Unions need to get to school, and soon
Students are not being taught the relevance of unions in their classes
Pop quiz: Can you name three workplace benefits won by Canadian unions in the past century? What are some of the biggest labour organizations in Canada? What is the Rand formula?
As a Briarpatch reader, chances are you’re able to answer questions like these. But if you’re an average Canadian high school student, that’s likely not the case.
When young people enter the workforce for the first time, they generally know little about the organizations that fought for such benefits as maternity leave, paid vacation time, workers’ compensation, and the weekend. And yet, about 30 per cent of them will become union members, according to current figures on union density in Canada (a number that has been dropping steadily from a high of 38 per cent in the 1980s).
These young workers – and their non-unionized counterparts – should know the basic facts about unions: that they lead to higher wages, better working conditions, and more job security. However, given the relentless, effective, and ongoing right-wing assault on unions in recent decades, they might well be more inclined to view unions with indifference, or even suspicion.
Here’s where unions themselves have a role to play. As the only major organizations with the resources and self-interest to make it happen, labour organizations can develop large-scale educational programs for high schools to help teach young people about the role of unions in society, and to put a human face on organized labour. The programs could be geared toward relevant classes such as history, trades, and business.
I recently invited the president of our local labour council to speak to my students about sweatshops in the Global South. The reaction of the students indicated they’d never made the connection between humane working conditions and organized labour.
Several examples exist of regional labour organizations taking relatively small steps into public schools. The Toronto and York Region Labour Council recently developed a presentation aimed at high school classes called “How Have Unions Helped Us?” (available for viewing online). Both Quebec’s and B.C.’s labour federations have well-developed youth education programs dealing with worker rights as well as health and safety. And labour-affiliated workplace safety programs exist in all three Prairie provinces.
Individual unions have also joined the game. The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada runs a program called “Democracy @ Work,” which the union estimates has reached more than 10,000 students since 2001. The Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) has also run a variety of school-based labour education programs, which at one point reached 125,000 students across Canada each year according to CAW’s national coordinator of health, safety, and environment, Ken Bondy.
To put those numbers in perspective, consider that there are about 700,000 high school students in Ontario alone. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of Canadian students are graduating without any first-hand interactions with organized labour.
Some within the labour movement argue that unions are the wrong organizations to be taking the lead on labour education in public schools. Dr. Alan Hall, director of labour studies at the University of Windsor, runs a program where students in his department deliver presentations on labour laws and workers’ rights to local high-school classes. Hall says the program has become so popular that he no longer needs to promote it. He attributes its success partly to the fact that it doesn’t come from unions directly. “A lot of teachers just aren’t interested in bringing the unions in,” says Hall.
Indeed, unions are certainly sensitive to charges of being “too political” in classroom presentations. “We don’t want to go into schools and tell people who the best party is for them,” says Bondy of CAW. Similarly, the Quebec Federation of Labour’s guidelines for classroom presenters warns against the “self-promotion” of unions in the classroom.
It’s worth noting, however, that business-friendly entrepreneurship programs like Junior Achievement (JA), sponsored by a who’s who of corporate giants, are routinely welcomed into classrooms without a whisper of protest – this despite the fact that students are many times more likely to make a living as a waged or salaried worker than as a business owner.
“There certainly is a need to counter all the anti-union stuff that [students] tend to hear,” says Hall. “High-school curriculums don’t really address labour history in a meaningful way.”
And it’s hard to imagine who else but unions themselves would have the resources and the organizational depth necessary to take on an educational campaign of the scope needed to counter pervasive anti-union sentiment in the corporate media.
However it chooses to do it, labour needs to get its message into schools – and soon.
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All teachers are unionized and if they aren’t teaching the benefits of being in one then perhaps thats a statement that maybe unions are from a time in the past and no longer have the same relevance in the work place. Although as a result of being in a union teachers get more paid days off than any worker out there , making 70 – 80 K a year with three months of vacation and a healthy pension is a very nice way to live. So when the union whines and make the kids suffer because we need to roll back some of their perks I have no sympathy.
Lets not fool ourselves here Unions drive up the cost of goods and services by the high costs they make employers carry, they reduce productivity by allowing non productive/cooperative employees to stay employed.. just look at the service you get in just about any government office. There was a time and a place for unions but it has come and gone. We have lost thousands of jobs to China and other Asian countries because the unions have made it impossible for manufacturers to compete on any level. None of our flags say “Union Made in Canada” they say “Made in China”. Wake up folks; when a TTC ticket collector can make more than 100K in a year thats when you know something is wrong in union land… seriously 100K to have a High School diploma and sit on your butt all day ?? No wonder our country is in such rough shape
From John in Toronto on Nov 15th, 2012 at 9:56pm
John from Toronto wrote:
“There was a time and a place for unions but it has come and gone. We have lost thousands of jobs to China and other Asian countries because the unions have made it impossible for manufacturers to compete on any level. None of our flags say “Union Made in Canada” they say “Made in China”’
We’ve lost those jobs to China because that country allows sweatshops and child labour. Would it be better if Canada allowed these things so that we could “compete”? Add to that employer greed, which has caused the loss of manufacturing jobs on the backs of children and workers in countries like China and India.
The grade seven curriculum in Saskatchewan used to direct teachers to teach students about co-ops like the Wheat Board. With the dismantling of that, I guess the government can remove that from the curriculum. Which brings me to another point, as long as we have a right-winged anti-union government, the curriculum which is set by the government, will always have a lack anything to do with co-ops, unions, and other matters the government wants to abolish. Teachers not teaching about unions is more a reflection of them following the curriculum set by the government of the day.
When I had grade 5 and 6 students talking about how much they hated Michael Ignatiuf because he was just “passing through” Canada, and “he didn’t come back for you”, I tried to have a discussion with them about attack adds. I had such a backlash from the right-wing, anti-union, pro-Harper parents, that it wasn’t even worth it. Parents don’t want teachers filling their kids’ heads with information that contradicts their own beliefs about unions, politics, the environment, and social justice. It’s a very fine line that teachers have to walk.
Further, I once taught with a man who had no business being a teacher. He was lazy, incompetent, and terrible with children. Why he had a job was a mystery to me. Everyone in our building knew he should be fired. I don’t think the teacher union ever once had to defend him either. Not once did a superintendent come and supervise him and do the documenting and paper work that was required to make the point that he was unfit for the job. NOT ONCE. That speaks to the problem on the management side, not the union side. I’ve had many children and their parents think that I was a wonderful teacher for their child. I’ve also had the occasional parent that disliked me, and even went to the principal over me. Thankfully we can’t be fired because of the ranting and raving of one disgruntled parent. We have a union to thank for that.
So John from Toronto, I have to disagree with your simplistic view of teachers not teaching about unions as being a sign that unions have lost their relevance. We live in an age of misinformation and ignorance, which is what this article points out. If children only ever hear your side of the union story, what are they to think? Exactly what you’ve told them, unless someone balances your side with a few facts and logic.
Have a great weekend John – it was brought to you by a union.
From Jen in Saskatoon on Nov 18th, 2012 at 6:34am