Voices of Women at the Summer Institute for Union Women
“We can’t do the work the way it should be done”
”They have taken the humanity out of our work”
“The employer comes to the table and says: You give us 5% or we will take 10%.”
“The employer says they have the money but because of public opinion they can’t give us improvements”
While some of these quotes sound very familiar to B.C workers, others are perhaps more reflective of the even more difficult political climate for American unions. These are the voices of women at workshop called “Bargaining in Today’s Economy” at the Summer Institute for Union Women held at at Sonoma State University from July 23 to 27th. The Institute gave Canadian and American women the opportunity to share the stories of our struggles and develop strategies to make our unions and our work in communities more effective.
A disturbing aspect of the bargaining discussions was the focus on concession bargaining and legal strategies to avoid impasse. In the U.S., if impasse is reached at the bargaining table the employer can impose their final offer. While there are conditions and sometimes time limits, it is an enormous obstacle to the unions’ right to bargain improvements for members.
In addition to the right to impose agreements, the employers have significant rights to bring in replacement workers, either temporarily or sometimes even permanently, if unions choose to exercise their right to strike. When B.C.’s anti-scab legislation was explained to our American sisters, they applauded, reminding us that while unions have been under similar and very significant attack in B. C. we have held on to some very important rights.
Labour law in the U.S. seems so heavily weighted in favour of employers. However, an advantage the American unions have is that governments do not impose agreements on unions through legislation.
Over two hundred women attended the Summer Institute, including over fifty from B.C. There were also a number of women from the transportation union in Turkey. In addition to bargaining, the core courses focused on leadership development, strategic campaigns, workers’ rights, and understanding economic issues and planning our response. Workshops covered a wide range of topics including using the arts to build the labour movement, corporate research, messaging, women in the trades and organizing domestic workers. Participants spent a very productive afternoon sharing strategies to organize the next generation, engaging young people in the labour movement and ensuring that the union movement grows and builds into the future.
The women at the institute also engaged in direct action by joining a rally and picket line at the Petaluma Sheraton. Unite Here local 2850 has been engaged in a contract dispute at the hotel since 2009. The main issue is successorship rights of the workers should the hotel be sold.
While the core training, workshops and panels were educational and informative, the most important benefit of the institute came from getting to know so many strong, committed, energetic, funny and dedicated union sisters. The final Friday session was filled with laughter, songs, skits, tears, hugs and solid determination to stay in touch and re-connect. It was an important reminder to us all of the importance of the relationships we build in our movement. If we are to make the changes we so desperately want to see in the world we have to work with each other across borders and remember that we are so much stronger together.