"Bargaining for the Future” was the theme for this year’s Young Workers Conference. The event welcomed over 150 young workers from across the province. Over 80 per cent of registered participants attended this conference for the very first time! Hosted by OPSEU’s Provincial Young Workers Committee (PYC), the main goal was to engage as many young workers as possible in the work of their union. Whether it be in the local, a bargaining team, or a provincial equity committee, young workers from all walks of life were encouraged to respond to the issues that impact them and their communities the most. Other goals and objectives of the conference were:
- sharing information and experiences of workplace situations;
- knowing the dangers facing workers in the future;
- being inspired by workers and community members who have faced challenges in the past;
- identifying how to best ensure young workers’ voices are heard through the various stages of the bargaining cycle; and
- exploring the future of work from a global solidarity perspective and mobilizing and organizing accordingly.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas and First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida were both present to address the participants. They reaffirmed the union’s long-standing commitment to young workers, acknowledging the pivotal role they play in the future of OPSEU and the labour movement. Both leaders talked about the importance of mentors and shared some of their own personal stories of working with people who have inspired them along the way.
“Choose someone you not only respect but who will challenge you to think critically about the impact of decisions made” said President Thomas. It was an invaluable piece of advice he offered the participants.
"OPSEU has an incredibly deep pool of activists and I'm so incredibly proud of that," added First Vice-President/Treasurer Almeida.
Mike Palecek, National President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), provided the event’s keynote address. He talked about the struggles his union faced during its last round of bargaining. They included negotiating pay equity for its female-dominated workforce of rural carriers and staving off massive rollbacks that would have completely shut down door-to-door postal service across the country. He also shared with participants a series of creative strategies on increasing member engagement as well as changing the narrative of “bargaining for the union” to “bargaining for the community.”
Throughout the conference, participants discussed issues that greatly impact young workers today: little or no job security, rising student debt levels, underemployment, and of course, privatization. Members spoke specifically about the impacts that privatization has already had on their lives, the clients they serve, and their communities as a whole. In response to the current climate of austerity measures, participants took part in an anti-privatization challenge organized by the We Own It campaign. They spoke to members of the general public about the pitfalls of privatization. It was from this precarious position that young workers were able to identify that the enemy, or threat, is an employer who sacrifices good-paying jobs to fatten its bottom line.
Workshops introduced new activists and familiarized seasoned ones to the various stages of the bargaining cycle. They were designed in response to a current and growing trend of negotiated contracts that have been used to divide all by a generation. Participants identified two-tiered, new hire concessions and "orphan" clauses as some of the provisions that all workers needed to strategize against. They knew that, from new hires or those at the beginning of their careers to those close to retirement, multi-tiered agreements hurt everyone.
Community and global solidarity were also important themes addressed throughout the weekend. Young workers recognized that the labour movement goes beyond pay raises, pensions and benefits. While those were all important topics of discussion, the fight for safe working conditions, workers’ rights, and strong ties to communities were also identified as priorities. ‘Udita’ (Arise), a documentary on the plight of garment workers in Bangladesh, was screened on Saturday evening. It followed the lives of women entrenched in the ongoing struggle of organizing for fair wages and safe working conditions. The beatings, arrests and terminations workers faced in addition to the tragedies of Tazreen and Rana Plaza were all documented.
Sunday morning welcomed a presentation by Cole Webber. It was about his work with the residents of Parkdale, a neighbourhood of Toronto. Earlier this spring, approximately 200 tenants went on a rent strike. It was a fight against the displacement of working class and immigrant tenants, many of whom received eviction notices once the strike took place. As a young worker and OPSEU member, Webber shared his first-hand experience of the importance of building strong connections within a community and working directly with the people to bring about a solution that is fair and just.
The overall work accomplished during this conference was a big step in the right direction. Young workers have shown that they refuse to be complacent. They rejected the idea that they "should just be happy that they even have a job." By taking this stance, they have shown a way out of this precariousness. Instead of blaming other workers, they have pointed to the real problem.
OPSEU’s Young Workers Conference is an annual event organized to coincide with the United Nations International Youth Day (IYD) on August 12. This Day recognizes the efforts of youth to make the world a better place – simply by becoming involved their communities. Year after year, OPSEU enthusiastically joins the UN in celebrating and encouraging this. It also constantly reaffirms its long-standing commitment to young workers because OPSEU knows that they are the future of this union and the labour movement.
The PYC would like to thank the many OPSEU advocates and invited guests who demonstrated their commitment to young workers rights by participating at this event. They would also like to extend a warm thank you to members of OPSEU’s Executive Board for their leadership and constant support in getting more young workers involved and engaged with their union. Finally, to OPSEU staff whose commitment, dedication and hard work greatly contributed to a successful conference.