by Wendy Forrest
It is difficult to instill a sense of entitlement among nurses and teachers.One of the most difficult challenges of a union steward in the public sector these days is to encourage and promote awareness of the value of our work - to help them achieve a sense of entitlement.
At work I talk a lot everyday about the attacks on public sector workers. I try to get them to see the erosion of our rights as workers and how attacks on us, our wages, benefits and likely soon our pensions is connected to the undermining and theft of our public services such publicly funded and administered health care and education.
There are many days when I leave work tired of my own voice and wonder if a word I have said has sunk in. I wonder if I have been the least bit effective in exploiting the constant opportunities to help my coworkers see that what is happening to them is not incidental but is part of a deliberate well orchestrated attack, local and global , on us as workers.
I do not overuse the term austerity. I try to get as close to the bone of what is actually happening in the moment to us as workers and draw out a few implications for folks.
Nurses often resist understanding themselves as "workers." Most prefer to use the term colleague or employee. It is one of the challenges of working as a so-called “professional “ to constantly challenge language we use , to deconstruct and challenge the ways we see ourselves and the work we do.
I especially worry about younger nurses starting out. In Ontario most nurses in hospitals are unionized. As a result they have no idea what it was like to work without a union. So I tell them. Some days it seems important to tell them a little bit of history of our union. I may just mention to them how the rights and protections we have were not always there. I recount anecdotes about working in a non union hospital decades ago. I tell them about being forced to work for 10 days in a row without a day off-about having to work double and extra shifts without overtime pay and leaving work at midnight and having to show up again at 8 am with no choice and no overtime pay. I try to take every opportunity, heed sighs of frustration, fatigue, signs of too much stress and to bolstering the anger I see and hear when workloads seem overwhelming, when our safety is at risk, when we are harassed regarding “overuse of sick time”. It is a constant activity to deconstruct the language used by the employers, terms like “attendance management” reminding them that no matter what we are told it is our collective agreement that determines our rights.
Sometimes it feels like an intricate dance, stressing the importance of our union and at the same time emphasizing the need to challenge the leadership of our union and all public sector unions to fight for us more aggressively. I have never been a good dancer and often chastise myself for being too clumsy in the way I do this. I remind myself that the task is to not to act like a blunt instrument , like a baseball bat rather like a delicate scalpel to expose the lies we have internalized , the myths about ourselves as workers and our work as an essential social function.
It is absurd that many days I must remind new nurses to claim their overtime, to take their lunch and supper breaks.
I talk to them as well about the realities of working in a female dominated profession-and to claim their right to “care” without letting the caring nature of our work be used against us as a source of exploitation.
It astounds me how uncomfortable most nurses are with the words labour and worker. Most “professionals” do not want to see themselves as “workers.” They resist, as if it is an insult to be seen as having the same class interests as a city worker or a bus driver. It takes a lot of imagination to construct analogies that help them see differently. I often tell them about the “professionalism” exhibited moment by moment by the transit driver who every day takes abuse from the public, who is verbally and physically assaulted at work yet continues to maintain his “professional” behaviour and to keep her passengers safe.
I ask them who is more important to us in the midst of a power failure and tell them the story of watching three city workers outside my window in an ice storm at 3 am in the morning, while my son and I shivered under blankets and duvets inside. Who do you want to see in a case like this, a lawyer, a professor, a banker or stockbroker, even a teacher or a nurse outside your window? No you want to see a city worker acting in the public interest not only to restore our conveniences but to prevent an elderly person, a disabled person or newborn baby from getting sick even dying from the cold.
I value my Saturday mornings when I read the weekly edition of my newspaper and savour my coffee at leisure. I subscribe to what is considered to be the newspaper of business and finance. And I have to admit what I read is biased towards the enemy of my class. But it is in this newspaper that I see to a better extent the degree of threat working people face.
These writers are bold. They write to and for the capitalist class and leave no stone unturned. I believe all working people should once in a while read what these apologists for the greedy unproductive bankers and business class have to say about us as workers.
We have become used to references to public sector workers as the “bloated public sector.”
These lies come from the vampires whose CEOs" salaries define the meaning of "bloated."We have become hardened to this. But when we take a good look at the language of their propaganda we become more skilled at analyzing their repetitive narratives . It can help us learn better how to talk among ourselves to build a counter narrative and a shift in how we see and understand ourselves as workers.
More often we hear the use of the term "entitlement" to refer to workers. Ironically it is the most non-entitled parasitical representatives of the privileged and exploiting class that throw this word around to bully and demean us .
The capitalist class has been very successful and can claim many victories in part thanks to a failure of the leadership of our unions to reject the mantra of labour peace and build a fighting opposition across unions-their refusal to utilize their tremendous resources to build genuine resistance to neo-liberalism and austerity agendas . Concession after concession in the name of labour peace has pretty well dug us into a hole. So far they have not quite yet thrown in the dirt to bury us completely but it a very deep hole with very steep sides to scale.
The mantra of “increasing the productivity “of public sectors workers has been around for awhile. But I wonder how many of us understand the level of sophistication this particular piece of propaganda has taken on. I marvel at the success they have enjoyed in convincing a large section of the public that we are lazy, that we waste and exploit tax dollars as they viciously attack our “sense of entitlement.”
A favourite site of attack is our sick time. Putting aside the reality of wage freezes and cuts, the attacks on defined pensions plans, all those “entitlements, “ it seems that “abuse” of sick time by public sector workers is slowing down productivity. Enter attendance management programs with a vengeance.
Apparently the average amount of sick time used per year by government employees in Canada is approximately 12.5. In my experience as a health care worker this amounts to maybe one good bout of influenza and maybe a common cold if we insist on staying off work until were really well. This is for a “healthy” worker with no chronic illnesses. It does not account for unforeseen injuries, stress related illness, “mental health days” (which at one time were written into some collective agreements), the need to use sick time because our children are sick -most collective agreements do not cover this reality. Forget about the fact that we are allowed 4 entire days official bereavement leave (which must be taken consecutively) if a child, partner, mother or father dies. and of course ignore the number of unused sick days , hours and hours of unclaimed overtime.
Never mind that the average number of vacation days for a worker in Italy is 42, in France 37 and in Canada 26. In the US it is 13 days per year on the average.
Their response is the introduction of attendance management programs that “entitle “ the boss to harass workers at home, violate a workers right to confidentiality regarding health care history, frequent calls into the bosses office to be intimidated and threatened, demands for letters from our physicians after even one day off sick and threats of dismissal.
And beware the “more enlightened” approach" – so called employer driven “health and wellness programs” which under the guise of "caring" for to the health and well being of workers ends up placing full responsibility for our health on the worker/individual . These programs are introduced into the workplace in what appears to be a benign and even benevolent way.
Unfortunately some public sector unions are buying into these sneaky programs and promoting them. These programs ignore workload issues, continual increased stresses in the workplace, close monitoring of workers, increased intimidation etc.
Workers may be enticed to volunteer for a 2-4 week “project” where that keep track of the foods they eat , the amount of exercise , how much alcohol they consume , whether or not they smoke etc. The employer exploits the dreaded “team concept“, with all its whistles and bells and appoints or solicits “champions “ among the workers to promote the project.
Not only does this distract from real and serious concerns in the workplace that union steward must address in a vigourous way, but it reinforces the notion that the individual worker is responsible for his or her health exclusively. The social and political context of health is deliberately ignored. A careful examination of these programs reveals that more and more information is revealed to the employer, more responsibility for being sick is placed on the worker as well as providing the employer with more and more tools to penalize and punish workers who are sick. You have to marvel at the sophistication and the stealthy deception used. Beware the wolf in lambs clothing.
A useful article by Steve Early in The Nation , February 26th 2013 www.the nation.com/article/173088/why-workers-should-be-wary-about-corporate-wellness.#axzz2WejzCNXG lays out clearly the dangers of these programs. The article cites the experience of the Chicago Teachers Union who signed on to a wellness program. The result was increased mandatory monitoring of workers health and lifestyles, fines for not participating in the program, excessive monitoring of workers lifestyles, excessive employer and insurer intrusion into workers lives and right to privacy, their “preexisting conditions.” Ultimately workers who do not cooperate often end up having to pay more for health care benefits or endure other penalties.
A fundamental question arises then for the work of the union steward in the workplace whose work is voluntary and largely unrecognized. Who rarely goes to convention with all the perks of hotel rooms and free meals and paid time off work. Whose efforts often bring them into conflict with their boss and whose ears must at all times be to the ground, listening to coworkers, grasping at every moment their anger and their fear and capitalizing on every almost microscopic opportunity to intervene, educate, reframe in an attempt to shift their consciousness to one that makes them proud to be workers and determined to feel entitled.
For me it highlights the need to build solidarity among the closest to ground, the steward in the workplace. No one is more important in the workplace, in the union except the workers themselves. There is no one better placed to understand the consciousness of the workers, their anger and their brilliance as well as the opportunities and the obstacles. Stewards share the shop floor, do the same work and endure the same oppression .
It struck me a few days after my boss asked me several months ago “who do you think you are?” how much I wish I had a quicker wit , had said to her. “I am an entitled public sector worker, my entitlements were hard won and many have suffered, even died so that I can claim that entitlement as a right and I am determined to make sure the workers in my union understand that they too are entitled to rights and privileges even beyond your imagination.”
Maybe next time I will be faster on the draw.