Best new word I’ve heard in a long time – Barguing – which essentially is arguing at the bargaining table instead of negotiating. It’s a fitting term for what is quickly becoming a frustrating process. But at least it looks like we are taking a break for the summer after this week which is more than welcome for me. It’s probably no secret that I am a tad burnt out from all the travel at the moment – and it really does feel most of the time that we are spinning our wheels with this employer.

I was at a worksite meeting today at lunchtime where we negotiating team members go to tell the members of our union what is going on at the table, what we are asking for, what we are asking of them…. I have done over a dozen of these in the last few months and always enjoy the questions and interests of the people we represent. This particular session was at my Ottawa employer’s office which was even more fun since I knew some of the people there and I frequently work out of that building.

After the talk a woman who had asked several questions came up to me and said how glad she was she came out and how informative the presentation was. She said that she has always been pretty hesitant about unions because they can be so unreasonable and controlling, and yet she was pleased to see three very reasonable and intelligent people up in front of the room who seemed to be actually likable (okay, she didn’t quite say it that way – but it was the gist). I appreciated her candor, and the compliment and afterwards was thinking about how often I hear variations on that theme. “You seem so reasonable for a union rep,” is a common refrain that comes back to me from people who seem genuinely surprised that I don’t have horns and a tail, or get in front of a room yelling.

Because I really don’t roll that way, nor have I ever. I also don’t know many union reps who do which begs the question of where the stereotype so readily comes from. Obvious answer right? Of course it’s the media, the bosses, the system at fault.

If only it was that simple. While I will grant there is a whole propaganda machine in place to paint working people and their representatives as nasty and greedy, I have to admit I have seen my share of bad behaviour from a minority of union reps in workplaces. You know, the petty folks who wanted to be management but couldn’t get there and so instead turned their dictatorial desires into a union position. These are often people who don’t seem to understand the basic working class principles of solidarity, and have found a niche in a union movement starved for active membership by barging their way around the workplace.

Sometimes these people simply have their own individual axe to grind about an issue, but more often seem to have the general grievance that life hasn’t been fair to them. In some cases they will complain (to other union reps no doubt) that their co-workers are lazy and shouldn’t be helped by the union. In others this type express themselves by going around and harassing people into adhering to every aspect of the collective agreement or health and safety policy. They get elected because no one wants to run against them out of fear of retaliation, or because after years of this behaviour the workplace members believe all people in the union are like this and want nothing to do with it.

Fair enough. If that had been my first encounter with a union I wouldn’t waste my time there either. As a union rep I tend to go the other way when I see one of these individuals coming, so I don’t doubt their co-workers feel that way but even moreso if they have to deal with them every day. And it’s a shame really – because this is by far the minority of union reps, and yet the ones who everyone remembers.

The simple root of this is a lack of interested and active members, and a union movement that seems helpless to address this behaviour within its ranks (until it crosses the line and becomes something you can discipline for). And because it’s self-perpetuating in that it drives people away, the very existence of these individuals only ensures that more people like them will fill the ranks when they finally disappear. But more deeply, this behaviour is sunk in the mires of power definitions in our society and the very nature of exclusion. That is, telling other people what to do in your society is equated with powerfulness, and those who lack a sense of personal power in their lives are often driven to fill that void elsewhere. Pretty much every organization suffers from these individuals – from the artistic society with a chair who has screaming fits, to those in community radio stations like CKLN who change the locks on the doors to keep democratically elected opponents out. There are a lot of wounded people wandering around out there looking to inflict their damage in the form of power-mongering on others – despite the fact there are even more people trying to do the right thing and work together.

I’m not sure how to address it systemically or personally, but it’s frustrating as someone who really is working to represent people democratically and transparently to always be painted with that brush. Fortunately I have found although this initial impression exists, once people actually meet me or I help them through a hard grievance, the stereotype tends to fade into the background. I can certainly be tough when the situation warrants it, but only within the context of being pushed around, and only when there is something to be gained from engaging in the battles in the first place. Mostly though I like to mediate, negotiate, and consense to an end result – which I recognize is the way for most union people I know. Leadership is one thing, exerting power is another – and although some people confuse these modes, it’s clear to me (and the membership I have represented) that really these are polar opposites on the spectrum.

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