update: mississauga library workers vote to form independent cupe local

When people are denied independence and told that they cannot govern themselves, it only makes them more determined to achieve their independence.

This simple principle repeats itself in matters large and small, throughout all history and all cultures.

The struggles of 430 library workers in the sprawling suburban city of Mississauga, Ontario are not exactly global news. But in the microcosm, we rocked the world. Our members voted overwhelmingly - 98.6% - to separate from the larger, merged local and become our own CUPE local.

As I mentioned a while back, the composite local was pulling out all the stops to try to prevent us from separating. Dues from our unit represent about 15% of their revenue. Without us, some serious lifestyle changes will be needed. They weren't going to let us go without a fight.

When we first planned our separation informational meetings and the vote, we envisioned an all-day "walk-in" vote, where members could show up at their convenience, show identification and be checked in, drop their ballot, and leave. This is how the Toronto Public Library Workers Union held their separation vote, over two days and in four different locations. 

TPL workers were forced to hold some voting in non-library locations, but we didn't get the walk-in vote at all. We were told that all voting must take place at an official meeting, where there is quorum, minutes are taken, the motion is read and seconded, and so forth - the trappings that constitute a formal meeting. 

At first, I was told that all voting must take place at only one meeting. Our members work in more than 20 different locations, in a variety of shifts and hours. If all voting was held at one meeting, we would have 30 or 40 people making a crucial decision for 430 members. Not only would this be completely undemocratic, denying access to the vote for hundreds of members, the vote itself would appear less legitimate. We would be open to charges of initiating a coup, and the National Executive Board might not accept the vote and issue us a new charter. Which was exactly the point.

As an alternative, I lobbied for a series of vote meetings - short meetings held throughout the day and evening, at which quorum would be achieved, the motion read, and so forth. At these meetings, members would cast ballots in one ballot box, to be counted after the final meeting of the day. 

These meetings would be timed to afford every member an opportunity to vote. No matter what shift and in what location a member worked, there was at least one meeting time she or he could attend. 

Explaining this to national representatives and waiting for their decisions was a bit nerve-wracking! But it worked. 

Next I explained to our membership that we were denied the walk-in vote, and how voting would work instead. This turned out to be a crucial turning point. Our members were furious that obstacles were being raised in what should be an open and democratic process. Members who had been undecided shifted strongly in favour of separation. Members who had previously supported separation now become vocal, making their support public. 

I asked a few members who have great respect and credibility for statements that I could publicize. I invited members to attend multiple meetings, to ensure quorum, so that if a member chose an unpopular meeting time, she would not be denied the opportunity to vote. Many members volunteered for this, and it became another channel through which people could demonstrate their support for separation and their solidarity with their union.

Through email and Facebook, and in our own workplaces, we campaigned.

The result was the biggest turnout we've ever seen outside of a contract ratification vote. 

In a series of seven meetings, 98.6% of voting members voted to separate from the merged local and form our own independent local.

It was an exhilarating - if exhausting! - outcome. But the true outcome was larger than separation: it was the process that engaged so many more members. It raised the profile of the union in members' lives. It brought us together. It built solidarity.

This year we will be bargaining for a new contract, at a time when library workers, like workers everywhere, are facing very difficult conditions. Full-time jobs are disappearing. Professional jobs are being de-skilled. Part-time workers face increasingly precarious conditions. Services are suffering, as budgets are balanced on the backs of people who can least afford the burden.

If ever a time was needed for solidarity, this is it. The larger local tried to scare our members into believing that being overseen by a larger, outside body would be safer and more secure. But we understood that no one can ever represent us better than we can represent ourselves.


walmart increases wages: workers united are winning, and the struggle must continue

Workers in the US have won a significant victory in their struggle for dignity and a living wage.

This week Walmart announced that within one year, all current Walmart employees will be paid at least $10/hour, and that newly-hired workers will start at $9.00/hour, with a real opportunity to earn $10/hour with six months.

While still far below a basic living wage of $15/hour, the increase does represent a recognizable improvement over the poverty-level $7.25/hour (the US federal minimum wage) that most Walmart workers now earn. And because Walmart is the largest private employer in the country - almost 1% of all employed Americans work for Walmart - the move creates pressure on McDonald's and other behemoth low-wage employers to get with the program.

McDonald's is feeling that pressure. In Chicago, the workers organizing under the banner Fight for Fifteen Chicago also realized a hard-won and significant victory: full-time hours and reliable scheduling. Since most fast-food workers are adults with families to support, the opportunity to work full-time is an important piece of the survival puzzle.

Naturally, Walmart announced the wage increase as a smart business decision, never mentioning the ongoing - and growing - worker movements like OUR Walmart and Low Pay Is Not OK. But do we imagine Walmart enacting these sweeping wage hikes without workers organizing and demanding it? Surely Walmart investors weren't suddenly seized by an attack of compassion. Lower wages equal higher profits. That's the only compassion capitalism understands.

From one perspective, the Walmart pay increase is table scraps - no, crumbs - at a gluttonous feast: Walmart's net sales were $473.1 billion last year; shareholders received $12.8 billion in profits.

But these wage increases will make a very real difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of working people. Equally important, this victory is incentive for low-wage workers to continue their fight for a living wage - and motivation for all workers to continue our struggles for dignity and respect.


the fight for democracy and independence, microcosm version, or, where i've been and what i've been doing while i haven't been blogging

It's always strange for me when the events that are consuming my time and my brain are not suitable for public consumption, not things I can blog about in any detail.

Some of our war-resister friends have left Canada, forced out by the Harper Government, but choosing to go quietly for reasons of their own. Others US war resisters are still fighting to stay in Canada. It's been a very dark time for the Campaign, and very strange for me to be only marginally involved, if at all.

In December I was elected the head of our library workers' union, which is one unit of a composite local. The local comprises 16 units, and our unit is separating to form our own local. We're the second-largest unit in the local, and they're not too keen on losing the revenue from our dues. Accordingly, they're doing everything in their power to try to stop us... which is only making us stronger and more determined to separate.

Ultimately, of course, it's up to our members. We've held a series of meetings where members can hear the pros and cons of belonging to a composite local versus becoming our own local. (It's more accurate to say returning to being a separate local: that was the case until a merger in 2001.)

These meetings have gone strongly in our favour, and in response the local has resorted to lies, scaremongering, and subterfuge, creatively interpreting obscure bylaws to try to invalidate our process. With six meetings down and one to go, they're pulling out all the stops. The vote is on February 26, and they are now prevailing on the national body to make it more difficult for us to hold the vote.

I know full well that we'll get there, but how much crap I'll have to go through until we do is anybody's guess.

There have been some scary and stressful moments, as I figure out how to parry their latest move. It feels like a test of leadership, too. I gather input from a team, but ultimately the decisions rest with me. I feel the weight of the responsibility, but also an exhilaration. I've been getting incredible positive feedback and support from members, which is like oxygen. Or caffeine. Or some other great drug.

I imagine myself navigating a ship through rocky waters, bound for safe harbour. Maybe if I played videogames I'd have a more current analogy!

I just need to get through these last few minefields. Then I hope to make an exciting announcement here on February 26.


frustrations with technology, or, when upgrades are really downgrades, or, give me back a previous gmail app

I've really been enjoying my Nexus 7 tablet. I dislike that tablets have become the norm, and in a perfect world I'd use a desktop, a netbook, and a tablet. But in the real world, my netbook has been phased out, and I'm back to taking notes with pen and paper.

But in general, I do enjoy my tablet. I especially love the compact size of the Nexus, how smoothly it glides from task to task, and how quickly it charges. I use a Samsung Galaxy at work, and the Nexus has it beat in all categories. And I picked it up - the version with both wifi and data - for less than $300.

Now I've learned that Google has discontinued the Nexus 7. I'm probably going to buy a second one to have on reserve for when my current one dies!

The tablet is constantly asking me to update apps - I choose not to use automatic updates - and I've already learned that the next update of the Gmail app has some features that I find very annoying, and which can't be turned off. This is not me being resistant to change: this is my own specific preference, no matter what email program I'm using.

After I determined that I disliked the latest version of the Gmail app, I was happy to learn that I could easily revert to the previous version. All good.

Yesterday my tablet forced a system update... and I have lost access to the previous version of the Gmail app.

Here's what I dislike. No matter what email program I use, I do not like to preview email before opening it. At all my many workplaces that have used Outlook - and I use Outlook at home - I turn off the reading pane. It doesn't really matter why I like this. The fact is I have a strong preference for this, in all email programs, over a long period of time.

On the smaller screen of the tablet, this is even more important. There is already a sidebar showing all my various Gmail accounts, or once I'm in an account, the folders. I would like the remaining real estate to show either a list of emails in the folder, or the body of the email I have tapped on.

The new Gmail app will not let me do this. The screen is divided into thirds: accounts or folders, list of emails in that folder, and previews.

I've spent a bit of time searching for ways to revert to a previous version, but it appears that the system update has precluded that possibility.

And this is my problem with mandatory "upgrades". I want to choose. Google won't let me.


what i'm reading: the death of santini, by pat conroy

Readers over a certain age may remember Pat Conroy as the author of "The Great Santini," the novel and later, a movie for which he wrote the screenplay. The movie starred Robert Duvall as an aggressive, bullying father; the son was played by Michael O'Keefe. Conroy is probably best known for The Prince of Tides, a hugely popular novel from the mid-80s, adapted into a movie starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte, directed by Streisand. Conroy has written many other novels and screenplays, and in general has been a highly successful writer.

A recurring theme in Conroy's work - present, apparently, in everything he writes - is a highly troubled family, featuring at least one person who is suicidal, and a cruel, bullying, abusive father. Although readers should never assume that a writer's work is autobiographical, this motif recurs with such regularity in Conroy's work that it's difficult to avoid the question. And in this case, the assumption would prove correct, and then some.

Conroy's father was indeed the model for the fathers portrayed in The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline, and all his other novels - with one huge difference: the fictional abuse was softened, diluted. Hollywood wouldn't have made a movie showing the real "Santini" - Conroy's father - nor would millions have loved The Prince of Tides. The story would have been too brutal, too heartbreaking for popular fiction.

Donald Conroy was a violent, sadistic man who beat his wife and his male children, brutally and often. Anyone who wasn't the victim of outright violence grew up with the terror of witnessing it and the fear of its wild unpredictability. Conroy the father told his children they were worthless losers, at every opportunity. And Conroy the writer was compelled to write his family into fiction, again and again. As Conroy says in this book's prologue:
I've been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son is, in part, a literary exorcism, the writer's attempt to purge his father from his life at last. The book also explores the experience of transforming family members into fictional versions of themselves, and their reactions to appearing as characters in print and on screen. They are by turns outraged, mortified, and thrilled, and they sometimes seem to imagine that they are the characters, larger than their own lives. The reactions of Donald Conroy to his son's constant fictional versions of him and his horrific behaviour are the most fascinating and compelling part of the book.

Conroy's writing can be ornate, overheated, and melodramatic, and will not be to everyone's tastes. He is prone to sweeping statements that can sometimes seem a bit self-important. Given to understatement he is not. But his writing is vivid and powerful, often moving or disturbing in all the right ways.
My childhood taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers of love. Love came in many disguises, masquerades, rigged card tricks, and sleights of hand that could either overwhelm or tame you. It was a country bristling with fishhooks hung at eye level, man-traps, and poisoned baits. It could hurl toward you at a breakneck speed or let you dangle over a web spun by a brown recluse spider. When love announced itself, I learned to duck to avoid the telegraphed backhand or the blown kiss from my mother's fragrant hand. Havoc took up residence in me at a young age. Violence became a whorl in my DNA. I was the oldest of seven children; five of us would try to kill ourselves before the age of forty. My brother Tom would succeed in a most spectacular fashion. Love came to us veiled in disturbance - we had to learn it the hard way, cutting away the spoilage like bruises on a pear.
Reading about the violence that Conroy, his mother, and his siblings endured, I wondered that any of them made it through with their selves and their sanity intact. Indeed, some did not. I also wondered, again and again, what made Donald Conroy such a violent and hate-filled man.

This book would especially interest people who read and enjoyed The Prince of Tides and other works by Conroy. But anyone with an interest in how life and fiction interact may find The Death of Santini a fascinating, if not always pleasant, read.



It's been a very long time since I've posted a pupdate.

The short version: Tala is doing great!

You may recall that some years back, shortly after we adopted Diego, our Tala was diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome. Thus began a long, slow process of rest, rehabilitation, and experiments with medication. Our little girl's wild days of being on the move every waking hour were over. But we were determined to do everything we could to transition her into a more calm, but still active, life.

We have been so fortunate that our efforts have paid off. Tala can be off-leash at the dog park again - something we couldn't do for more than a year. She can walk up to 30 or 40 minutes on the leash, a few times a week. She can come upstairs to sleep every night, which was strictly prohibited for years. And we've been able to significantly reduce her medication.

When she comes upstairs, Tala usually doesn't sleep in our bedroom. A friend gave us this extra-big, extra-cushy dog bed, after her wonderful elderly dog left this world. Tala has claimed it as her throne.

When I think of how devastating it was to learn that Tala had a chronic, degenerative condition - one that could paralyze or kill her - and I see her so happy and content now, I am so grateful. I honestly never thought she'd come back this far.

In the process, Tala has become incredibly sweet! When she was younger, Tala was too busy, too active, to pay much attention to her humans. She liked to be pet and would submit to a hug once in a while, but mostly she was on the move, doing that famous Husky trot, keeping the yard safe from squirrels, bullying small dogs at the dog park, goading Diego into play. In her more sedate middle age, she's become so much more affectionate and attached to us. We love it.

She's also very attached to her toys! Anytime she's lying down, relaxing, she likes to have a toy with beside her. Her favourite is Mr. Squishy Bone. (Tala has bad teeth. After she had some serious dental damage, we were forced to switch from her beloved Nylabones to Kongs.) Mr. Squishy Bone exists in triplicate so there's always one around when she needs it.

Tala likes to chew Squishy, but often she just likes to hold it or have it close.

Outside, she likes to have an Orbee around at all times.

Of course, this is her favourite toy.

We have never had two dogs as attached to each other as this pair. They play constantly. (These videos are old, but nothing has changed - except the size of our backyard.)

And they do this at least once daily, often three or four times a day. (Another old video. The window has changed but the song remains the same.)

And how is Diego, you ask? He is the same as always: big, goofy, drooly, happy, pushy, annoying, not too bright, incredibly loving, sweet as can be.