by Frank Walsh, project co-ordinator, shop steward network building project

What does it mean to be in a union?

Some people think that unions are no longer necessary, that they have outlived their usefulness. Well, I say unions are more important now than ever.

Union of Northern Workers president Todd Parsons wears a sign protesting job cuts at a rally outside the legislative assembly in 2017. NNSL photo

A unionized workplace gives people more advantages than those working in a non-unionized workplace. However, to realize those advantages signing a membership card is essential. A signed member has the right to attend meetings, become elected to office and take part in many other union activities.

Getting involved is not as difficult as you might think. The first step to getting involved with your union is to come out to a local meeting and simply listen to what is happening within your workplace. You can then take that information back to the workplace and share what you have learned with your coworkers. At this point you are well on your way to becoming an active member and maybe even a shop steward.

Being a shop steward is a very important role in the union. Shop stewards know their workplace like no other. They know the job, the workers, the risks at the jobsite and the employer. This is of utmost importance when dealing with workplace issues and providing representation to coworkers.

Executive members and leaders may be the face of the union but it is the frontline workers that are the foundation of the union. Shop stewards play a major role in building this foundation by educating members, providing representation and being leaders at the base.

It is important to bring workers together when we face struggles and need the strength of unity. Common goals often unify members and I would be remiss not to recognize the many struggles workers throughout the North are currently facing; thousands of workers without collective agreements; threats of job cuts and contracting out, just to name a few.

I have been involved in the labour movement for over 30 years. I have been a shop steward, a union local executive, a table officer; I have attended conventions and elected our leaders, been to conferences to expand my knowledge and with my past experiences, I can speak personally to the importance of getting involved. I am much better off with the knowledge I have gained. I am a benefit to my union, my coworkers and my employer.

Our collective agreements are what guide us in our day to day working lives, they provide us with direction on some simple and some maybe not so simple things, like our hours of work, how much we are paid, vacation leave, and overtime just to name a few. One of the best things a worker can do is know their collective agreement. Knowledge is power and your coworkers and workplace will be better off for it.

The union movement is alive and well, fueled by those who chose to be involved; however there is always room for more!


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