Stickering Up for Paid Sick Days

Creative tactics like sticker days can turn up the heat in a first contract fight. Personal trainers at another club pose outside during a sticker day action. Photo: Workers United Canada Council

In July 2016, personal trainers in Toronto at GoodLife Fitness, Canada's largest fitness company, voted to unionize with the Canada Council of Workers United, forming the first fitness sector union in North America. A few months later they were joined by personal trainers at GoodLife in two nearby cities, Ajax and Peterborough, and have since been negotiating a first contract.

Accustomed to motivating their clients, the trainers are enlisting them on their side: to date nearly 1,000 GoodLife clients have signed a petition calling for paid sick days for their trainers and to put an end to unpaid work.

In April workers at one of the GoodLife clubs decided to wear a sticker that said Paid Sick Days.

Adrie Naylor, a Workers United representative, interviewed trainer Michael Tran* about the action.

AN: What happened and how did it make you feel?

MT: When I approached my team of trainers, I told them about the possibility that GoodLife would not be okay with it—it was a uniform violation. Then when we heard that GoodLife was going to write people up or send people home if they wore the sticker, in a weird way it emboldened a lot of people. They were like, “It's a sticker!” It became sort of fun, because they wanted to show management that they couldn’t be stopped.

A: Do you usually feel like you are able to stand up to management?

M: No. Where you need their help it ends up being like asking for a favor. So if you need a client, you’re saying, “Hey, I need a client, I’m short on hours.” And you get the sensation that you’re in a begging position. Management will turn around and say, “Well, what have you done for me lately that I should be helping you?”

A: Like you’re not deserving, you can be replaced.

M: Exactly. With hiring new trainers, the ease with which they can be hired makes you feel like, “I can’t rock the boat too much.” And that’s why doing the stickering felt so good. I saw my managers were visibly upset and I saw the trainers getting emboldened by the feeling that they were doing something against management and management couldn’t do anything against them.

A: You couldn’t promise that there wasn’t going to be a repercussion, but people wanted to do it anyway.

M: The comfort of knowing everyone was doing it and that if one person was going to go, everyone was going to have to go—that solidarity made people feel more comfortable with the idea, so it wasn’t just them, a visible target, alone. The knowledge that the worst they were going to do was write me up or send me home—it was like, if I get a write-up for standing up for sick days, that’s fine, I’ll take that write-up, and if everyone else takes that write-up, even better. We’ll show them that this is more important to us than the fear of repercussions.

At first everyone was a little nervous, and then when they realized, yeah, we’re just going to stay with our stickers on, laughter started happening, people were making jokes.

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A: How does your experience in bargaining and your experience mobilizing in your club make you feel?

M: For a trainer, your job is really alone with your client; you feel very alone in that sense. But when you’re in bargaining or when we were all stickering, you realize everyone else has the same ideas. They might have different styles of training, different clients, different backgrounds, but they all face the same things. The big thing that they face is that they feel powerless. And when you get together you realize we have push-back, we have power. And the bigger the group gets, the more power you have.

A: If you were talking with a group of trainers from another club who hadn’t had that experience, what would you want to communicate to them?

M: The first thing I would say is that I was really scared! I was scared for two reasons: I was really worried that I would be singled out as the person who was leading the rebellion. But I was also scared that there would be repercussions on all the other trainers that I had asked to do this. I felt very responsible for that.

But as soon as I realized that nothing was going to happen because there were enough of us behind that movement, it really changed things for me.

A: The idea that each individual trainer is replaceable is constantly forced into peoples’ heads. But an entire club of trainers is not immediately replaceable.

M: Yes! A manager sending home all the trainers at peak hours is horrible for the manager because they’ll have to speak with all of those clients and say, “Oh hey, so we had to send Michael home.” And it doesn’t matter what they say, because I’m in communication with my client, I can tell them exactly what happened, and my client will be like, “What do you mean they sent you home for wearing a sticker? What does that mean for my session? What’s going on?” That will fall on management to deal with, it won’t fall on you. Your client isn’t going to turn on you. Your client will have your back.

And your manager knows that. They know they can’t send everyone home at 5:00. Maybe for one trainer but for five trainers? 20 trainers?

A: The fight for paid sick days—I believe that those things are achievable. But you have to believe that action would actually generate something. How do you come to believe that it’s possible?

M: Little steps help to push people forward and help people to see. Realizing, since the union came around, that someone’s there to have your back. To see other trainers in your club push forward and say that’s not cool. When you realize, I am being done wrong, I need to correct this, it really turns the page on how people view things. When you tell them, this is what GoodLife says, it’s like “What? That’s not right, that’s not fair. I’m worth more than that, I’m better than that. That shouldn’t be the response to the hard work that I’ve put in. They shouldn’t just swipe me away as unimportant.”

And as soon as you have that feeling that I’m not alone and everyone here is here for me and working towards the same thing, when what you’re asking for is fair, and it’s right—you stop wanting to sit down. You realize “I’m fighting for the right thing.” And at that point you see people change and come together. I’m excited.

*Michael Tran is a pseudonym
For more on the union campaign at GoodLife Fitness, see "Solidarity's No Heavy Lift, Say Fitness Workers," from the September 2017 issue of Labor Notes.