"Workplaces of Belonging" Seek Common Ground, Not Common Enemy
/ Author: Susan Siemens
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"Workplaces of Belonging" Seek Common Ground, Not Common Enemy

By Susan Siemens, CLAC Representative

I was recently listening to a favourite podcast of mine called On Being. The host was interviewing Brene Brown, a sociologist and research professor who became quite well-known for her work on vulnerability.

In this particular episode, the conversation was about true belonging in a world where loneliness is rampant. This idea stuck with me as I reflected on the workplaces I represent, and how we cultivate communities of true belonging.

I’m sure we have all experienced the feeling of being surrounded by people, and still feeling utterly and completely lonely. What drives that? And how do we overcome it to become truly connected to one another?

In unionized environments, I think we can easily fall into the trap of feeling like we belong and are part of the club, because the employer is our common enemy.

Brown refers to this phenomenon as “common enemy intimacy,” and then goes on to call it “counterfeit connection” and “hustling of the worst magnitude.” While I could not agree more with her sentiments, I still find myself falling into that trap.

How can true belonging be based on ideological divides and collective hatred? Are we creating true, authentic workplace communities when our sole purpose is to rally around a common “enemy?”

At CLAC, we walk the fine line of labour relations through cooperation with the employer. It’s a tricky balance to strike, because there are a lot of instances where we will fundamentally disagree on significant issues. But I think we have forgotten how to disagree well, and even disagree in such a way that belonging and authentic community can still exist, even with our employers. 

In her research on belonging, Brown came across a definition of civility that strikes to the core of this question: “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs, without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

This is so powerful! We can have disagreements – and even vast ideological differences – on things that matter deeply to us, but we can do that in a way that both protects one’s needs and identity, and at the same time ensures that we are not harming someone else in the process.

As a union, if we are going to rally around more than just the employer as our common enemy, and truly belong to a workplace community, this is something we should remember the next time we enter a grievance meeting, attend a heated membership meeting, or are speaking with our co-workers in the lunchroom about our managers.

I have a steward in one of my units who understands this intuitively. She does this without even realizing it, and as a result, has the respect of both her fellow CLAC members and her managers.

She immediately recognizes when members’ rights have been violated, big or small, and will initiate the conversation with her managers with conviction on the issue, but in a way that is both respectful and curious. This approach has earned her the credibility to solve problems quickly and efficiently. She intuitively understands that belonging to the CLAC community is not just about winning the grievance and “sticking it” to the employer, but it’s about respect, civility, and healthy work relationships.

It would do me well to rip a page out of her book every once in a while.


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