Operation Christmas Cheer: What solidarity is all about

Sometimes, when people hear “union,” all they can think of is “strike.” The truth is, strikes are rare and, even when they are necessary, difficult to pull off.

Contract negotiations with workplaces first become very tense. Dozens or hundreds of meetings have taken place all over the province. Members vote, first on contracts then on the question of whether or not a strike can happen.

Once the fire is ignited and a strike declared, an incredible ground game rolls out. Assembling picket lines. Getting the members out. Explaining the rules. Organizing rallies. Getting help from other unions and allies. Putting pressure on the workplaces to take action immediately to end the strike.

About this time last year, 4,500 of our home and community care personal support workers were getting ready to strike over unfair wages.

Consider temperatures of minus 30, about 5 metres of snow, and an ice storm causing power outages, and you get an idea of how exhausting the entire process was, for the members more than anyone.

Members earning $12.50-$15 per hour. Members reluctantly leaving their clients without service. Members going two weeks without any pay, just before the holidays.

Sharleen Stewart, President of SEIU Healthcare, toured several picket lines across Ontario during the strike. After it was over and people started going back to work, she came back to head office and tearfully told staff about the moms she met who couldn’t afford winter boots.

It was a huge sacrifice. That’s where solidarity comes in.

Operation Christmas Cheer generosity during 2013 strike

“Solidarity” is a traditional part of union lingo, and union culture. The idea that if you are a working person, you go on strike and stay on strike even if you voted “no” at the strike vote, that you honk to support people on other picket lines, that you try to stay away from businesses that are treating their employees poorly.

The idea is, solidarity is community. Solidarity is power. We call SEIU Healthcare solidarity “purple power.”

Realistically, sometimes, solidarity is easier said than done. Good wages and benefits are less and less common these days.

When you’re struggling with your own bills and your own busy life, it’s a luxury to make time to care about labour issues and to find the strength to show traditional solidarity with other workers.

It doesn’t help that corporations and right-wing politicians fight against unions because they don’t want to see wages go up and workers’ rights improve. They see that as a detriment to their profits and to the economy.

But the role of unions is also shifting and the labour movement is finding itself again, becoming a powerful force for public services and a living wage available to all in Canada.

The concept of solidarity is still relevant, and you and other members of the labour movement have shown your own brand.

Operation Christmas Cheer is celebrating its tenth anniversary. This is a project by UNIFOR Local 247, a group of union members who give out food hampers, grocery gift cards, and toys to families in need because of strike or lockout around the holiday season.

Last year they helped over 950 families—including those SEIU Healthcare workers that were on strike for fair homecare wages in Pembroke, Ontario, a small city north-west of Ottawa.

This generous act of union solidarity helped provide relief to so many of those home and community care workers who had the courage to go out on strike to stand up for fair wages and a better homecare system.

If you are able to donate any funds, toys, or food this year, consider giving to Operation Christmas Cheer’s 10-year Anniversary Campaign in solidarity to make a difference in fellow working people’s lives.

G.W.

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