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"I'm In" - Volunteers ARE the essential engine of success

Right now, as you read this article, your Union is working for you.  Your local officers and shop stewards are making sure your management abides by your contract.  Your international officers are hard at work advancing your interests all over Canada and the United States, as well.  They perform the daily work of the Union.

But when your local leaders need to get something done  they most often turn to a cadre of persons in your union who they know they can count on to help out any way they can.

Unpaid, and unheralded, these ATU volunteers can be found at rallies and demonstrations, leafleting during rush hour, keeping the picket line moving during a strike, door-knocking and phone banking during an election campaign, participating at union meetings – you ask them and they’re there.  Collectively, they forge themselves into an engine of progress essential to the success of a local union, and the international union as well.

Didn’t get the memo

Bus operator Glenda Akins, 192-Oakland, CA, is one such volunteer.  According to Local 192 President Yvonne Williams, “Glenda Akins is a go getter from the word go! …If you ask her to be anywhere, she’ll say, “I’m waiting for you what’s taking you so long.”

ATU volunteers all seem to share an energetic, cheerful, and optimistic outlook on life that refuses to give in to cynicism about what can be accomplished.  They don’t just believe, they know they can make a difference.

Take paratransit driver Mark Beeching, 1724-Vancouver, BC, for instance.  “Seven years ago,” says Local 1724 President Timothy Johnson, “his employer was about to lose their service contract due to a budgeting error. Mark with the help of co-workers, seniors and the disability community convinced our transit authority to reconsider moving the contract to another provider.”

Consider also Nathaniel Arnold, also from Local 192, who Williams says “is an advocate for Labor and a community activist who is passionately involved in the political process.  His involvement with transportation advocacy groups has helped increase local funding allocations to protect bus service in the county.”

These are people who don’t seem to have gotten the memo telling them that one person can’t make a difference.  They forge ahead anyway – and win!

Why volunteer?

What motivates these people?

Bus operator Michael Barnes (pictured right), 689-Washington, DC, has spoken in support of transit and Labor at public hearings, picketed in support of striking members in Richmond, VA, and served as a delegate at the 2010 International Convention.  He derives motivation from his knowledge of the sacrifices of those who have come before him.

“It’s my duty,” he says, “Union people who came before me built the middle class.  A lot of people died to make it possible for me to be employed at a good job.”

Vancouver’s Beeching takes that conviction a step further saying, “It is not my duty to help those I work with, it is my privilege.”

Similarly, Akins relates, “I volunteer for the local because I know what it’s like to struggle making minimum wage and no health coverage; and for me to get out and fight along with my other union members to get the job done is a pleasure.”

Beeching characterizes the volunteers’ spirit well saying, “It is my honor to work for and with the dedicated people that provide our service.”

Volunteering can help create the coalitions necessary for progressive ideas to get a hearing.

Oakland’s Arnold volunteers his time in order to establish relationships with community based organizations, politicians, clergy and other allies that will help his local get a fair and equitable contract. Arnold believes that the local’s power comes from the public so they need to show them they care about what is important to them.

He explains, “We can embrace our diversity, find strength in it and prosper together, or we can focus on our differences and try to restrict access and limit prosperity for us all with the 1% getting richer and the rest of us fighting for what’s left.”

Knowledge of labor history motivates volunteers

A sense of history pervades much of the discussion of volunteerism.

Bus operator Lawrence Cole, 689-Washington, DC, among other things, volunteers his time as a sergeant-at-arms at the local’s union hall. He traveled to Ohio recently to knock on doors in the successful effort to defeat anti-union Bill 5, and has attended all of the recent labor marches in Washington, DC.

He volunteers, he says, “Because I need to. It’s a must.” Cole knows that union members who came before him opened the doors to his employment. And he wants to “keep the doors open for those who come behind me.  I want people to be able to say that Lawrence Cole stood for something, that he made a difference.”

Barnes says, “People don’t know the history of unions. They don’t know that it’s a movement. We take our job and the union for granted, but you’ve got to look at what it took for the union to get here, and what it takes to stay here.”

Sources of accurate information

One of the surprising roles of volunteers seems to be simply passing on accurate information.

Bus operator Denita Tyler, 689-Washington, DC, “lets people know what their rights are; that we fight for the little guy.”

Tyler regularly participates in rallies and protests, does paperwork at the union hall, and helps out “wherever I’m needed.” She says she volunteers, “to help people see justice done.”

Tyler thinks a lot of people “don’t realize they can make a difference… I tell people if they want to see a change and make a difference they need to be involved.”

Several volunteers who spoke to In Transit agreed that some employees don’t understand that their local negotiates a new contract for them every three years.

“You hear people complain,” Tyler says, “but they don’t know that we can negotiate change.”

‘The Union is us’

Bus operator Aaron Brooks, 689-Washington, DC, has participated in marches in Washington, and tries to make it to every union meeting.  He became a believer in the labor movement after moving to a union job from a non-union company in the South.

“The Union is us, not just the people we put in office, and there are things that need to be done.”

“I see a lot of people who are here just for the job, just for a paycheck,” he says, “until they need the union to back them up.”

Having worked for a non-union company, Brooks understands that non-union operations can “do anything they want. But here with the union, there are steps and procedures.”

ATU needs you!

ATU needs more volunteers like those described above.  With U.S. presidential and congressional elections just months away, International President Larry Hanley has begun a campaign to recruit unprecedented numbers of ATU members to volunteer their time to support labor and transit-friendly candidates. But this campaign is about more than just the upcoming election, it’s about fighting for the rights and dignity of our members, the labor movement and working families for today and for tomorrow.

Will you be one of those volunteers? Find out more information at, or call your local union today.