What we want for ourselves, we want for all.
That mantra is the underlying philosophy of a labour union, and on Labour Day in Nanaimo, that philosophy rings as true as ever.
While unions aim to ensure workers at any level can operate in a safe, rewarding environment, unions and their members also instill that belief in organizations and committees outside the workplace in an effort to ensure that all community members have an opportunity to experience a decent quality of life.
Nanaimo’s union roots date back to Samuel Myers, a coal miner who fought for worker rights in the late 1800s and eventually formed the city’s first coal mining union.
Today, through the rise of fishing and forestry industries and, later, trades and teachers’ unions among others, labour is finding new ways to make communities stronger.
“We’re always trying to find ways to make sure people are better off,” said Bob Smits, administrator for the Nanaimo and Duncan District Labour Council. “We’re part of the community too. What we wish for ourselves we wish for everybody else so we wish everybody had a decent job that pays union wages but if they don’t, we still try to help.”
As government gaming grants have been cut back over the past few years, local unions are taking it upon themselves more often to pick up where former funding left off.
In March, in an effort to not only strengthen itself but its surrounding community, Vancouver Island University CUPE Local 1858 members brought their spouses and children out to the first annual CUPE Cares cleanup, which saw tons of garbage removed from Nanaimo River and Harewood Mines roads, as well as neighbouring communities around the university.
“Anytime we can help each other through various volunteering opportunities and engagements we try and do that,” said Deborah Hopper, acting president for CUPE Local 1858. “Our members put in hundreds, probably thousands of volunteer hours, every year. Some of it is through the union itself and some of it is through other community organizations that they belong to.”
The NDDLC, however, has been exceptionally active in recent years in reaching out to the community to help during tough times.
It has had extensive involvement with the United Way Central Vancouver Island chapter, has worked with Loaves and Fishes Community Foodbank and Nanaimo Foodshare to help feed the hungry, has supported the Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society, and, perhaps most notably, has endorsed the Nanaimo Youth Services Association’s Bladerunner program, which takes youth facing challenges and sets them on a course to become contributing tax paying members of society.
“If (Labour) did not support us, if they did not believe that that is the construct for the model and the reason why we do it, then we wouldn’t qualify for the funding and we wouldn’t be able to offer the program,” said Steve Arnett, chief executive director of Nanaimo Youth Services Association. “We’d have no credibility.”
Instead, over the past three years, 724 youths between the ages of 15 and 30 have achieved several trades certifications and have continued on to be assets to the companies for which they work. Bladerunners success expanded from Ladysmith to Comox, the Sunshine Coast and other parts of B.C.
“Labour endorses the certifications, and we work closely with labour councils in other areas,” said Arnett. “The result is safe, rewarding careers for these young people who may not otherwise have had an opportunity.”
While helping to provide a bright future for youth, last June NDDLC also provided food for the hungry through its Protein for People campaign. By bringing together the food bank, Nanaimo Foodshare, and PacificCARE, a child care resource and referral program, those in need were provided an opportunity to better provide for their families.
“We delivered a truckload of canned salmon,” said Smits. “And we brought all of these agencies together to provide sort of a one-stop shopping opportunity for those who needed it. It’s something we’re hoping to try to do again next year.”
Improving lives can also be found through individual members who choose to serve through established organizations.
Nancy Curley, a labour relations worker for the BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union and school board trustee, is vice-president on the board of directors at the United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island. Five years ago, a change in her work schedule allowed her to spend more time in Nanaimo, and she chose to donate that time to the United Way.
“It was important to me when I came back home to become involved in the community and the United Way was an easy way for me to do that,” said Curley, who sits on the United Way board with John Little, a steel workers union member. “Union philosophy is what we want for ourselves we want for all. I think it’s the underlying piece of it and I think people who become part of unions believe that. So whether it’s in the work place or communities where we live it’s just by natural extension that people will get involved and do things within the community.”
She added that union members can be found helping in all aspects of society, from coaches of minor sports teams to board members of charities.
Signy Madden, UWCVI’s new executive director, said interests unions have in social justice are a good fit for charitable organizations.
“One of the great parts of my new job has been meeting with Nancy, John Little and Ellen Oxman, the Labour Council president, to strategize how labour can even further support the United Way workplace campaigns,” said Madden. “Their interest in social justice issues is such a great fit with United Way. Many, many of our donors through workplaces are union members. We count on labour to help spread the United Way message about how donating supports the vulnerable in our community.”
Arnett said the recognition and celebration of Labour Day isn’t reserved only for unions, but for the business and management side of the workplace as well.
“Labour Day is the recognition of all of us as workers at whatever level we happen to be occupying at the moment,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come from the early days of labour law in Nanaimo when it was all about coal mining. The result is, I think, we’re all better off as a society.”