, benefits, and work-life balance.

With a skyrocketing cost of living and affordable housing becoming more and more unattainable for many workers (and not just the younger ones), it’s hard to buy the argument that workers don’t deserve wage increases that keep up with inflation. As one successful NWT MLA candidate said in last fall’s territorial election: “People deserve to thrive, not just survive.”

Many employers try to blame recruitment and retention issues on "entitled workers". Well guess what – as a worker, you ARE entitled to fair wages, manageable workloads and a respectful workplace. Union members have fought hard for these things and will continue to fight to keep and improve them.

On a day-to-day level, union members can and should rely on their collective agreement to help protect them. A collective agreement is no more and no less than a legally protected playbook that the employer and the employees must follow.

This playbook is also a result of strong collective action and we’ve seen more members recognizing their rights under collective agreements, and using it together to make their workplaces better and safer. Negotiated settlements to grievances help workers get justice and closure. Successful arbitrated decisions that come from grievances set legal precedent for other workers in the future.

It’s very encouraging to see workers of all ages realize the power and potential unions have to improve working conditions for all workers across all sectors.

During the May/June territorial budget session, public service workers mobilized to protect jobs and services against cuts. We heard from members throughout the GNWT who were worried about their jobs, and worried about the future of our public service and the important programs they deliver. It was great to see members and supporters hit the pavement to protest job cuts and sign petitions to support public services. When workers stand up in numbers and use our collective voice, employers do take notice.

On the day before the vote to pass the budget, the territorial finance minister announced that funds had been found to keep the men's unit at the Fort Smith Correctional Complex open for another year, and that some of the money for midwifery was being reinstated.

While it was not a complete victory for GNWT workers – there are still public service positions on the chopping block – it was an important win because it showed us once again that when workers unite and stand up for ourselves, we really do have power.

In a perfect world, workers shouldn’t have to take to the streets to see results from an employer. But when we are not afraid to stand together and make our collective voice loud and clear, we can make positive change happen.