eNewsletter • WINTER 2017
Kamala Rao, a long-time member of the Canadian Media Guild
(CWA Canada Local 30213), now on leave from the CBC,
was elected as CMG’s national president in December and
began serving her three-year term in January.
In this profile, Rao sets out the direction she’d like to take,
along with fellow CMG members.
“There is no way to justice without building power.”
That quote, which is up on the whiteboard in my office, is from organizer and author Jane McAlevey, whose “deep organizing” model reflects the best instincts of social movements and the history and smarts of early labour movements.
A “deep organizing” model is about supporting high-participation member-driven unions and staying on point. It means focusing closely on how our working conditions connect to our well-being and zeroing-in on members’ immediate concerns. It means moving away from a notion of “the union” as a separate entity that operates from another building somewhere, to a sense that we are the union, and that we together can improve our working lives.
I decided to run for the position of president because I believe that our union needs to focus more closely on the well-being of CMG members directly in terms of our working conditions and working lives.
Whatever the particulars, we all know that what happens at work, our experiences with an employer, including the quality of our working conditions and our work environment, can significantly affect us, spilling into our lives outside of work as well. And if that work is, or becomes, precarious or unavailable, our difficulties are compounded.
A union is made up of individuals with shared work and shared concerns, and we hold power collectively. It’s a simple reality and, yes, a powerful one at the same time.
Unions are a vehicle through which we, as workers, can continually negotiate and fight for fair terms and against arbitrary and unjust treatment from employers.
Now, the key is in building the effectiveness and building the power of our unions.
We build our movements through real care and fellow feeling for each other, through direct connections, through cultivating a sense that our own personal dignity matters, that our work has value and that, collectively, we hold tremendous potential power within systems that rely not only on our labour but on our consent.
We need then to connect those sentiments to action.
Life experience informed outlook
My first consciousness about the importance of fairness and the power of collective action did not come to me through my involvement with a union. Instead, my experiences growing up and of being aligned with social movements have been formative to my outlook.
I was raised in East York, Toronto, during the 1970s, the child of two people who each immigrated separately to this country. The landscape of my childhood featured high-rise buildings, lots of nearby parks and a well-used local public library. I benefited from public amenities that were high-quality and accessible.
My neighbourhood and grade school experiences included immigrant and newcomer-identified children (like me) as well as "Canadian-Canadians," CBC on the radio, and the Toronto Star delivered to the door.
Access to good quality media helped me situate myself in my community, alongside my parents, opening up the world. The CBC, with its broadcasts, seeded me with all manner of aspiration.
As a child, I attended both public and Catholic schools. The religious education I enjoyed was progressive and thoughtful, and very much oriented towards defending against the excesses of tyrants and the indifferences of the wealthy.
I joke about it now, but I was educated through a “Hippie Jesus” model that included parables focused on pushing money traders out of temples and the dignity of the downtrodden. That made an impression on me. That kind of perspective, which operates from moral first principles, remains a kind of home.
Regardless, despite the ways in which it may have been a good fit, in 1985 I was expelled from a Catholic high school for being gay. Thus outed, I subsequently left home before I turned 16. At the time, there seemed few avenues for recourse against the sort of irresponsible and oppressive action the school administration took.
Pushing back and preventing that sort of thing takes a sustained movement.
I eventually finished high school and first got into university by applying to part-time studies. I finally finished my degree after lots of stops and starts.
In 1989, at Queen’s University, I was part of a group of women who resisted a misogynist backlash against the campus’s “No means No” anti-date rape and anti-sexual harassment campaign. The Montreal Massacre, in which 14 women were killed for being women, occurred the next month.
Over the 25 years that have passed since then, we still have not managed to make enough cultural change to ensure that women are safe against misogynist violence and harassment.
Unless we go deep, these things will not change. The passage of time, alone, does not push back against oppression of this sort. Indeed, to the contrary, the passage of time can instead allow for certain oppressive currents and trends to take greater hold.
If we want things to change in particular ways, there is a need for greater intention, greater focus and deeper commitment.
Engaged members make a difference
We who work in the media have a good sense of the terms and conditions required to do our jobs well. And many of us possess a sense of mission when it comes to our work.
It is that sense of purpose and practical understanding that allowed us to make a success of CMG’s Champion Public Broadcasting campaign. I co-ordinated our union’s campaign during the 2015 federal election. In addition to harnessing the support of CBC’s audiences and fans, our campaign incorporated and relied on the participation and engagement of CMG members.
Among other things, CMG members communicated what we know about how cuts to public funding have damaged our ability to serve audiences via CBC/Radio-Canada. For those of us who are media workers, our working conditions also, invariably, have an impact on audiences.
Connecting with the broader context
All around us we see examples of onerous working conditions and poor treatment. Examples of people being required to do more with less are legion.
The overall trends are clear, concerning and relevant. We are concurrently witnessing growing income and wealth inequality and a rise in difficult terms and conditions for people who work for wages, including media workers.
All of this is coinciding with a steady drop in the rate of unionization and, arguably, a decline in the aggregate effectiveness of unions. It is past time to turn things around.
The Communications Workers of America, the international union of which we are a part, is confronting the threat posed by the Trump administration and Republicans who plan to further weaken the position of organized workers and to bust unions through so-called “right-to-work” legislation.
These laws, being adopted by more and more states, would increase the number of free-riders (people who get to enjoy the benefits of union membership without paying dues).
“For any Local not engaged with all its members, both those with whom they agree and disagree, this could be a devastating blow,” said CWA President Chris Shelton. “But if we jump in front of it and renew our internal organizing programs, we can weather this storm.
“We must bring everyone who works and benefits under our contracts into our union, first as a member and then as an engaged member. Nothing starts until free riders are members.”
Shelton said the CWA knows that “internal organizing works, because across the South, we have demonstrated that we can build our union in a right-to-work environment.”
I am with Chris Shelton on this.
Unions are strong when we are connected as members and pull together in ways that are effective and successfully advance and defend the basic, essential things that matter in our working lives, as each of us play our part.
To that end, internal organizing and deep organizing — member participation and member engagement – matters most.
This is about legitimacy and accountability, but it is also about what works. One of the only things that we know is effective, for sure, to improve conditions for workers – including media workers — is forming and deploying our unions.
As we develop greater ability and willingness to share our union’s work, we can deploy our union more successfully. And, if people know and remember the value of our unions, we can further extend the protection of a union to a greater number of people over time.
In my role as president, for as long as I serve, I will do my part. So far, over these last eight weeks, I have enjoyed doing so and I don’t expect that to change.
This is a good fight and a noble endeavour, consistent with some of the better things I know about life itself.
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