Shaking Hands, Not Fists
/ Author: CLAC Staff
/ Categories: Guide magazine /
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Shaking Hands, Not Fists

Establishing respect, dignity, and fairness in the workplace is a laudable goal. But achieving and keeping it is not always easy

By Henk de Zoete, National Board President

Early in my union representative career, I was negotiating a first contract with a small family-owned auto parts supplier. Negotiations were difficult, often marked by personal attacks on the union and its bargaining committee. Eventually, an agreement was hammered out and strongly ratified by the mainly female immigrant membership.

Now came the really hard part: how to put into practice CLAC’s values of respect, dignity, and fairness. With the election of stewards, labour-management, and health and safety committees, we established some physical and psychological space in the workplace to achieve these goals—safer working conditions, fairness in job opportunities, giving voice to member grievances, and working together to identify and address issues of common concern.

Three years later, during negotiations for a renewal of the agreement, that space was suddenly shattered during an explosive lunch. When I arrived at the plant, it was ominously quiet. A sinking feeling went through my gut as I climbed the stairs to the lunch room. 

There, seated at a makeshift table, was the employer and his team. On the other side was not the union bargaining committee, but the entire workforce. 

In a booming voice, the boss said, “This is how negotiations are going to be done from now on!”

“No, this is not how things are done,” I replied, refusing to carry on with the charade. “This meeting is over. You will hear from us.”

“Get the f--- out, you sawed-off little rep!” he yelled.

The boss, his family, and the foreman promptly escorted me out of the plant. Close to my car, I sensed that I was about to be attacked. Turning around, I saw a big ham-fisted hand raised and poised to punch me in the head. An arm reached up and held the fist back.

Shaken, I drove away—straight to the company’s lawyer. The employer’s attempt to break the union—nearly literally!—needed immediate attention. 

I knew from experience that the lawyer was a reasonable, no-nonsense man and that he had the ear of the employer. I explained what had happened and told him that unless his client carried on in a safe and respectful manner, I would file assault charges and unfair labour practices. The lawyer immediately called the employer and read him the riot act.

Within a week, negotiations resumed, quietly and respectfully, in a private room with the elected bargaining committee. A renewal contract that built on what we had accomplished before was ratified, and the safe space we had worked so hard to achieve was reestablished.

With respect, dignity, and fairness put back into practice, the members flourished, gaining new confidence and strength in their abilities.

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