Last night, I went to an art show for an old friend’s husband. My friend and I worked together over 20 years ago in a small industrial union. When she was fired by leaders who were threatened by her activism in the women’s movement, I resigned. After 6 years, I had had enough. I loved the job but could not take the stress of working for leaders who were such terrible managers. I spent another five years working on contract for the labour movement but lost all of my work when a right wing party came to power in Ontario. That was a turning point in my life. I ended up working for the public health and municipal sectors and have been doing so for 18 years now. But last night, I got a glimpse of the life I left behind.
After the art show, I went to dinner with my friend, her husband, and four of their friends. They are all active in the labour movement in some way. One is actually the leader of a national union. These people are thoughtful, well-informed and passionate. They speak openly about actively working to transform society. These people, who are all my age or older, talked about forming coalitions with environmentalists, First Nations, the unemployed and the underemployed. It was inspiring. It was encouraging. I came home feeling that those who want a just and equitable society have not collapsed under the weight of a right-wing swing in Canadian politics and a global economic system that has decimated Canada’s industrial sector.
Last night, I did not feel alone with my concern about the direction of our country. I felt like I was part of something bigger. And I have not felt that way for a long time. While many people in the municipal and public health sectors are working to transform society, we do so within the system. We do so with words chosen carefully. We do so with scientific, technical and economic evidence. We do so behind the scenes without ever seeing the faces of the people who might benefit from our work, without recognition for the work we do, and without a sense of community. It is often tiring, thankless and lonely work.
While it often felt the same working within the union, I also had the feeling that I was part of a team. I liked that I knew the people who might benefit from my work; I liked that our members knew I was working for them. I liked being part of a larger movement; a movement that, despite all of its in-fighting, spoke openly about fighting for justice, equity and improving the lives of working people. I miss that.
I came home last night wondering if I made a wrong turn somewhere. I have had several job offers from unions over the years but I have turned them down because I did not want to work 50 hour weeks, travel one week out of four, or move back to Toronto while raising my kids. Was that wrong? Would I do differently if I had the chance? I don’t think so. But there is a small whole in my heart for the life I did not choose.