THERE ARE SOME OUT THERE WHO accuse the younger generation of being self-absorbed and living a life of entitlement.
That myth dissolves when you meet young union workers like Jeremy Carlson, 29, from Insulators Local 118; Stephen Von Sychowski, 27, from the Canadian Office and Professional Employees; Devin Gillan, age 25, from the plumbers’ union and dozens of others involved with the young worker committees (YWCs) of the BC Federation of Labour and Vancouver and District Labour Council.
Their pluck, courage and quest for justice are being channeled into campaigns like the Employee Action and Rights Network (EARN), protecting Grant’s Law, raising the $8/hour server wage, strengthening the Employment Standards Act and assisting individual non-union workers who’ve been mistreated by their employers. Von Sychowski said they were involved in 120 cases last year. “We’re always looking for more opportunities,” he said.
Carlson, who was working for several weeks in Fraser Lake at the Endako Mine site, said that having to follow construction work out of town makes it difficult to keep up with his union advocacy work. He’s been visiting high schools, mostly on Vancouver Island and in Metro Vancouver, giving 30- to 90-minute presentations to Grade 10 students about their rights as workers. The students appreciate having someone who will listen to what their lives are like in the service industry. “They get taken advantage of all the time,” Carlson said. If a story seems serious, he investigates it.
He tells students that if they’re told, during the job interview, that they’ll be working with a deep fat fryer, they can ask, “What happens if I get hurt?” and “Where is the first aid kit?”
Carlson and other YWC members have also conducted surveys of the general public to raise awareness about the minimum wage, workplace safety and employment standards.
Gillan, who serves on both committees, assisted with the polling. “A lot of people had misinformation or no idea,” he said. Gillan also appears and worked on a couple of humourous videos produced by members of the labour council committee. You can see them on YouTube: The Trickle Down Effect and Meet the Corporate Payday Mr & Mrs Canuck.
Von Sychowski said the BC Fed’s committee has a core of 20 members who are appointed by their respective unions. But the network is much larger. The labour council’s committee is open to any young worker. The two groups often collaborate on initiatives.
Many members are involved with BC Fed’s EARN which attempts to unite non-union workers and provide them with support.
A couple of years ago, YWC members jumped to action when they learned that the owner of a gelato shop on Commercial Drive had laid off the majority of his workers without notice and without severance because business was slow.
The only option available to the former employees was the Employment Standard Branch’s multi-page and complicated self-help kit. “It’s an awful process and puts workers at risk of intimidation,” said Von Sychowski. So the YWC members drew public attention to the problem by setting up information pickets at the owner’s four other shops. The tactic worked. “A couple of days later the owner called and asked, ‘What do I have to do to get rid of you.’” He agreed to pay the proper severance and the protest ended, said Von Sychowsky.
The YWCs were also integral in the success of the push to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. “Massive energy went into that campaign with rallies and petitions,” he said. “We had partial victories. We got rid of the [$6 an hour] training wage. But now we have the server’s wage [still languishing at $8 an hour].
“We have a slew of things to campaign on, but this really resonates. Most people agree that it’s unfair. There’s public support for [raising] it.”
The committees are also behind the campaign to improve safety for workers who are working alone at night.
Grant’s Law was brought in after 24- year-old Grant DePatie, from Maple Ridge, was dragged to his death when a young driver raced off from the gas station without paying.
Steady and concerted pressure from the family, labour organizations and community activists finally resulted in the government bringing in safety regulations to protect employees working by themselves. However, convenience store owners and private liquor stores are now asking for the regulations to be watered down. They want to remove the requirement of having a minimum of two workers on duty or a protective barrier. They’re asking for a cheaper and less effective solution: panic buttons and surveillance cameras.
“It’s really sad,” said Von Sychowski, “but we don’t consider the fight over.”
The committee members develop their networks and learn about the issues at annual retreats at Camp Jubilee. Last year, they reached capacity with 120 participants, he said. Gillian said it’s something he always looks forward to.
Carlson, said he’s looking for a successor, not only because he’s approaching 30, but because he and his wife are expecting a baby in April. But it won’t stop his union activism. He said he never lets an opportunity for educating someone pass him by. “You do it in the name of your union. It makes you feel better, like you’ve given something back.”
And he added, “If we had unity among all young [union and unorganized] workers, we’d be a force to be reckoned with.”