Why Union Matters

As a new teacher, back in the day, the idea of being a part of a union was fairly new to me. I had very little idea of what unions do and how they support the professional and mental well-being of people like me. I recall hearing varying opinions about ETFO, as a union body, as well as learning about some of the ways colleagues interacted with their local and/or provincial union. However, I wanted to find out for myself what my union was all about, what they could do for me and what I could do for them.

A personal story: My very first interaction with my union came at a very pivotal point in my career. My first job in 1999  was as a LTO teacher in Toronto. It was shortly after the amalgamation of the six cities into one mega city, and many of the administrative roles and responsibilities at the various board offices were still going through reorganization. After working for a month, I realized that I wasn’t getting paid and my bills were piling up. Though I submitted all the necessary paperwork and documentation to the board on time as directed, apparently I was nowhere to be found in their payroll system. Every time I called payroll to find out what was going on, I was redirected to someone else based on my last name. At one point, I was told that I was calling the wrong board office and was given another number to call. Apparently that person was out of the office and no one else was able to respond to my issue at that time, so I was given another number to contact, and so on and so on. This continued for another two months and I had no idea what else to do to solve the problem. One day, I shared this issue with a colleague, who happened to be our school’s union steward. She gave me instructions on how to contact my union with all the necessary information and documentation of my issues with getting paid. I contacted the union and, to my surprise, the very next day I got an emergency cheque from the board. Two weeks later my regular pay was deposited into my bank account and I have had no issues with payment ever since. That was my introduction, and the start of a great partnership, with my union and the connection has grown stronger over the years. 

As I got more involved in the union in my role as union steward, volunteering on various local and provincial committees, attending ETFO’s annual general meetings as a delegate and representing ETFO at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) Project Overseas program, I began to learn a lot about why union matters. I learned that ETFO not only fights for better wages and working conditions of its members, ETFO fights to improve equitable access to publicly funded public education. ETFO also advocates to ensure that members’ working conditions are safe and free from harassment and oppression. I also like the fact that members have access to professional development and quality teaching resources and support to ensure high quality student learning and achievement. I believe in a strong partnership between the union and the school boards across Ontario. A strong partnership would help to ensure that members feel safe at work and students receive high quality education in an equitable and inclusive environment. I know that not everyone might have had the same experience with their union as I did, but what remains true is that, together, our union makes us strong. 

For more information about your union, visit: EFTO

Positioning students as co-conspirators (and the fall of WE)

Since I began my teaching career six years ago, my practices of student engagement in activism and advocacy have evolved and shifted based on the community of learners I am working with. At the same time, my attitude towards this work has shifted consistently and drastically. The most notable change? My feelings toward social enterprises whose work in schools may appear charitable, but are steeped in controversy and insincerity.

In my first year of teaching, a student in my Grade Three class gave me a “Rafiki Bracelet” sold to them by the WE Charity. It was later that school year that I was sitting in a school-wide assembly, watching a promotional video for the same organization in which a group of women in Kenya were profiled as they beaded the bracelets themselves. Students were being sold the notion that they themselves would be contributing to the livelihood of these women and their communities by simply purchasing a bracelet. Colleagues and I asked ourselves: Why can’t we see the long-term impacts of these temporary solutions to a deeply systemic problem?

Many who criticize WE’s business model, through which students became a vehicle for sales and profit, point out how students were roped into the fantasy of “saving” impoverished communities with their efforts. What started with a Rafiki bracelet not only became thousands of dollars in spending on WE’s “voluntourism” programs, but also the excitement of post-graduation employment at WE without realizing that the organization overworked and underpaid its employees to a severe extreme.

As educators we can ask why students would have fallen victim to a model like WE’s, but what we should do is critically examine the ways that celebrity, fame, and ego were at the centre of WE’s initiatives, particularly WE Day, in order to convince students to join their cause. WE Day harnessed an unbelievable amount of power in numbers, but it fostered an almost cult-like manipulation and exploitation of our students who would have needed a trusted adult to help them understand more appropriate avenues for activism and advocacy work in school.

It’s been one year since WE announced it would be ceasing its Canadian programs after having been embroiled in scandal. My hope is that we use this turn of events to deepen our consciousness around what it means to be an activist in school and work hard to de-centre the ego from the work our students do to help others. Instead of portraying the student as the saviour, how might we portray the student as a co-conspirator? How might we foster a sense of humility in classroom activism? In what ways does our teaching perpetuate narratives in which non-western countries are “poor” instead of examining the systems of power that cause disparity?

These questions simply scratch the surface of the impact that WE’s programs, values, and corruption have had in our schools and on our students, here in Canada and across the world. As we reflect, we must also continue to name and unpack these problems in order to push past the fault in our practice and move forward in a good way. 

For an in-depth look into the WE scandal, listen to “The White Saviors” series by Canadaland: https://www.canadaland.com/shows/the-white-saviors/ 

 

The ETFO Annual Meeting – We need you!

The other day, I received one of my favourite e-mails of the year from my local: it’s time to put our names forward for the election of our delegation to the ETFO annual meeting!

If you aren’t familiar with the annual meeting, it’s an annual event where ETFO members from across the province gather in Toronto to do union business. We hear reports from committees and the general secretary; move, debate, and vote on resolutions, which can change the direction of the union or compel the union to take action; debate and pass the budget; vote for who will represent us on the Provincial Executive.

That sounds boring, doesn’t it? Except it ISN’T. It’s exciting getting to hear passionate, knowledgeable voices from around the province. You hear perspectives from a wide range of ETFO members whose voices you may not have heard otherwise. You’re confronted with ideas and issues that you may never have considered before. You also have a chance to get up and speak your truth on topics that matter to you.

Coming from a small town, I didn’t have a sheltered upbringing at home, but overall, my experience in Ontario was very… limited. Homogenous. White. Cis-het. Christian. I’ve spent most of my adult life unlearning a lot of the attitudes, stereotypes, and completely incorrect teachings I was exposed to growing up. The ETFO annual meeting has proven to be a truly incredible place to learn from people whose voices I didn’t hear growing up – both through the people who get to speak and through the people who aren’t represented on the floor.

I don’t want to suggest that the event is a purely joyful, wonderful experience. There are moments every year where I am frustrated, angry, fired up, disappointed. There’s an imbalance on the floor when it comes to who speaks, how Robert’s Rules are used, who’s in the room. I’ve heard some things that make me shake with anger. I’ve heard some things that break my heart. I’ve seen voices be silenced by louder, more privileged voices who know how to leverage the system in their favour.

Ultimately, that’s why I think it’s so important that more people become aware of what the meeting is, why it’s a valuable opportunity, and why we need some fresh new voices there. I’m admittedly a regular, having gone several times – and yet, when I’m there, I feel like I’m still a newbie. There are people there who have been to the meeting for twice as many years as I’ve been a teacher.

It’s time. It’s time for some different voices to be heard.

Does any of this sound exciting to you? Interesting? Worth checking out? Then you should put your name forward to be considered for your local delegation! (If SOME of this sounds interesting but you’d rather not have voting rights and want a different role, there is also a wide range of volunteer opportunities that you can seek for the annual meeting. I have never done any of them, so I can’t speak to them, but many people from my local have attended in various capacities and speak highly of that side of the experience as well!)

Every local has a slightly different process for electing delegates to the annual meeting. In mine, we put our names forward in February and hold an election at a general meeting. We set aside specific spots for new delegates and another set of spots for delegates from designated groups (racialized members, women, 2SLGBTQ+). We bring more delegates than we can have on the floor so that we can rotate throughout the day.

If you don’t know what the process is in your local, I urge you to contact your steward or someone in your local and find out how delegates are elected. Maybe you’ll go and decide it isn’t for you – but maybe you’ll go and find out that you love it.

If you do wind up there, you’re always welcome to drop me a line. I LOVE helping new delegates with the ins and outs of the meeting, and I’m always ready to chat with fellow educators.

A Year in the Life: Collective Bargaining Committee

(This is post #3 in an ongoing series. For earlier posts, click here and here.) 

Around two years ago, I did something bold, for me: I put my name forward to run for a non-released position with my local. I’d been my school’s steward for several years by that point and had also attended the annual meeting in Toronto a few times. I’d served four years on a provincial standing committee. It felt like taking a more active leadership role within my local would be a good next step to get involved.

In my local, there are a variety of elected positions available to members, from released officers (our president, VPs, and chief negotiator) to non-released executive positions. The one I chose was the Collective Bargaining Committee – a group comprised of the chief negotiator and twelve others elected by the local. It’s a large committee whose responsibilities are primarily, as you might expect, related to bargaining and defending our collective agreement – but there are other duties, too, which I’ll get into in a minute.

Sending the e-mail to put my name forward was the easy part. Just a push of a button, really. It was everything that came after that which made me nervous. Despite having a job where I stand in front of people and talk all day, despite having done a lot of theatre in my youth, the idea of getting up in front of my local and giving a speech was terrifying. But I did it! I may have put off writing my speech until the last minute, as always, and I may have been petrified the entire time, but I got up there, made my case, and was elected to the CBC.

I’m in the second year of my 3-year term now. I’ve really enjoyed my time serving on the CBC, and boy, what a time I chose to be in this position. Between provincial bargaining, local bargaining, and the pandemic, it’s been… interesting, to say the least.

So, what does a member of the CBC do?

It’s worth noting that all locals have slightly different structures, and the position I have here may not exist in your local. Keep that in mind!

Naturally, our primary responsibility as CBC is to negotiate and administer the local collective agreement. During that process, we meet as a group to discuss membership priorities, collaborate on a preliminary submission for bargaining (our first presentation to the employer of what we’re looking for), and elect representatives from our committee to sit on the table team (the people who are actually there in the room when bargaining is happening).

I have to say, it can be very empowering to see your suggestions actually get put into the preliminary submission that goes to the table. Even if your suggestion feels like a small thing at the time, it’s exciting!

Beyond bargaining, however, we also have other duties throughout our terms. We have several committees which we serve on jointly with our employer, some which are a regular part of our year (such as staffing) and others which are shorter-term. During staffing, we collectively monitor the vacancy lists as they’re posted to ensure that nothing wonky happens along the way. There’s an annual survey sent to members to ensure that the CA is being followed and check in on members’ working conditions (e.g. 20 minute instructional blocks, adequate prep and supervision time, etc.) that we review. We hear about grievances (in vague details, to be clear) and discuss issues that we have heard or witnessed in schools.

We also discuss really important issues during our discussions on bargaining – such as when to go with what the majority of members have asked for and when we have a duty to fight for something even if it isn’t one of the highest-ranked priorities of members. Sometimes, the needs of the few must outweigh the needs of the many, particularly when dealing with equity issues.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I threw my name into the running for this position, but I’m really glad I did. My term will be up at the end of the 2021-22 school year, so I’ll need to decide if I’m going to try for a second term or look for other opportunities. No matter what I decide, though, this has been an incredibly valuable experience that taught me a lot about my local and collective bargaining.

A Year in the Life: Being a School Steward

This is the second in an ongoing series about what it can look like to be an active, engaged ETFO member. Find the first entry here.

My first foray into union involvement was when I was encouraged to attend a monthly union meeting with the steward for my school. We went to the meeting, and there I listened to passionate educators discuss issues of importance in our local. I listened to my local president and released officers answer steward questions with compassion, patience, and wisdom.

When my steward asked me to be the official alternate a few weeks later, I was excited to take on the opportunity and learn more about being a steward. What does a steward do, exactly? 

Allow me to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to act as steward for your school. (The finer details of being a steward will vary from local to local, so keep that in mind.)

Attend regular union meetings. In my local, they’re held once a month. At those meetings, we hear updates from released officers on various issues in the board, committee reports, and equity presentations. We have an opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns. 

Forward key information to colleagues at school. As a steward, I receive information via e-mail and board mail that needs to be distributed to fellow ETFO members. This can include meeting minutes, info on upcoming PD opportunities, important memos about key issues (e.g., report card guidance), etc.

Support colleagues at the school level as needed. The most common type of support that I provide is through advice to colleagues when they ask me questions. Sometimes those questions go beyond my ability to answer, so I reach out to released officers. Sometimes, supporting my colleagues means helping them approach admin with concerns.

Defend the collective agreement. When ETFO members are asked to do something that contravenes our collective agreement, it’s my responsibility as steward to approach admin and have a discussion about it. I’ve been fortunate to have many excellent, supportive principals and vice-principals, so this has been a very rare part of my responsibilities.

Act as picket captain during job action. I’m sure picketing is fresh in most ETFO members’ minds this year. As picket captain, my responsibilities were mainly organizing shifts, getting information out to everyone, gathering questions, and making sure safety guidelines were being followed.

Being steward is a great opportunity to take on a leadership role in your school. It’s also an opportunity to learn more about your federation while helping your colleagues at the same time. If it’s something you think you might be interested in, chat with the steward at your school and see if you can tag along to a meeting some time!

A Year in the Life: What does being actively engaged in your local look like?

I consider myself a fairly involved member of my local. I’ve served as steward for 8 years, participated in committees, attended workshops. A few years ago, I took a big leap: I ran for an elected position (Collective Bargaining Committee). Most of this has just been me grasping at things that I thought sounded interesting at the time, but I’ve often found myself wishing that I’d gotten involved sooner. If I’d known what was involved in some of these opportunities, I would have gone for them much earlier on!

With that in mind, I thought it could be worthwhile to document the different ways I engage with my local throughout the year, in the hopes that it may inspire some of you to seek similar opportunities in your own locals.

For post #1 in this series, I think I should talk about how I got started in all of this back in 2012 and wound up as my school’s steward.

I don’t come from a union background. My parents have never been members of a union and we never really talked about unions – positively or negatively. I wasn’t an OT for very long, primarily because of the perpetual FSL shortage, but I attended a few informational meetings while I was. Then, in 2012, I was hired into a permanent position at the school where I had been working as an LTO teacher.

At that time, we were in the midst of contract negotiations. The steward at my school had been steward for a long time, upwards of 10 years, and she suggested that I tag along to a few meetings to see what it was like. I’m the first to admit that I’m a highly curious person with serious FOMO (fear of missing out), so I liked the idea of going to the meeting and hearing more about our bargaining situation first-hand.

At the meeting, I got to see the union in action. We heard from released officers, committee chairs, stewards. We had opportunities to ask questions, table motions, and interact directly with the people elected to represent us. It was thrilling for me. Who knew I liked meetings so much?! I loved hearing from people from all over my board. Until that first meeting, I hadn’t fully realized how much things could vary from school to school. It was also fascinating to hear people speak so passionately about their areas of expertise, whether that was in LTD, Health and Safety, equity, bargaining, etc.

After that first meeting, I started attending more often with my steward, serving as a de facto alternate. She helped me navigate some of the intricacies of being a steward, what the different acronyms meant (because oh BOY are there a lot of acronyms that everyone seems to just assume you know!), who the long-time stewards are that I could ask questions of, some of the history of our local. She started including me in some of her interactions with colleagues so that I could see what it meant to be a steward at the school level.

When we staged our one-day political protest, I was volunteered to be picket captain. I’d never held a picket sign in my life, and suddenly there I was, responsible for rallying my colleagues and managing the site. Whoa! But also, super energizing!

The following year, I officially took over as steward, giving my colleague a much-needed break. I served as steward for my school from that point until the end of last year, through good times and bad, seeing them through some of the most tumultuous times I’ll ever see in both my personal life and my professional life. There were long days, but I really, really loved the sense of purpose and connection I felt in serving as steward. I also learned so much about my union that I never would have known otherwise!

This year, I’ve stepped back as steward – in part to try to encourage some of my colleagues to become more involved, and in part because I need to take a break to focus on some things in my personal life. It feels so strange not being the point person for communication, questions, problem solving. At the same time, I’m excited to see my colleagues getting more involved. I hope one of them finds it all as interesting as I do.

If you’ve been wondering what it’s like to be steward or you even just want to learn more about your local, I urge you to reach out to your school steward and see if you can attend a meeting. You just might find that you love the job!