author: marty grande-sherbert | op-ed editor
It’s probably fair to say that anyone who’s done minimum wage work has a horror story about it. Nightmare customers, nightmare bosses, being called in at the worst times and having to follow the most bizarre policies. I can say honestly that working at McDonald’s had a profound impact on the way I saw humanity from that point forward – mopping the same section of floor over and over again for up to an eight-hour shift does something to you psychologically, and that’s not even mentioning some of the situations I’ve dealt with in a men’s bathroom.
Whether your hardest times come from food service, sanitation, retail or somewhere in the restaurant industry, the point is that you’ve likely felt like a saint or a superhero at some point for putting up with them and carrying on. You can call me dramatic, but I have heard plenty of people express that their workplace made them feel humiliated, unappreciated, depressed, or angry, and plenty more explaining that they spend most of their time after work trying to give themselves a pep talk so they can go in again. When we consider that this is the kind of thing we need to do to pay rent and grocery bills, it can make for a very bleak routine – especially if we are students trying to balance our stressful classes at the same time.
With all this frustration in mind, it’s doubly frustrating that people my age seem to feel so helpless when their workplace is harmful to them. We feel like we can either suffer through the shifts or quit – and quitting is hardly even an option for many of us who rely on work for survival.
But isn’t there a third option? Just look at what’s been happening recently on the University of Regina campus and in our wider community. There have been major concerns from sessional lecturers as well as professors about the unfair lack of benefits and opportunities for permanent employment offered to sessionals. These are working conditions that leave staff at the U of R feeling helpless, and in response, the Faculty Association is in negotiations with the university and recently voted on a strike mandate.
On another front, the Co-op in Saskatoon is in the middle of their own strike. A tiered wage system introduced a disparity in pay, something the Co-op’s union would not tolerate, and now the Saskatoon store must pay attention. In yet another case, postal workers in Canada are striking over a variety of concerns. In all these cases, the problems the workers dealt with have grown to reach a much wider audience; it isn’t a burden they shoulder alone anymore.
Because so many of us know what underappreciated work is like in our own lives, I have to wonder why more of us don’t talk about unions. Workers’ organization has brought us things like the weekend and worker’s compensation that we still enjoy today, yet only the particularly labour-oriented of us tend to memorialize those contributions. When I surveyed a few friends in my own social circle, it also became apparent that it was only the particularly labour-minded who considered unionization an option in their workplace – the majority didn’t feel it was something they could participate in.
But shouldn’t workplace organization be an important issue for everyone, since labour is a part of life for everyone? I know that students of my age often feel that they are powerless to make meaningful change happen, through unions or any form of organization. During elections, many of us even ask ourselves if our votes matter. There is a kind of apathy, or helplessness, that comes with living in an age when things like corruption and climate change are so severe and threatening. I can understand then why we don’t think to turn to unions at work – maybe we think it’s just not enough, or maybe we look at the many myths and scare tactics surrounding unionizing and decide that unions are just corrupt and don’t work, anyway.
Even with all these discouraging factors, though, we can’t deny that the unions at work around our community now are making issues heard. We know about the problems in postal work, at the Co-op, and among sessionals, because unions have forced us to hear them. Most importantly, the bosses involved have been forced to negotiate. When workers come together and make a union, they make their concerns, which once seemed small, too big to ignore. Just because these unions are comprised of mostly adults older than us doesn’t mean we can’t form our own, even if we just entered the workforce. We need to affirm for ourselves that our labour, even if it doesn’t garner outside respect or a lot of compensation, is important and deserves to be respected. You know personally how hard you work, no matter what others might imply about the relative unimportance of your job.
There were far more protest songs about unions and workers’ rights in the past than there are today, but the need for organizing hasn’t disappeared. Don’t let your concern for social issues leave out the issue of labour, and don’t be drawn in by your bosses telling you that difficult working conditions are unavoidable or “just the way things are.” Instead, look around you at the struggles of workers today – postal workers of Canada, Co-op workers, and the workers at Amazon under Jeff Bezos being prime examples – and how they are able to call attention to and improve their circumstances by coming together. Bosses don’t like unions, they spread rumours and discourage unions, because they know unions work. They have already accomplished so much, and that work was done for your benefit too!
Think back to the last time you were treated badly at work, how it made you feel, and then imagine how things would have changed back then if you had a union to back you up, if it had been not just your problem but your coworkers’ and your boss’ as well. We should never have to deal with injustice in the workplace alone. As many of us are students just entering adulthood, we need to embrace unions as a means by which we secure a fair and safe job, or risk losing all that they offer us.