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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    Get wise – unionize!         

    Labour Day 2003 editorial

    George Heyman, President, BCGEU

    Poor working conditions, low wages, and long work days convinced many workers to begin forming unions, over a century ago.

    A lot of people in business think unions are a thing of the past. However, there is renewed interest in unionizing today. Many British Columbians are organizing against abusive working conditions. 

    The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union has signed up close to 4,000 new members in the past five years. The BCGEU’s recent organizing drives include casinos, home support agencies, and call centres.  Workers seeking to gain respect and fair treatment in their workplaces are contacting other unions, as well. 

    Call centres – organizing on the new assembly lines

    In the blunt words of one B.C. tele-centre worker, her workplace is an “electronic sweatshop.” 

    The average time a call centre employee stays on the job is just three months. Alexander Abbabio has survived longer than most. He’s worked for a call centre in B.C. for 11 months. But he says he’s received no vacation time, and was recently denied days off to attend his college graduation ceremony.

    Alexander cites lack of holiday time as just one of the many reasons why he wants the BCGEU to unionize his workplace. He’s also tired of his employer’s broken promises to increase wages, to pay commission that’s due, or to make promotions based on merit.

    “The management tells you that you are going to get a commission if you sell a certain amount, but at the end of the month – you don’t get it. They change the rules to suit them,” Alexander says.

    “I was due to receive $650 in commission recently, because of my high sales record. But then I was told I wouldn’t get the commission because I hadn’t followed the telephone script exactly in one phone call out of 400.”

    Alexander, who is originally from Ghana, says the main reason he wants to unionize is because of the way he sees new immigrant workers treated in his workplace. Many of his co-workers were doctors, engineers, or professional managers in their home countries such as India or Taiwan.

    “Now we have high school students promoted over us as supervisors who yell ‘Sell! Sell! Sell’ in our ears all day,” he says.

    “If you get a high quality score for performance one day, you get a balloon. I told them never to bring me a balloon or a chocolate bar. I feel it’s disrespectful and degrading.”

    As call centre workers who choose to organize often discover, union-busting is big business. Rather than pay for fair wages and benefits for their workers, many employers choose instead to spend massive amounts of money in attempts to prevent unionization.

    Since the BCGEU launched its organizing drive at Alexander’s workplace, the company has flown in managers from American offices who sit next to individual workers daily and lecture them about why they shouldn’t join the union. At times, negative messages about unions have been flashed on a special screen set up in the middle of the call centre.

    But many of the call centre workers say they won’t be deterred in their drive to unionize.

    Home support workers faced with re-organizing

    TheCampbell government appears to be doing all it can to de-unionize entire sectors, such as home support.

    Flora Watson works a shift scheduler for a home support agency. She’s been a BCGEU member for nine years.

    The BCGEU represents 300 members at Flora’s agency. Premier Campbell’s cuts to funding and his contract-breaking Bill 29 have resulted in 65 of Flora’s co-workers being laid off in recent months. They’re just some of the close to 9,000 health workers who are losing their jobs in the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. Their few options include taking non-union health care jobs at much lower wages.

    Like other workers in the health care sector, home support workers need union support to help deal with the stress and workload issues they face daily on the job.  Flora says the downsizing means, “Today, I work for two people”. But, she notes she has some recourse, under her collective agreement: “Workload is an issue that I will be raising in our upcoming round of bargaining.”

    Flora points out that her former co-workers who are forced to take lower-paying jobs at privatized home support agencies will soon be looking to unionize their new workplaces, to improve their wages and working conditions.

    Organizing for our future

    Unions are good for workers and good for economies.

    That conclusion comes from a surprising source: the World Bank. It issued a report earlier this year that found high unionization rates can lead to lower unemployment and inflation rates, higher productivity, and faster adjustment to economic shocks.

    The study also found that union participation can reduce wage gaps between skilled and unskilled workers, and between women and men.

    Wherever unionized workers make up the majority of the workforce, wages and working conditions are better, there are more social services, there is less poverty, and the standard of living is higher. As workers in countries such as Canada, Germany, and Sweden know – it’s wise to unionize.



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