No Dice

Fruitless adventures in service-sector organizing

By Chris Arsenault

September/October 2006

Ducking behind walls to avoid a suspicious hotel manager’s roving eye; flipping burgers and washing dishes in university cafeterias; sharing cigarettes with co-workers and trying to gauge when to drop the U-word; holding impromptu organizing meetings behind the dumpster out back—-I did all of these things while working as an organizer, and none of it got me any closer to that promised land of twenty-first century union organizing: the service sector. Simply put, the service sector is where the labour movement needs to be if it’s going to hold its ground in the face of corporate and government rollbacks. And we’re not making much headway.

The service sector—-baristas, walmart cashiers, call center representatives, and grocery baggers (as well as some high-wage consultants and computer programmers)—-now accounts for seventy percent of the Canadian workforce. Meanwhile, union density in Canada dipped below thirty percent of the paid labour force in 1999, for the first time in five decades. There is a correlation here.

Granted, the Canadian labour movement has weathered the ravages of corporate globalization, including outsourcing, privatization, deregulation, de-industrialization and the growth of small workplaces far better than its American counterpart: the unionization rate in the US was just 14.3 percent in 2003.

This is no time for Canuckistani back-slapping, however. We have our own vulnerabilities, the largest of which has to be the public/private unionization divide. The public sector unionization rate in 2003 in Canada was 75.3 percent, compared with 19.9 percent in the private sector. If the movement can’t break into the service sector, then public sector workers are vulnerable to ideological attacks from groups like the Fraser Institute alleging that under-worked, over-paid, strike-happy unionized public employees are out of step with normal labour relations.

According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, public sector workers are paid, on average, 15.1 percent more than their private sector counterparts. If unions in the private sector can’t close this gap by lifting all boats, then it’s only a matter of time until Canadian public sector unions are smashed in British Thatcherite style.

If unions in the private sector can’t close this gap, then it’s only a matter of time until Canadian public sector unions are smashed in British Thatcherite style.

“I don’t know how we�re going to get these guys to sign cards,” said John St. Ammand, a baseball cap-wearing old-school organizer with the Nova Scotia Union of Public and Private Employees (NSUPE) as we contemplated a call center campaign over coffee. “One of our inside guys got a staff list, but two months later more than half the people had left.�

Individual career prospects, not collective struggle, seem to define the labour ethos for this generation. If you’ve got a lousy job, the refrain goes, it’s your own fault. Find a better one. To paraphrase that post-modern Everyman, Homer Simpson, “If you don’t like your job, you don’t unionize, you just go in every day and do it really half-assed.”

My own (admittedly limited) experiences with union organizing bear out these observations. Upon getting hired by the Canadian Confederation of Unions (CCU), “a scrappy little union centre,” as labour historian Craig Heron has dubbed it, I walked into the office of Ron Stockton, a labour lawyer and de facto director of organizing for NSUPE, a 1200-member CCU affiliate based in Nova Scotia.

(Aside number one: “Getting hired” is a bit of a misnomer. They were paying me 500 bucks a month for twenty-five hours of work per week. Still, in a political climate where many unions are wary of hiring organizers, especially known shit-disturbers with no formal experience like me, it was a sweet gig.)

(Aside number two: “Walking” is the wrong word to describe how one enters Ron Stockton’s office. Bobbing, weaving, and lily-pad leaping are more appropriate verbs, as a plethora of papers (open files, old grievances, invoices and collective agreements) occupy every inch of floor space like sprawled out auto workers in the Flint sit-down strike.

Ron, with his white beard and his red politics, called the shots. I wanted to take a stab at Friday’s, a chain restaurant with thirty-some employees, where a bunch of old high-school buddies of mine were washing dishes and grilling steaks.

“We’d never be able to finance it,” Ron said emphatically. “With thirty employees making nine dollars an hour, we’d go broke on legal fees trying to get them a contract. More importantly, it sounds like none of these kids have any long-term stake in this.”

He was probably right on both counts.

The roots of this problem run deep. The “new deal,” or the “post-war compromise,” or whatever one wants to call the epoch between the Second World War and the 1970s, fundamentally changed how unions operate. Struggle was bureaucratized. Hope was put in the hands of leadership who negotiated with the help of lawyers and professional researchers. Legal structures replaced grassroots political power.

As a result of this professionalization and bureaucratization, writes Alex Levant, �union leaders no longer had to rely on inspiring and mobilizing workers in order to settle disputes with employers, but could focus almost exclusively on navigating the legalese of labour relations. […] The battle shifted from the workplace to the arbitration hearing� (“The Unrealized Power of the Working Class,” Briarpatch, September/October 2005).

In a sense, of course, this was a positive development. No one besides bored commie historians and frustrated anarchists who fetishize violent confrontation is particularly excited by the idea of striking workers being shot at or having their faces smashed by police billy clubs.

And after spending the last couple of weeks on assignment in Colombia, interviewing union leaders who stare down death on a daily basis, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for the slow, boring, imperfect legal structures and protections the Canadian labour movement has won through struggle.

Nevertheless, the epoch that initially spawned legalistic union recognition, the labour relations board, and grievance procedures is long dead. The labour movement is on the defensive, and the service sector is a lean, mean business. The old methods of organizing are simply too expensive for any union to make major inroads and win serious victories.

“What is this union shit?” exclaimed a long-time friend when he received his first pay cheque from a unionized Safe-Way in Alberta. His cheque was for thirty-some dollars. The United Food and Commerical Workers Union (UFCW) had taken twelve for dues. My friend was never welcomed to the union by a shop steward.

I mentioned my friend’s experience to a UFCW organizer when we were sharing a panel at a conference in Toronto last year. “If we strike for higher wages every contract, we’ll go broke” the man replied with a helpless shrug. “We know wages in many of our grocery stores aren’t better than non-union stores, but what can we do?”

If that’s the final word, then it’s little wonder if my friend sees the union as just another hand in the pocket of the working poor.

“How did you get this number? You have no right to call me at home,” screamed one employee who had spent seven months on a Greenpeace boat protesting something or other.

Back in NSUPE’s office, Ron and I finally decided to launch a drive at Planet Organic Inc., which describes itself as “the largest chain of natural food supermarkets in Canada.” The once-family-owned grocery store had recently been bought out by a decidedly unnatural corporate holding company that changed the workers’ dress code, forced the seven-dollars-an-hour employees to up-sell expensive nutrisuticals to the yuppy clientele, and fired the vitamin manager who had been working there for a decade, allegedly without just cause.

At first I worked the phones, looking for an inside contact. The first person to sign a card was a friend of a friend who booked all-ages punk rock shows when she wasn’t stocking shelves with free-range mayonnaise. She said she’d talk to some other employees, but if might be good if I passed out some leaflets in clandestine fashion. I waited outside the store at 6 pm sharp every day for the next week, passing propaganda and gathering phone numbers from workers, many of whom seemed perplexed to the intentions of the strange man giving them pieces of paper on their way home from work.

Eventually we organized a meeting in a coffee shop near the store. Four of the five workers in attendance signed cards and one of them promised to steal a staff list. The majority of the workers at the meeting were vegans, who seemed a little concerned when Ron Stockton offered to hold the next encounter over pizza. Suddenly the troublemaker in me wanted to win the place twice as badly, just to watch the heavily pierced vegan grocery clerks sit through meetings with the mustached tough guys from the Atlantic Meat-Packers Union with whom we were affiliated.

Three days later I got the staff list. And what a list it was—-the comrade who obtained it rated each employee from one to ten based on the likeliness to join.

But when I started working the phones I experienced what firefighters call blowback.

“How did you get this number? You have no right to call me at home,” screamed one employee who had spent seven months on a Greenpeace boat protesting something or other. She had received a rating of nine for unionizablility. You can imagine the response from those who were rated below five.

I told some of my co-workers about what happened. “I’ve never heard of anything that severe happening,” said John St. Ammand, a twenty-year organizing veteran.

Matters only got worse after the phone fiasco. It turns out a Planet Organic employee who wasn’t attending the organizing meeting had seen us at the coffee shop, and soon informed the management about the meeting.

One dread-locked manager then turned to some age-old scare tactics. She cornered one of the people who was at the meeting. “I know you signed a card and I know you stole the phone list,” she barked. He just shook his head. The drive was officially dead.

In labour’s heyday, the “noble-toiler” probably saw herself as such. Today, though, identity has far less to do with one’s livelihood. Many Planet Organic employees thought they were “just passing through” the low-wage world. And with many post-secondary students in their ranks, the sentiment wasn’t unreasonable.

They were vegans, punks, environmentalists, artists, party animals, film aficionados, pot smokers and guitarists more than they were workers. Of course, they were workers too. But when it comes to whether the union’s inspiration shall—-or shan’t—-run through the workers’ blood, self-perception is more real than reality.

In an era in which image overwhelms action, and pop culture plays a large role in shaping perceptions, labour takes it on the chin again and again. According to 2005 Ipsos Reid polling data, thirty-one percent of Canadians distrust union leaders. Granted, they fare better than politicians, lawyers and CEOs, but that’s hardly a remarkable sign of public confidence. And with nary an ally in the corporate media, and few opportunities for face-to-face contact, that’s quite a hurdle to overcome.

If anything could raise the ire of under-paid, overly exploited service sector workers, it would be this sort of rampant inequality—-or so we thought.

After the Planet Organic fiasco, we spent several fruitless months working on hotels before giving that up too. Feeling dejected and perusing the help wanted ads, I noticed Aramark Inc, who provide food services at universities in Halifax, was hiring cooks. I made a call, and soon found myself the newest member of the Aramark kitchen staff, grilling hamburgers and roasting greasy chickens for the kids in residence.

At Dalhousie University, the company employs more than 200 workers, most making eight dollars an hour, with a whopping sixteen cent raise for every year worked.

Aramark’s CEO Joseph Neubauer is worth $620 million US. If anything could raise the ire of under-paid, overly exploited service sector workers, it would be this sort of rampant inequality—-or so we thought.

After getting to know my co-workers for a couple of weeks, one day over lunch I decided to bring up the idea of organizing a union—-when the managers weren’t around, of course. The people I was eating with, another cook and two dishwashers, were receptive to the idea at first. “Why wouldn’t we join?” asked one of the dishwashers, who was also a part-time student.

This was a response I figured would have come more frequently. According to Statistics Canada, “In 2002, unionized employees working full time earned an average of $21.01 an hour, and $17.74 an hour for part-time workers. Non-unionized full-time workers earned roughly $17.71 an hour and $10.71 for part timers.”

Given this discrepancy, one would assume that rational self-interest, if nothing else, would lead service sector workers to sign up by the bus load.

But as the discussion with my Aramark workers wore on, some concerns started popping up.

“I heard the kitchen staff at one of the other universities are unionized and it didn’t help them at all,” said a young man from Cape Breton, who had gone $20,000 into debt to get his cooking certificate. Others in the group nodded in agreement.

“If we unionize, I bet it will be harder to get free food and take dinner home,” said one dishwasher. “Management will be breathing down our necks. I’d like more money, but the whole thing seems like a hassle,” he said between bites of chicken pot pie.

“I remember they tried this a few years back,” said the other dishwasher, a single mother who took the bus to work every morning at 5 am and then went straight to her second job, cleaning the houses of college boys, once her shift at Aramark ended. “I think a bunch of people got fired and it was a real disaster.”

Unions often argue that service sector workers don’t organize because they’re scared of repercussions from management. Fear is invariably an important factor. But when unions were first being built, there should have been far more fear among workers than there is today. Why is there such reluctance now to go out on a limb for the greater good?

It seemed like we’d reached a temporary impasse, but the other Aramark workers agreed I should look into options for organizing a union. I didn’t tell anyone that was my whole point in being there.

A couple of days later I passed out some union leaflets while we were having a smoke break—-off company time and company property. Less than an hour later, I walked past the manager’s office. One of the leaflets was sitting on his desk.

I later found out that my colleague the single mother had turned me in. I was demoted to the dish-pit and had my hours cut substantially. When crabs are dumped in a bucket, they spend more time pinching each other than trying to get out through collective struggle. These dynamics aren’t ahistorical: there have always been workers willing to turn their colleagues over to management in the hopes of scoring a promotion and better treatment.

We took one final stab at Aramark, pulling two union members from our janitors’ local off work to help leaflet. We organized a meeting and no one came. A drive like Aramark is built on perseverance, and failure is an ever-present possibility. But we didn’t have time or money for more failures. The union got tired of paying the wages for the two brothers we had pulled off work. And my contract expired.

When crabs are dumped in a bucket, they spend more time pinching each other than trying to get out.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing especially unique about this tale. Most of the big unions simply are not putting significant time and money into organizing new workers—-certainly not enough to reverse the industry trends. A 2003 Human Resources Development Canada study revealed that only fifteen percent of union staff are involved in organizing. On average, unions only put 6.8 percent of their resources into organizing. And less than half of unions surveyed had someone with the overall responsibility of organizing (David Kidd, “State of the Unions 2005,” Canadian Dimension, May/June 2005).

It is difficult to organize without organizers. Legally (and thus financially), organizing is risky business. Most drives fail. And even success means negotiating a first contract—-another major expense. When a small union like the one I was working for squares off against a multi-national like Aramark, the under-dog often doesn’t come out on top.

Still, with all our failures as a movement and the economic changes wrought in the last thirty years, one basic fact remains constant. All wealth is, was, and forever shall be derived from labour. As Adam Smith notes, “It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.” Our labour remains our most coveted commodity—-and our most powerful weapon.

De-industrialization, “free”trade and other attacks from the elites, contradictions and divisions within the house of labour itself, and a lack of resources for organizers are responsible for the declining power of the union movement—and only a major infusion of new blood can reverse these trends.

If labour is to gain any ground in the struggle against neo-liberalism, then we’d better get organized—-and organizing.

Chris Arsenault is a Halifax-based freelance writer.

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