For the Love of unions
View Transcript in PDF format: Breaking the Ocean: Episode 4
Annahid: Hello, and welcome to Breaking the Ocean Podcast: Soundwaves of Belonging. Today, we’re going to talk about unions, the genesis of the union movement in Canada and North America, the raison d’etre of why it is important that unions exist, especially as we move forward into the future, how unions are connected intrinsically to this notion of a free, democratic, and inclusive society.
With me today to have this conversation on unions, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the visionary, is D’Arcy Martin, a long-time union educator, organizer, and academic. So D’Arcy, welcome. Thank you for being here today.
D’Arcy: Thank you for inviting me.
Annahid: And I want to just start with asking you why you got involved in union organizing many years ago. What brought you down this path?
D’Arcy: I was very lucky in my upbringing. My parents actually deeply cared about each other and deeply cared about us as children. And this is right after the end of World War II. They were coming back from a situation of violence, death of friends, death of family. The war was traumatic for . So I was educated to think that my life was something I should design rather than something I should simply conform to, and whatever the expectations were, I was never pushed by my parents to go into a law firm or anything of that sort. They felt proud at offering me conditions to make choices in my life, and so I made them. And on balance, I mean, all these years later, but I’ve put 40 years of my life into work in the labor movement because I love the labor movement. Now, it’s one thing-
Annahid: Can I jump in for a sec? I love what you’re saying, and I just … When I think about what you’re describing about your childhood and your upbringing … because this podcast is about thinking about belonging and how we create cultures of belonging. And it strikes me that being steeped in that kind of communal responsibility, that communal worldview, drew you perhaps intuitively to thinking about ways of organizing, collective ways of organizing, that would benefit the greater workforce, benefit the vast majority of people rather than really having a more narrow, individualistic worldview.
D’Arcy: Well, if we think back to the 1950s, when I was a child, my parents were Red Tories. That’s almost a non-existent category nowadays, but in those days, it was people who believed in the existing power structure but wanted to make sure that those on the outside were not abused. And my father sat on most of the boards that there were in community organizations in Hamilton at one time or another. The social planning and research council, for example. He was very close to that. He followed carefully issues of indigenous rights. He read widely.
D’Arcy: I remember a long discussion with him one afternoon about Eldridge Cleaver’s book, Soul on Ice, which I had mentioned to him. So he went to the library and got it and read it and came back to discuss it with me. And throughout his life, he would discuss issues with me. And sometimes in his later years, I would arrive and he would have a list of topics written next to his chair carefully, just marked “Topics for D’Arcy”. And it was about, “Should we nationalize Inco and questions like that that were triggered by some reading he was doing, perhaps in the business press, and that he would expect some reflective response from me about that.
D’Arcy: So he was a foil for me, a challenge. I’ve always thought it was important to be intellectually rigorous about what we put forward to people, not to be sloppy, particularly if you’re in a role of intellectual leadership of some sort, which certainly educators always are, that what you present to people is the best you’ve got.
Annahid: Well, let’s talk about that for a moment because you said a couple of minutes ago that you love unions and working within and for unions, and yet, I think of one of the biggest challenges facing unions today, certainly in Canada, is that question of leadership and the kind of culture that unions create. And if that’s the alternative to the capitalist structure, it sure don’t look so appealing all the time. It seems to be as steeped, often, in toxic relationship and power struggle. The same things that unions are working to eradicate in the broader society seem to be the very things that they face internally. So maybe you can say a little bit more about why has this work continued to be the noble struggle for you?
D’Arcy: The idea of unions has been, and I think remains to be, the limitation on the arbitrary use of management power. That’s in the workplace. But unions have a second layer of involvement, which is to be the organizational core of the social opposition under capitalism. Not the visionary leadership. That’s going to come from somewhere else. It should come from the arts. It might, on a good day, come from the academy. But the vision is what unions can mobilize around in order to bring things like maternity leave, to bring things like Medicare, to bring some of the social gains that unions have pioneered in the country and still are the core of preserving and expanding.
Interestingly right now, the Canadian Labour Congress is the most feisty leader in the social networks for the support of pharmacare, for the expansion of Medicare to what it was initially envisioned to be, which was a capacity also to sustain people’s medical support when they leave a hospital. It’s raising the floor for everybody. And it’s that wider vision of the labor movement that I’ve always thought was my role to conserve and to exercise.
Annahid: So can you speak a little bit that noble vision, that being a counterforce to unfettered capitalism? What’s your answer to the question of the role of unions in our society going forward, now and moving forward?
D’Arcy: Political leaders in the political sphere articulate visions, strong and weak ones, but we don’t hold all politicians to the same group test. And I think unions are not monolithic.
D’Arcy: And what’s surprising, Annahid, is the number of well-informed people that I know who could not name even one or two of the top officers of the Canadian labor movement. In other words, they’re uninformed. They will put detailed attention into figuring out whether or not the corporations that are driving the Canadian economy in, let’s say, the oil and gas sector … People talk in an informed way about that. They know the names of different companies. They know the difference between a pipeline and a railway car. But yet, when it comes to the mechanics of daily work life and the ways in which the precarious experience of workers in the workforce today are playing out, they will only bring to it what they’ve heard from their niece from a summer job or they’ve heard from their nephew at a family dinner.
It’s the most casual, unexamined, and just repeating half-truths, which offends me intellectually but also troubles me socially. To my mind, the experience of working people deserves thoughtful examination, and while I love the labor movement, it’s like people that I’m close to. I can love them without thinking they’re perfect and without asserting that I am perfect. Certainly, they are difficulties in certain specific unions around, for example, leadership, authoritarian leadership. Oh, yes, that happens. Absolutely.
Annahid: As it does everywhere. As you’re pointing out-
D’Arcy: Have you noticed-
Annahid: … unfortunately.
D’Arcy: Have you noticed?
Annahid: The human condition.
D’Arcy: And so here we are, and I’m saying, “The labor movement is one of the places in which the drama of freedom and of authority is played out in our society.” And those of us that have made a life choice to be part of that, to engage in that, and to be willing to take some of the bruising that comes with it and some of the unpopularity and puzzlement that comes when we’re in wider social settings have access to a very lively, rich, and passionate subculture. And in that subculture, I feel at home. And I believe that that subculture is the source of alternative ideas of how we could be organizing work, how we could be organizing the society, and how we could treat one another.
Annahid: Wow, that’s really powerful.
It strikes me that one of the things that happens when you reach a certain socioeconomic status in our society is that you can forget that for many, unions still are and continue to be a matter of life and death, as well as important protectors of working conditions, but for how many people they still are a matter of life and death. Can you say a little bit more about precarious worker conditions in Canada and the US?
D’Arcy: Well, I think there’s precarious work at many levels. We see economically an increase in the number of people who are working in contracts rather than in full-time positions or in part-time. We have terms, who are appointed for terms rather than hired as ongoing staff, which is your theme of belonging. The idea that used to be in an organization, private sector or public sector, when you were hired, you would pass probation, and if you were competent at your work, then you had some basis of security that you were able to build a life, to imagine buying a house, to consider supporting your kids in summer camp, to have a decent lifestyle that doesn’t involve doing three jobs simultaneously in different parts of a city and spending two or three hours a day behind the wheel of a car.
D’Arcy: So we need, I think, to look at what this precariousness is doing and what it’s doing to our relationships with one another. Unions have been a force for stability, saying, “Actually, employers, you would like to hire people just when you need them, and you only really need them around Christmas and perhaps around certain occasions in the restaurant industry.” Seems very important to have a big staff on hand for Mother’s Day. Imagine that. So we’ll just hire people for the peaks when we need them. We will hire bus drivers with split shifts that destroy their home lives so that they will drive in the morning rush hour and in the afternoon rush hour and do whatever they want in-between, but it means essentially they’re owned by their work for the whole day, every day. And that sense of control over other people’s lives should not be something we aspire to as a society.
Annahid: So let’s pick up on this idea for a moment that in any society, the protection of freedom … We know that our democracies now are so intertwined with a capitalist economic system, that the freedom of a government to enact laws protecting the majority is sometimes questionable. How many governments are in the hands increasingly of very large, powerful corporations? I’m thinking of Jeff Bezos and Amazon and that whole conversation.
And as you’re talking about unions and collective structures as a balance point and to uphold democracy, I’m thinking too of the roles that unions play in supporting and often sparking movements for change, revolutions, how unions really, as a collective structure, have been pivotal to our societies moving forward, if you look at the last century and a half on some major issues.
D’Arcy: And that’s part of the reason why unions are never very popular. It’s not mine to come up with the famous quote by Karl Marx, “The dominant ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the dominant class.” Well, that’s normal. So we’re talking here about some subordinate ideas because the dominant ideas, we know what they are. They have to do with privatization and wealth, the measuring of success by the use of arbitrary power, and the image of a society in which small numbers of people reap the fruits and make the major decisions.
Now, that’s the dominant idea. So when we bring forward ideas that are … For example, shouldn’t we have childcare for the entire society? People say, “Well, that’s a bizarre idea. Maybe we’ll hand some money to people, and they can buy what they want as consumers,” which misses the point. The point is that your children are my children. Your children are my future, whether I have children or not. I happen to have children of my own, but I have friends, close friends, who do not have biological children but who recognize a community connection and that good childcare is going to produce a more fair and equitable and loving society in the future and that they have an investment in that. And they’re prepared to contribute, whether it’s through taxes or through donations or whatever, to that idea. That’s not just abstract to me. That’s very concrete. It’s very tangible.
The fight for childcare … I’m a male. Is it just a woman’s fight? I don’t think so. Last I looked, I have connections to children, not just my own. My friends’ children, my nieces and nephews, my other relatives. These are all people who need good, loving, safe, stable childcare.
Annahid: So if we pick up this idea that unions are an important force, they’re a force for insuring and upholding the collectivist bonds in a society, for distributing the rights, not just among a few but for the many, it seems to me that the union sector has really taken a beating over the last 10, 15 years. Are you worried at all? Are you seeing the next generation of leaders coming up through the ranks? Are you hopeful that collectivist organizing is going to come back as a major force? I don’t know what time period we’re in, but it feels certainly like it’s been a bit of a drought of collective conversations and organizing in this last while. What are your thoughts on where the union movement … where things are at?
D’Arcy: So when I first got involved in the ’70s in the labor movement, the rate of union density, that is, the proportion of workers who belonged to unions, of employed workers who belonged to unions, was around 30%, a little bit higher in Canada, a little bit less in the States, but still in the high 20s. And today in the States, it’s around 9%, and in Canada, it’s around 26, 27. And if you’re in Quebec, it’s 41.
D’Arcy: The unions are not in decline. Some parts of unions are declining, and sometimes they deserve it. And there are other parts of the labor movement that are growing and interesting new models are emerging of, “How do you organize freelancers?” How do you bring people together who are independent filmmakers and get them to organize together, because they will no longer be on the staff of Radio-Canada. They will now be in little production companies. Well, how are you going to organize that?
These are challenges, but the people who are in those jobs are open to unionization. But the opinion amongst younger people, and talking Millennials in particular, is much higher and much more supportive of unionism as a working reality that relates to their own careers than it is the case for people at 50 and up.
The stats are very, very striking around this. When we talk about inclusive societies like, for example, Scandinavia, you’ll find there rates of unionization of 60, 70, 80%. And if you buy Ikea or Nokia or anything else that comes out of Scandinavia, you know these are not unproductive places. These are high-tech, with-it places that are doing social as well as technological innovation in an inclusive way.
That’s the future of the labor movement. The future of the labor movement is not in holding onto the accomplishments that have already been established. The future is in building the capacity to innovate and create and to propose, not just react.
Annahid: So let’s talk about this for a moment because it’s, I think, one of the critiques of unions is that they are victims of their own analysis. In pushing up against power structures, they abuse power within their own structure. And just to give a couple of examples, like some of the irresponsibility around decision-making that happens where, for example, seniority is the only factor considered. If we think about the education unions, when teachers have been irresponsible to the point of abusive even and teachers just getting … The seniority weighs above any other factors of competence in the classroom.
I don’t want to … We need unions and they’re a good force, and I’m with you on that. But talk a little bit about what work needs to happen? I think you’ve talked a little bit about this, but where do we need to pull up our pants a bit, and why is that important?
D’Arcy: So there’s some basic political education that, not surprisingly, other societies have a much more developed and keen sense around. So here we are doing basic education around, well, people should have rights of security as they’ve worked a period of time in a job. That’s what we call seniority. Is that the only governing principle? I have read a great many collective agreements. I haven’t seen one yet that simply says, “Seniority is the only factor that governs the operation of a person.” If somebody is incompetent, they should be disciplined. They should be supported, coached, trained, given a chance, then suspended, and then eventually fired. That’s what we call progressive discipline. That’s what unions push for. We are actually victimized by lazy management. So management, we’ve got Joe over here. Everybody knows Joe doesn’t work hard. He doesn’t really care about the work. He’s actually a drag. Everybody else has to fill in-
Annahid: Joe is a manager?
D’Arcy: No. Joe is a worker-
Annahid: Is a worker. Okay.
D’Arcy: And finally, some manager says, “The hell with this. I’m going to fire Joe.” And the union says, “Well, excuse me. We’re the defense here.” If you’re going to prosecute, then, in a decent society, there is a defense. “When did you first notice that Joe wasn’t doing his job?” “Well, he’s never done his job in the 17 years he’s been here.” “Okay, and can you document that?” “Well, no.” “Why?” Because one manager passed Joe to another manager, and the other manager got so irritated and frustrated with Joe, he passed him to another manager. And so Joe has moved around through different departments in the operation and has never got a critical review.
D’Arcy: And so the union then comes in and says, “Where is the due process?” We actually give due process to mass murderers in our society. We consider that a mark of civilization. Can we not give Joe the opportunity to have progressive discipline? And we’re not saying Joe is the world’s best employee. We’re saying, “Joe deserves a defense, and that defense will include seniority, but it also includes competence.” And that is true in teacher contracts as well and has been for generations.
So I know that it’s frustrating, for example, for parents who find they’ve got a bad teacher, but what they may have also is a bad principal, superintendent, and school board director who have not being doing their job of documenting Joe and building a dossier such that when they start to push Joe and suspend him, they’re on solid legal ground, and they’re giving a decent opportunity to somebody to pull up their socks and to defend themselves.
Annahid: It strikes me as you’re talking that unions are not in there to be distracting the organization from its goals or its vision but actually should be working hand in hand with management to fulfill the vision, right?
D’Arcy: I totally agree with you on that, and I think that the ability of unions to recognize the mission of the organization and to find pieces of it that they are comfortable with in terms of values is where you can build the bridge.
Annahid: If you are a manager or you are a unionist and you just hold onto the role without the other part, “What’s good for the bigger vision here? What’s good for us, not just for our half,” then we lose something. We set up the war.
D’Arcy: Well, and-
Annahid: Sometimes we need to go to war. I’m not naïve, but I think that the war gets set up and perpetuated far often and people spend more time in war than they really need to.
D’Arcy: Yeah. You fight when you have to, not adopting that because you love war.
Annahid: Yeah, that’s right.
D’Arcy: So most people are there because they want to be. And a union that’s always fighting with management alienates its own members because those members that believe in good education and improvement of curriculum and stuff like that, they’re going to be very open to new suggestions that come from management. And the union says, “Oh, that’s just another trick.” Maybe the first three times it’s just another trick. The fourth time, it’s really a creative initiative. So keep your mind open and go for number four, and fight like hell over one, two, and three. And I think that’s a formula … no-
Annahid: It’s a fluidity.
D’Arcy: It’s a judgment capacity. And let’s build that capacity. So unions that get hooked on seniority as the principle … Excuse me. I’ve done some labor history. Seniority’s not a principle. Seniority was initiated by management in industrial enterprises in the United States as a way of sorting out conflicts between people of different ethnic backgrounds. That’s how it started.
D’Arcy: It’s just a tool. The principle is justice. The principle is dignity. The principle is a sense of a future in which you can hold your head up. Those are principles. Seniority’s … it’s a good tool. I would definitely use it. I would use other ones too in any negotiation with management that I’ve been involved in, but I see no reason to take any one of those tools and pretend that it’s a principle. So in that sense, some unionists are bound to disagree with me, but I’m sorry. My job has never been to promote dogma. I’m not going to do it now. I haven’t done it. And I think that a union that works from dogma will die, and a union that works fluidly, that keeps its eye on the goals and the values and keeps its eye on what the members really want is one that will survive and flourish.
Annahid: You started this conversation…you reflected that you love this work. And it strikes me that many of us don’t have a choice over what work we do, and many of us do have a choice. And what does it mean to really love the work? What does it mean to stay connected to purpose? What does it mean to be rigorous? You used the word about continuing to use judgment, to be emotionally fluid, to not get lazy, that I feel that that’s part of the communal fabric. It feels like that’s ebbing away a little bit these days. The vision, as you describe it, is very powerful, and it’s just purpose. What does it mean to really be connected to our purpose in the work we do, wherever that may be?
D’Arcy: It is a daily practice of democracy, and democracy is rough. Democracy is not all pretty, it isn’t, and the results are not always guaranteed. But it is a life choice of how you want to spend your time and with whom. And if you have a taste for hanging out with working-class people and if you have a sense that the elites will not necessarily take care of everyone else but that some work on justice needs to take place, I have found no better place to spend my time than in the labor movement.
Annahid: That’s a good note to close on. And as we’re finishing here, I’m thinking about how conditions are shifting in the world for many reasons, one of the biggest ones being climate change and the number of immigrants and refugees and migrants that will be arriving to many Western democratic countries, Canada included, and how we all have a responsibility to look out for those that share the land with us, and that it’s beautiful work. It’s important work.
Annahid: What did you say earlier, that, “The ethos of the union movement is, ‘Your children are my children'”? There’s something very beautiful in that. “Your children are my children.” Yeah. I want to just close by asking you, what does it mean for you to belong? When you think of belonging, what does it mean to you?
D’Arcy: I’ve told you that I grew up in a very stable, secure, social and cultural bubble, and I belonged there. I knew who I was and where I fit. Maturity requires that all of us put our sense of belonging under the lamp and look at it carefully and consider whether that belonging is at the expense of others and at the expense of our better selves. And if that is the case, then our human vocation needs to be that we reach past a narrow sense of belonging to something wider.
So I think that the belonging that we aspire to now needs to have a global dimension, needs to have a cultural dimension. It needs to encompass issues of racism, of disability, issues of rights around sexuality and sexual orientation. All of that is a sense of the fullest potential in human beings. And again, if the labor movement doesn’t reach out and include any of the marginalized groups in the society, it will have betrayed its historic mission, which is to represent the excluded. That’s what the labor movement’s supposed to be.
- Photo 1: D’Arcy Martin
- Photo 2: Unknown photographer, Crowd gathered outside the Union Bank of Canada building on Main Street during the Winnipeg General Strike (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lac-bac/33304058206)
- Photo 3: CAW Media, Labour Day Toronto 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Labour_Day_Parade_Toronto_September_2011.jpg
- Photo 4: Derek Blackadder, CUPE members on strike for over a year in PEI (5 employee social service agency) greet PEI premier in Toronto at Tory fundraiser. May 28, 2003 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dblackadder/7899304/)