Workers and unions need to maintain their Independence

By GSU general secretary Steve Torgerson

In the long history of labour relations, unions and organized workers have long been regarded as places of strength and solidarity, fighting tirelessly to protect people’s rights and interests in the face of corporate power. However, as the landscape of labour evolves, so too do the challenges we face, particularly when it comes to maintaining the independence and integrity of our unions.

Unions have always fought for improvements to working conditions and the betterment of society at large. The ways working people and their unions do this work is through advocacy, lobbying, collaboration with other like-minded organizations and continually pushing the agenda of working people – a fair and safe day of work for a fair day’s pay.

Unions have to be careful and not get entangled the agenda of business or political entities, often at the expense of their members. It often starts with compromise and concession as we push to move our cause forward. However, the lines between advocacy and appeasement can blur, and the essence of trade unionism is tested.

Imagine a scenario where GSU is called upon to endorse company decisions that directly undermine the rights and well-being of workers. Perhaps it’s longer hours without adequate compensation, cuts to essential benefits, or even layoffs disguised as “restructuring,” but in return the company would guarantee that all other members would be left alone. In the face of such challenges, the temptation to compromise can be strong, especially when pressured by management or influenced by political agendas.

But let’s pause to consider the potential impacts of such actions. When unions are co-opted to justify decisions that harm their own members, the very trust and credibility upon which they rely are eroded. Workers who once looked to their union as a place of power and solidarity may now question its commitment to their interests. Disillusionment sets in, leading to disengagement and apathy.

Moreover, internal dissent festers when the voices of workers in their union are silenced or sidelined in favour of backroom deals and secret negotiations. As union members, we entrust our representatives with the duty of advocating fiercely on our behalf, not sacrificing our rights at the altar of expediency or convenience.

Co-opt – to divert to or use in a role different from the usual or original one.

This idea of being co-opted is something that GSU thinks about as an organization, but we also think about it for our individual members. Companies, Associations, and political parties may try to co-opt the union, just as politicians and groups will try to co-opt GSU members.
GSU and its membership must never forget our fundamental role is to make workplaces better, fight for others so they can have what we have and support of communities as the places that house our society. As we engage in politics, lobbying or participating in associations or groups, we must not let this change our bedrock priorities. If we begin trading favours, or ignoring some bad to accomplish some good, we put in jeopardy our purpose. If we go down the road to being co-opted, we leave a lot to be risked.

First and foremost, unions risk the erosion of trust and credibility among union members, and this cannot be overstated. As workers, we risk this same erosion of trust and credibility among our friends, family and members of our communities. How can we continue to support an organization or person that fails to adhere to their beliefs?

Furthermore, internal dissent inevitably brews when workers’ voices are drowned out by the clamor of compromise. As union members, we expect our representatives to be unwavering in their commitment to our cause, and unswayed by the allure of backroom deals, secret negotiations, or trading tomorrow for today.

Let us not forget the fundamental principles upon which the labour movement was founded: solidarity, empowerment, and the unwavering belief in the power of collective action. These are the same values our parents and grandparents had when living in their communities and cities. We must let these values guide us in our quest for justice and equality in the workplace and our homes.

As we navigate the maze of co-optation, let us remain vigilant in our defense of union independence and you, its members. We, the rank-and-file members, must hold ourselves accountable and demand transparency and accountability in all our dealings.

GSU will work to not allow itself to be co-opted by business or government, even if it means making the hard choices and maintaining our focus on our members. And I ask you all to do the same. When someone from some group comes to you offering you something today by selling out something for tomorrow, think twice. Think about what happens if you vote for a person or party that promises something you want now but also has policies that will harm you or your community tomorrow. Making the right choice is not easy and it is not made quickly, we all must ask questions and consider the consequences of our actions and not bow to pressure to change our belief that workers deserve a fair work, prosperous lives and to return home safe each day.

Together, we can continue to maintain the true essence of trade unionism – a force for positive change and a strong voice against the forces of exploitation and oppression in our society.