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CUPE: Make 2014 the Year of the Organizer

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CUPE declared 2013 the Year of the Young Worker. There were campaigns, new graphics and special conferences that brought together young workers to identify how the labour movement can better support them.

By the time the national convention gathered in Québec City this past October, it was clear that the Year of the Young Worker hadn't produced concrete solutions to organize young workers for debate at convention.  

The Year of the Young Worker ended at the same time that news broke that the largest public sector union was dropping an organizing drive among residence workers at Carleton University.

The result has been widespread condemnation and speculation over whether or not this decision came from President Paul Moist himself. CUPE has yet to explain, though their decision to stop an organizing drive is, unfortunately, more common in the labour movement than it should be.

The future of the labour movement hinges on how unions approach young workers, both organized and unorganized. Employers have figured out how to circumvent unions and young workers have born the brunt of this. Bosses have created new tiers of worker, new kinds of contracts and new classifications of management all meant to break bargaining units, pit one bargaining unit against another and make it close to impossible to organize new forms of worker using the current structures.

Unions have not kept pace with these changes.

Young and precarious workers are difficult to organize because management and bosses know the limitations of unions and exploit these limitations, often leaving unionists left to fight each other over the crumbs that have fallen from their table. With deep divisions within the labour movement, especially among young and old workers, these tactics have proven to be effective ways to stop organizing drives.

University campuses are ground zero for the attack against young, precarious workers. With record-high tuition fees and living costs, the stakes for on-campus employment have never been so high. Combine this with chronic underfunding of the system, university administrators are finding new ways to squeeze money wherever they can. The combination of the two has meant even worse working conditions and even more precarity.

Labour, as a whole, has yet to figure out how to best address the problems that these conditions have created.

Consider the fact that part-time college workers in Ontario remain un-unionized, despite having won the legal battle to unionize in 2008. OPSEU has publicly shamed the Ontario government for refusing to open ballot boxes containing the votes of 9,400 part-time college workers after a judge dismissed their application for certification. It's been an expensive and frustrating campaign that hundreds have worked on for decades and victory still seems elusive. In the meantime, Ontario colleges have exploited their status and run programs off the backs of part-time college sessionals.

For union activists who want to target young workers, these conditions should be seen as having created a great opportunity to expand union density on campus. However, like in the college sector, organizing these workers has not been easy. As universities have tried to declassify workers from being "workers" (or gutted bargaining units by declaring workers to be managers), many workers have fallen through the cracks.

The case of the residence fellows at Carleton University illustrates these problems perfectly. According to folks involved in the organizing drive, CUPE National kyboshed it after having given conditional approval for a drive to take place (conditional on what remains un-reported). Once organizing had started and after cards had been collected, CUPE National said they wouldn't represent these workers. The reason given, as reported by rabble.ca, was this: "The relationship between these students and the University is not an employer-employee relationship that can be governed by a collective agreement."

Organizing a group of workers like residence fellows raises a host of technical questions: How do we define workers? If a worker receives compensation through room and board, how would they pay membership dues? Should unions always try to use the traditional union model for workers whose status should be, but isn't necessarily, a traditional employee-employer relationship? When should the union fight for employee status? When is fighting for worker status through the courts, and potentially losing (and setting precedent for residence workers at colleges and universities across Canada), worth the gamble? Can CUPE justify the legal costs to fight for this?

Once unionized, how would a group of people who work for seven months and then leave, be represented? How could workers have their demands met if they work as an RA in a year where there’s no bargaining? How would the administration be prevented from waiting out one group to ignore their demands? And, for a group of people whose work- and home-life is intertwined, would the normal structures of a union satisfy the demand for more fairness in their workplaces, or are there other issues that the normal union structure couldn’t contemplate or handle?

Should CUPE consider creating a new kind of representation, like Unifor's community chapters, to meet the needs of non-traditional workers that the current structures aren't structured to meet?

Do workers deserve union representation regardless of the answers to these questions?

The answer is yes, but it's a complicated yes and I suspect that these questions made CUPE representatives kybosh the drive. CUPE has finite resources and the answers to many of these questions are expensive and resource-intensive. But if the labour movement has any chance in remaining relevant for young workers, it has to confront these questions.

If management has created these kinds of hurdles to stop organizing, clearly, it's time to organize in new ways.

But, finding the answers has to go beyond conferences and declarations. Young workers, like all workers, need the labour movement to invest in organizing: organizers, lawyers and campaigners who understand each of CUPE's sectors. Through working at the grassroots, creative options will emerge that will make it easier for unions like CUPE to take on organizing workers that are difficult to organize.

Through a concerted and coherent effort to organize, CUPE could not just figure out how to get around the complicated issues that arise when organizing temporary, short-term or non-traditional workers, but they could leverage the strength they have within the sector to force widespread change. They could find ways to represent residence workers not just at Carleton, but at other residences too. Maybe it would look like a traditional union, but maybe it wouldn't.

Regardless of what the best way forward is, there's no question: CUPE screwed up and owes it to the Carleton workers to continue to work with them to improve their jobs. But it also owes it to all young workers to put the rhetoric into action. To walk away now would be a huge blow to the credibility of the union in the eyes of young workers. 

It's time to get those organizers to campus and work through these issues, before cards are signed. 

How about making 2014 the year of the organizer?

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