The NB Media Co-op’s Chris Walker interviews Mario Fortunato, a labour organizer in New Brunswick, about current day labour struggles.
CW: You have been involved in organizing labour unions with the United Steelworkers for how many years now?
MF: Twelve years.
CW: Originally you started out working in a mine, which mine was it?
MF: Heath Steele, it was a copper mine just outside of Miramichi. I did exploration drilling with a diamond bit drill.
CW: How did you get involved in organizing?
MF: In the late 1990s metal prices dipped and the mine shut down. From there I took a job at a dairy operation. It was draconian. There was no union and they had developed a very efficient system where they worked you to the absolute limit. If you missed work because of an injury you lost your job. It was a really exploitative system, nobody had health benefits, family members would be promoted over more qualified workers, and eventually I had enough. I started talking to an organizer about forming a union. I would talk to other employees about it and they would say, “You better watch it, you’ll get fired for talking about this!” I would say, “Who cares? I’m not making any money anyway; I’ll go work at Tim Hortons if they fire me!” After I signed my union card I started working on the inside, promoting the union, visiting our other locations and eventually our bid to form a union was successful.
CW: How did you end up working full time as an organizer?
MF: It was a lucky break – essentially I got fired! The company was not happy with me – for obvious reasons. They stopped scheduling me for shifts; they took me off the schedule indefinitely. It wasn’t legal, it was purely punitive so I went to the union office and told them what was going on. I wanted to see what we could do about it. At that point the union offered me a job as an organizer. That seemed a better option than fighting to get my job back. That’s how I became an organizer.
CW: For someone unfamiliar with the process, what does a union drive look like? In other words, what do you do for a living?
MF: My job is to convince the Labour Board that the workers at a particular site want a union. How we do that is through the signing of union cards. Through signing a card the workers are indicating anonymously that either they want to form a union or want to have a vote on whether or not to form a union. Once the union is certified the workers have the right to bargain collectively with their employer.
CW: Unions generally receive bad press, particularly when they strike. Groups such as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) refer to them as “labour market rigidities” and therefore condemn unions for bringing inefficiencies into the economy. To what degree does this negative portrayal of unions impact workers?
MF: First of all, there are a lot of groups out there like AIMS. They are funded by capital and their job is to provide negative spin against unions. The same is true for the media generally. When there is a strike and a reporter contacts us they are only interested in what the wage demands are. They never want to hear about any other issues, such as health or safety because they want to portray the unions as greedy. So when I meet with a worker to talk about forming a union some people will say things like, “A union will only protect lazy people” or “I don’t want to pay union dues.” It’s amazing really. I’ll meet with people who are earning substandard wages and getting bullied by management and their only hope to improve their working conditions is through forming a union. Often these folks will be victims of serious disinformation. If you think unions are bad for workers consider this – the professors at St. Thomas University are in a union. I can assure you they have given some thought as to whether or not a union would be of value to them. More generally, union workers earn 44% more than non-union workers – that’s significant. Employers know this – that’s why they fight unions tooth and nail and do everything they can to convince workers that unions only make things worse!
CW: Since the last federal election we have seen back-to-work legislation used twice on the pretext that our “fragile economic recovery” cannot handle such disruptions. What do you make of this?
MF: You need to understand that the law isn’t static. It’s always changing. The democratic process is the means by which various groups in society attempt to change aspects of the law to better suit their interests. For example when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed, capital threw a party. The industrial base in Canada was gutted and for those operations that remained, just the threat of relocating to Mexico was enough to keep workers in their place. As of today, public sector unions represent the largest section of organized labour in Canada and as such they are the single greatest obstacle to the neoliberal privatization and deregulation agenda. So naturally, capital wants to crush them. By taking away their legal right to withhold labour – their only serious weapon to use against management – they cut the union off at the knees. In some ways this radical anti-union politics is actually backfiring. You see it in Greece, Britain, Canada, and in the U.S. Since the legal way of resolving disputes is no longer functioning, workers are going on wildcat strikes, collectively calling in sick and so on. We are returning to the lawlessness and despotism of 1920s labour relations where workers had the right to obey and nothing more. So, we’ll see where this leads – interesting times lay ahead.
CW: If someone who wanted to get more information on this subject, or wanted to form a union in their workplace, what would you advise?
MF: The best place to start is on the Internet. Every union has a good website. Do your research, find out what union would be best for your work place and call an organizer. It’s not easy – it’s called the labour struggle for real reasons. The only way to improve things for everyone is through effort, building solidarity and working together.