It's great to belong to a union. But what are you giving back?

Date: 
Sunday, January 08, 2012

ALMOST EVERY UNIONIZED TRADESPERSON can list all the advantages that come with union membership: benefits, pension, priority given to safety, training, mentorship and someone to watch your back. But have you given some thought to what you can give back to your union?

Sure, keeping your dues up to date helps the organization, but you have obligations and responsibilities in between as well.

“Union contracts are more expensive,” pointed out Mark Olsen, president of the BC Bargaining Council of Building Trades Unions. “We’re all selling a product. So do the best job, as safely as you can, every day.” But your involvement doesn’t stop there, he said. “We also need members to talk up the benefits of union membership. Don’t stay quiet about it.”

Some workers deliberately look for union work. Others become union members as a requirement of employment. There is so much misinformation circulating that many people have no idea what today’s unions do or how they function.

Members are the union. It’s such an obvious statement. But it comes as a shock to some members of the public that the head of the teachers’ union is a teacher, that the business manager of a trade union has worked on the tools and holds the top position because of being elected by co-workers.

Lee Loftus, president of the BC Building Trades Council, said there are many ways to help your union and “there’s not one piece that’s more important than another.” He said he’d like to see more members attending union meetings so that they can get involved in setting the course of the organization. “It’s crucial that it’s not just a core group of people that are making all the decisions.”

Union business goes way beyond negotiations and administering benefit and pension plans. “When you get a call to assist as a volunteer in a charitable way or in a demonstration, try to find the time to do that,” Loftus said. “It’s not a big deal and the payoff to you and the union is phenomenal.”

Jeremy Carlson, the youth rep for Insulators Local 118, has been working 12-hour shifts at Harmac Pulp Mill in Nanaimo for the past 14 days and was working in the North before that. “I’ve been away for a month and a half. It’s hard on me,” he admitted. He’s 28 and he and his girlfriend are expecting a baby in April. “But the union has given me so much,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt to give back. I make time,” he said.

His union has appointed him to the youth committees of the Canadian Labour Congress, the BC Federation of Labour and Vancouver and District Labour Council. He likes working at all three levels and he’s made good friends with the youth activists from the other unions. “You have these bright, intelligent people beside you— we’re almost fearless. We want to see advances. The ideas are so grand—it just makes you smile. You’re serving all the [local union] members and you get a sense of accomplishment.”

His commitment to union principles extends beyond his own union. If he sees workers from other unions walking a picket line, he always goes off to buy doughnuts and coffee. Although the money comes out of his own pocket, he hands them out saying, “These are courtesy of Insulators Local 118. “It’s just my thing,” he said. “My girlfriend used to say, ‘Are you stopping again?’ and I’d say ‘Yes I am.’ She doesn’t even ask anymore.”

Carlson said it would be good to have more building trade representatives on the youth committee of the Vancouver and District Labour Council. If you’d like to get involved, contact [email protected].

BC Building Trades

5 Ways to Support Your Union

  1. Be a good ambassador. Show up to work on time and ready to put in a good day’s work.
  2. Get involved. Learn about the issues by reading your union newsletters and attending union meetings and activities. Volunteer to help with events and campaigns. If you like to write, send letters to your MLA, MP, local council and local newspaper.
  3. Upgrade your skills. Take all the training and upgrading you can to make yourself more valuable and more employable.
  4. Talk up the union. During informal conversations in your workplace, community and with your friends and family, talk about what belonging to a union means and what unions do. Don’t let anyone get away with saying that unions are irrelevant without telling them to look around and see that unions are needed now more than ever.
  5. Help grow your union. Encourage your friends and family members to take training or join the union. Help in organizing campaigns.

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