Union organizer shares solidarity message

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By Tim Cook

It was back in 1995, after three years of “intolerable” working conditions at Suzy Shier, that Debora De Angelis brought the union to her workplace. And despite the store closing last May, she still feels that it was the best thing she has ever done.

Last Friday, De Angelis shared her experience with students at Ryerson’s annual union fair, a week-long event that included guest speakers, presentations and exhibits.

De Angelis started working at Suzy Shier in 1992 for $5.40 an hour. She was 19 years old then and hoped she would soon be making the big bucks.

But the money she expected never came. For three years the only raises she got came when the provincial government increased minimum wage.

De Angelis said she also had to put up with absurd rules such as standing more than a metre away from her co-workers because management believed the distance would prevent socializing.

“My working conditions at Suzy Shier were horrible to endure,” she said.

But De Angelis couldn’t quite. She was working toward her labour relations degree at the University of Toronto and needed the part-time job to help pay expenses.

The idea to start a union didn’t dawn on her until after an evening conversation with her father, a unionized TTC employee, who suggested she contact a union. Soon after, she had her first meeting with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

De Angelis said she saw UNITE as her saviour. She signed hr union card and got more than 55 per cent of the employees in three Suzy Shier stores — at the Woodbine Centre, First Canadian Place, and De Angelis’ store at North York’s Sheridan Mall — to do the same.

The next step for De Angelis and the other workers was to decide whether they wanted a union.

On the day before the vote, Suzy Shier sent a team of executives to all three stores to talk to employees in an effort to quash the union movement.

It worked. Two of the stores decided not to join UNITE. De Angelis’ store voted unanimously in favour.

“It was the best feeling I ever had,” she said. “Finally I felt like I was doing something good.”

Their first collective bargaining agreement brought them a 15-cent pay hike and a grievance process. It was a huge step forward, but the feelings of triumph didn’t last. At the end of the agreement last May, Suzy Shier closed its Sheridan Mall outlet. The company would not comment on why the store was closed.

De Angelis finished her labour relations degree in 1998 and is still involved with UNITE as a project co-ordinator. She’s also an Ontario Federation of Labour v.p. representing young people.

De Angelis isn’t allowed to talk about her store’s closing because of an agreement she signed with the company when she left. But despite the outcome, she still believes organization of young people in the work force is crucial.

“There are too many people who put in so much and get nothing out of it,” she said. “Young people need to be organized.”

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