A Labour Day Message from President Hesse and Secretary Treasurer Stewart

On this Labour Day, we find ourselves reflecting on the fact that the world in which you work and the world in which you live are increasingly one and the same. The gap between work and life is an ever-narrowing one.

In 2007, Andrew Naber from Gettysburg College in Pittsburgh noted that, “the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime.” According to Naber, that adds up to one-third of our lives. In 2021, 14 years later, that number can only be higher.

In light of this realization, it is vital to acknowledge that unions can no longer simply be about your breaks, benefits, or even your wages, though those issues are, of course, still critical. Unions and the labour movement have a much more central role they must play in workers’ lives. And it is a role that we must embrace if we are to truly improve the world and our members’ lives.

But it is hard to think about the world when your world is a constant struggle.

It is hard to consider a bigger picture when all you can see is the pile of bills on the table that you are unsure of how you will pay. It is difficult to feel like you have a place in the world when your human rights are consistently up for debate and disrespected.

It is challenging to set the time aside to think about improving the world when it feels as though your own life is of little consequence in the grand scheme. Our vision can become scrambled, and even irrational conspiracy theories can become appealing.

These are the struggles facing workers. And it is here that unions have to learn to insert themselves as an avenue for solutions.

Racism is a troubling social dynamic that cannot be left to other groups to address. As noted by dynamic African American activist Angela Davis in a quote that marked 2020, unions cannot simply be “non-racist.” We must be “anti-racist”. We must challenge racism and the systemic racism in which we live within our workplaces, our own organizations, and within society as a whole.

We are called upon to acknowledge days like September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and challenge ourselves to find active ways in which we can confront the abhorrent legacy of Canada’s Residential School system, as well as the damage that current systems of discrimination continue to inflict upon Indigenous peoples and communities.

We cannot simply champion workers who struggle daily with sexism, homophobia, ableism, and discrimination of all kinds. We must stand beside our fellow workers and actively push with them to change the world in ways that eliminate the barriers to equity that undermine their lives and happiness.

We must challenge the unfairness at play when it comes to public health policy and demand that decision-makers do the right thing whether it is convenient or not. Too often over the course of this pandemic, we have seen a stark contrast in the rules and actions aimed at keeping people safe.

There have been one set of rules and actions to protect the privileged and the elite, and an entirely different set left to those in positions of vulnerability. For almost two years now, our union has fought against the prevailing notion that the essential nature of frontline workers’ jobs means that they can be subject to risks and consequences not faced by those privileged enough to work from home.

We have seen firsthand the grief, terror, and tragedy that these disparities create. And we know that staying silent on these issues is to be complicit in enabling their horrible outcomes.

We cannot stand by. We must act. We must fight.

We must understand that creating better workplaces is part of the process of creating a better world and that creating a better world necessitates creating better workplaces. They are, in fact, one and the same struggle.   

As major social institutions, unions have not just a responsibility but an imperative to understand the relationship between your working life and the world in which we live, and the many ways in which they are indistinguishable. UFCW Local 401 will work hard every day to negotiate contracts and enforce those contracts through the grievance procedure.

But in order to be relevant and in order to simply do the right thing, we must be about something more.

Even if you have an extraordinary union contract with superior wages and benefits, it might not matter if your neighborhood is facing devastating floods or fires. It might not matter if you lie awake worrying about your children’s future with the prospect of an uninhabitable Earth due to global warming.

Our motto is, “a voice for working Alberta.” That voice must be loud. It must be everywhere. And we must be a union that creates a place for you to have your voice and to be fully engaged.

This is the future of our movement. It is a future we are excited to embrace as we move toward the vision for a world that underlies and informs all of our values as trade unionists. In this confusing and difficult time, all of us are called upon to speak up.

We want a better workplace. We want a better world.