Workers unite: Can the workplace become a protest site?

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem before a game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on October 15, 2017, in Landover, Maryland. Photo: Keith Allison

When Yolanda B'Dacy brings signs and union flags to protests, she often has to explain she's not on strike herself.

B'Dacy's advocacy has included championing better living conditions in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, increases to minimum wage and fair working conditions. These aren't issues immediately concerning most members of her union, she said.

That's one reason why she thinks her colleagues should be involved.

B'Dacy has been an elementary school teacher in Ontario for more than 20 years. She's not in the classroom now, having become an executive officer of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, a member of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. The executive has decided to be more involved with social causes, whether that means writing letters to politicians or showing up at protests.

Some people get confused at this tactic.

"Whenever people see teachers with posters, they just assume we're on strike for more money," B'Dacy said, noting the public often has "a hard time" separating teachers as a profession from the causes they support.

Teachers "don't live in a bubble," -- conditions outside of the classroom impact life inside the classroom, she said. If parents have to work multiple jobs to pay the rent, they may not be able to help their children with homework. Students living in unsuitable homes are more likely to get sick.

It's been hard convincing some of her colleagues that advocacy matters. "Sometimes I feel like I'm that person knocking on your door that everyone wants to shut the door to," B'Dacy said.

But teachers need to learn to use the privilege and influence they have, she said. This doesn't mean handing out leaflets in class, but it can mean participating in protests outside of class.

In an age where a lot of political protests happen online, and "people don't have to actually do anything, they just have to do a thumbs-up or thumbs-down," there's a greater impact if teachers attend events and show the community they care about their concerns, B'Dacy said. The public generally trusts classroom teachers, even if they don't immediately understand why teachers are flying their union's flag at another group's event.

People shouldn't forsake protests just because they don't always get the desired result, B'Dacy said.

"If it's the least that we can do, we should at least do that. And it costs us nothing but our time."

Teachers aren't the only professionals struggling to figure out how to best use their influence to comment on social issues, inside or outside of the workplace.

The debate has taken centre stage in North American professional sports. Much of this is due to the attention Colin Kaepernick attracted during the 2016-2017 NFL season when the quarterback, then with the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling during the national anthem at games. Kaepernick said he did so to protest racial inequality in the United States.

Kaepernick isn't signed to any team right now. He has filed a grievance with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) alleging owners are colluding to keep him from playing.

Other football players have refused to stand for the national anthem. In September, U.S. President Donald Trump said players should be fired for not standing for the anthem, saying this disrespects the flag.

In a statement, the NFLPA said players are union members, and some have "decided to use their platform to peacefully raise awareness to issues that deserve attention." The union takes "enormous pride," it said, that some of the best discussions have respectfully happened in locker rooms.

"We should not stifle these discussions and cannot allow our rights to become subservient to the very opinions our Constitution protects," the statement says.

The situation raises questions about what happens when workers choose to use their jobs to comment on larger social issues -- or even protest them.

In Canada, the Constitution protects the right to freedom of expression. The government should not penalize or unreasonably limit someone for exercising that right, said Cara Zwibel, a spokesperson for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). But employees may also have to follow contracts, and these could include items like confidentiality clauses. Employers are mainly concerned about how their reputations could be impacted by workers' actions.

The impact of a workplace protest depends a lot on how public the protest, and the workplace is, she said. The NFL situation is unique because athletes have very public jobs, but the teams are private businesses. "Normal" protests at workplaces don't tend to generate comments from government leaders, she said.

Fans often don't think of professional athletes as workers, said Simon Black who teaches a sports labour course at Brock University, and writes about sports for the magazine Canadian Dimension. The high salaries most athletes earn mean fans don't normally consider them to be working class, even if they recognize they are workers, Black said.

Because people often don't think of sports as work, they may find it hard to think of arenas, fields or rinks as workplaces, he said.

Professional athletes, especially those in physically demanding sports, typically have short careers. Injuries may make finding work after retirement difficult, said Black. Players may hesitate to express their personal views because they're scared that if they do, they risk being sent to the minor leagues, having their playing time reduced, or -- as Kaepernick is alleging -- taken away altogether.

"Their earning years are very important to them, and it's a very short period of time," said Black, calling those who have followed Kaepernick's example, "very courageous."

Players' unions have publically stated they support their members' rights to freedom of expression. The National Basketball Players Association released a statement defending players' rights to freedom of speech. In the Women's National Basketball Association, Los Angeles Sparks players left the court during the national anthem before a playoff game against the Minnesota Lynx. In a statement, the Women's National Basketball Players Association said the team made this decision to show solidarity with NFL players doing similar protests. Players wanted to unite the country, the statement said.

Major League Baseball Players' Association executive director Tony Clark said the union protects players' rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. Non-violent protests, he said in the statement issued to MLB Network, are done with the hope of people "coming together to address the divisive and culturally destructive challenges that exist." Players in the National Hockey League have been told they have the union's support if they choose to engage in peaceful protests. NHL players are not contractually obligated to stand for the national anthem.

Public political protests in sports may take a little longer to come to Canada, said Black, noting that hockey in particular can have a fairly conservative culture. There's enough racial injustice in Canada to motivate such action, he said.

"The idea that Canada is some sort of multicultural bastion of racial tolerance is a myth," he added, noting police brutality towards people of colour or anti-POC and anti-Indigenous attitudes in hockey.

Like athletes, teachers also exercise a lot of influence. Helping them see the union as a way to use that influence can be tricky, said B'Dacy. They often see themselves as white-collar workers and don't always have a history or culture of activism, she said. Their current contract doesn't expire until 2019, and that can make it hard to motivate workers. At the very least, she said, organizing partnerships with other causes can prepare people for when they have to fight for their working conditions, she said.

B'Dacy compared activism to a "muscle" that teachers need to learn to use properly. The more they learn to use it, she said, "the better it is."

Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr

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Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca’s labour reporter.

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