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The Importance of a Union – an ASPA members reflection

Grapes of Wrath

The bitter cold over the holiday season kept our family housebound and made our traditional Disney viewing experience start to wear thin. Yearning for something more, we settled on the idea of a black and white themed movie night. As a dad, this was a double win… we get away from the predictable Disney staples and give the brood a chance to experience good storytelling and interesting characters, free of CGI. After To Kill a Mockingbird, we opted for The Grapes of Wrath. A critically acclaimed and somewhat controversial film, it brought to light the harrowing experience of migrant and poor workers during the great depression. The film features the multi-generational Joad family; tenant farmers struggling through the drought and economic hardship of Oklahoma in the ‘20’s. The film opens with a young man returning home to find his family evicted. Forced to seek a new life elsewhere, the film follows them on the agonizing journey to California with the promise of jobs and good fortune.

The promises turn to dust when they arrive and discover they will be forced to compete for work, pitting workers against one another for low wages. Desperate, workers start to organize and eventually strike. The tension builds as landowners resort to violence to coerce workers to accept unlivable wages. The Joads like other families, are faced with the dilemma of accepting low wages and life below subsistence levels; or to unite, fight for living wages to feed their family. Conditions worsen and desperation comes to a head with the murder of one of the union leaders. The movie ends without resolution, leaving the protagonist coming to the realization that he must stand on his principles and commit his life to the pursuit of justice for the working class.

Becoming a parent a number of years ago (I won’t mention how long), launched me on an unsuspecting journey towards a new appreciation for history and deeper interest in the challenges of previous generations. When I reflect on the misery and poverty working families endured, I feel relief at how far we’ve come. Yet, at the same time, it’s sobering that we’re just four short generations away from their experiences. I feel humbled by the magnitude of their sacrifices and profoundly grateful for the rights and privileges they laid at my feet. This led me to wonder, What I would leave my children? This surge of enlightenment was empowering, and until about a year ago, I never gave serious thought that these rights and privileges wouldn’t endure.

That changed when the Trump administration took office and gave rise to resurgent voices of racism, hate and inequality: Anti-immigration sentiment, the them-versus-us mentality, isolationism, border walls, trade tensions, including resistance to Canada’s NAFTA labor reforms and, closer to home, the Tim Hortons minimum wage controversy in Ontario. The idea of a livable wage was, I thought, incontrovertible for Canadians. Perhaps I was naive to believe we had pushed bigotry to the fringes. The last 12 months has left me with the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps our rights and privileges aren’t as enduring as I thought them to be and left me questioning if I could fulfill my duty to make the world a little better for my children.

As ASPA celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, I will take the opportunity to celebrate the men and women who dedicated themselves to building a just society and hope that I too can contribute in some small way.