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An interview with a hospital laundry worker

by Workers Struggle - Sudbury


Milly Tancy has worked for over ten years in Sudbury Hospital Services as a laundry worker. In February of 2013, fifty percent of the workers in her department were laid off due to the loss of a major contract. Milly just barely kept her job. Down from 120, there are now approximately 60 workers left in her bargaining unit, which is unionized with CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees).

Management maintains a high supervisor to worker ratio in this workplace, approximately 1 for every 10 workers. Milly reports, “They try and keep talking to a minimum. If there’s too much of it, they try and stop it by telling you to get back to work.” Milly agrees that this tactic makes it difficult for workers to build unity and militancy, which represents one of the many struggles workers face in General Laundry.

The main areas of struggle in Milly’s workplace are: 
        • Defending against repetitive strain injury 
        • Defending against cutbacks 
        • Union limiting struggle to what is acceptable to employer 
        • Union bureaucracy

Defending against repetitive strain injury

-Milly reports a high rate of injury in her department due to highly repetitive tasks and despite the fact that workers rotate jobs often. There are two job rotations which alternate monthly: Ware Wash and Soil Sort. In Ware Wash there are five positions. Positions one to four rotate every two hours, so each position is worked once per day. The fifth position rotates daily. In Soil Sort there are four positions which rotate every fifteen minutes due to the heightened level of intensity of tasks at those workstations. In this year alone, there have been three cases of workers requiring carpal tunnel surgery, two of them for both wrists.

According to Milly, the light duty protocol for injured workers is also problematic:

“Light duty requires you to stand in front of a table that comes up to about here on you (indicates waist height). You’ve got to reach forward, grab facecloths, fold and stack them. So, with a shoulder injury, you’re on light duty doing repetitive work, not resting the muscle or joint, holding your arms up. When I injured my shoulder, I did that job day in, day out, eight hours a day, for five months.”

It’s difficult to understand why light duty has less diversity of tasks than regular duty. It seems to be a disincentive for reporting injuries because the nature of this work is so physical and hard on the body.

Defending against cutbacks

-This work is also hard on the equipment. There are protected maintenance workers’ positions in this bargaining unit, but management has not been training replacements as positions are vacated. The loss of these jobs is a neglected area of struggle and an ongoing factor in repeated equipment failures due to improper maintenance schedules. It is not clear what role, if any, this had in the loss of a major contract which resulted in the February 2013 layoff, or what role it may have in future layoffs.

-During the last contract negotiation, management insisted on zero percent – a defacto cutback – but the workers said no. Because of laundry workers’ essential service status, they were not legally permitted to strike and the negotiations were submitted to arbitration. They worked for one and a half years without a contract. Milly experienced frustration with the arbitration process: “All we [knew] is we no longer [had] a contract. We [didn’t] know what [was] going on with the contract; what [was] happening with the arbitration. We [didn’t] know why we [were] in arbitration other than we were refused a raise.” In August 2014, the arbitration was settled for a 2% wage increase over three years but no improvements in scheduling, which was an area of struggle Milly had hoped to make gains.

Union limiting struggle to what is acceptable to employer

-Before the last contract expired, the CUPE rep gave questionnaires to the workers to fill out to indicate the specific issues they were most concerned about. Milly prioritized wages and scheduling on her questionnaire. The rep did not report back, nor did he provide the results of the questionnaire. When Milly questioned the CUPE rep regarding the results, he said, “You know what the issues are, you filled out your questionnaire.” Milly replied, “Yes, but you never gave us the results of those questionnaires.” Milly vented, “So we [didn’t] know. Like everything [was], ‘Shh’. It [was] kind of ridiculous.” Milly agreed that being kept in the dark makes it easier for management to exploit workers and harder for workers to build unity and militancy around issues.

-Due to their essential service status, General Laundry is not permitted to be closed for the four days over Easter. In the past employees were always paid double time and a half for Easter Monday. Recently, management decided to capitalize on the new statutory holiday in February to eliminate this bonus for workers. Milly says the union executive was very supportive of this idea even though it was not popular with workers. A vote was conducted by CUPE on this proposed change, but the vote was not disclosed, except to say that it carried. “I didn’t see on paper where the vote sat, but we now have Family Day off as a stat and we lost Easter Monday. Well, that equals out to losing pay.” When asked if she felt CUPE capitulated to a business demand, Milly replied, “I believe so. I don’t know if; I mean it was definitely in the better interest for our employer to go that way, but it’s what they (CUPE) wanted, it’s not what the workers wanted.”

-During the 2013 layoff, management reached an agreement with the union that positions requiring special qualifications would be exempt from seniority rules. This resulted in some senior workers being laid off before junior workers.

-An asbestos removal contract for the boiler room was given to an unlicensed contractor who subsequently removed the asbestos improperly while workers were working in the building. The union did nothing to prevent the workers from being exposed to this extreme health hazard. No work refusal was organized.

Union bureaucracy

-Milly stated that when she and other workers attend union meetings to try to demand accountability from the CUPE rep, they face politician tactics: “He dances around all the questions: ‘I can’t answer that right now. I’ll look into it and get back to you.’” Milly identified stalling as the main tactic used by the union. “If we’re not stalled by our employer, we’re stalled by our union.”

-Union stewards are not permitted access to grievance forms. If someone has a grievance, the steward has to ask a member of the executive for a form. “The only union steward that had access to the grievance papers was our chief steward. So if she was off, we would have to go to management and request an extension on our time limit.”

-Nepotism is a problem in the union executive as well. For example, while the layoff of 2013 was being administered, a member of the executive attempted to negotiate with Milly to take the layoff so as to protect the job of one of her family members.

-Because of widespread disillusionment with the union bureaucracy, there is little interest amongst the rank and file in running for elections. Milly expressed hopelessness regarding CUPE. “It almost doesn’t matter what they try to do at this point. It will not be effective. Because the union is only as strong as its members and the members are all of the opinion that our union is a joke.”

Commentary

To Milly's credit, she recognizes the bureaucratic nature of CUPE, but she still sees CUPE as a workers’ organization. Loyalty to unions is completely understandable because it’s based on their historical role as genuine workers’ organizations. But we can’t limit our critique to unions’ bureaucratic nature. We must ask: Are unions still workers’ organizations today?

We can evaluate any union or organization with a few questions: Do workers control and run it? Does it defend and fight for workers’ interests? Is it combative against capitalists and bosses? Or does the union/organization in question prefer to restrain and disorganize workers? Consider how your union/organization measures up to these questions.

Unions began as autonomous organizations of militant workers. The autonomy and militancy of these organizations has been weeded out by the capitalist class, as workers have been replaced by functionaries whose class interests are best served by keeping capital running smoothly. In that way, unions behave more like capitalist organizations now. We must ask if they are now structurally a part of capitalism. Do membership dues function as a form of accumulation? If so, we have seriously underestimated capital’s ability to recuperate, and we will have to start facing this reality.

Capitalists are organized. Whether we’re unionized or not, we need to build our own autonomous organizations so we can fight for our own interests outside the structures that capitalists, politicians, NGOs, courts, banks, industries, police and even business unions provide. Autonomy doesn’t mean sectarianism or voluntarism; it means that we organize for our own interests. What are our interests? What furthers our interests and what doesn’t? These are things we will have to decide and struggle for together.

In our discussions, I suggested twice to Milly that we work together to wage struggle in her workplace on issues that are important to her. She could not visualize how this would be possible because she’s unionized. It’s an interesting phenomenon: workers who cannot imagine struggling autonomously, when this is precisely how it began. There are material conditions that prevent workers like Milly from taking the risk associated with the understanding that business unions may no longer be workers’ organizations. We will have to deal with that reality as well.

On May Day, we struggle to understand the reality of our material conditions at this moment in history. We struggle to build autonomous alternatives with our own parallel organizations.

 

Workers Struggle-Sudbury is edited by Rachael Charbonneau and John Newlands and is published monthly.  This interview was posted in May by Workers Struggle - Sudbury.


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