Wading through the swamp water: Experiences and approaches as a woman leader in labour

An interview with Patty Coates, OFL President

I recently had the opportunity to sit with Patty Coates, the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and OSSTF/FEESO member from District 17, Simcoe to discuss her role as the first female president of the OFL, the challenges and possibilities labour currently faces, and the importance of worker solidarity in the face of COVID-19.

The OFL is the uniting labour body of workers in Ontario and serves as a centralizing force for union organizations in the province and a representative body at the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). The OFL, in tandem with local Labour Councils around the province, lobbies for better labour laws and employment standards, fights to maintain worker protections, advocates for better working conditions for all workers in Ontario, and strives to elect a progressive provincial government. As a member of the OFL, OSSTF/FEESO has a number of representatives who sit on a variety of committees and in a variety of elected positions.

Patty Coates was elected to the position of OFL president in 2019. Previously she served four years as the Secretary-Treasurer of the OFL, and cut her teeth as a labour activist starting when her Educational Assistants Bargaining Unit (now called the Education Workers Bargaining Unit) organized and joined OSSTF/FEESO in 1995. Patty became the fledgling Bargaining Unit’s vice-president at their formation and moved to the role of president of the group in 1998. Through her time as an OSSTF/FEESO activist, Patty was involved as the Status of Women liaison to Provincial Council, a Provincial Councillor, a member of the Collective Bargaining Committee (now the Protective Services Committee), and a variety of advisory workgroups. One of her fondest memories is from 2015 when she was running for election to Secretary-Treasurer of the OFL while at the same time working as part of our provincial support staff bargaining advisory workgroup. The OFL convention and bargaining were happening simultaneously that week, and luckily at the same hotel. Patty fondly remembered how this was a solidifying moment for her, one where she knew she was on the right path, doing all she could to support the workers of Ontario.

I asked Patty about the challenges she faced and still faces as a woman in this leadership role. With the incredible increase in representation of women at labour’s table in Canada and Ontario, her role is one that echoes the slow changes we hope to see. We now have female leaders of Ontario’s four main education unions—OSSTF/FEESO (Karen Littlewood), the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario—ETFO (Karen Brown), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association—OECTA (Barb Dobrowolski), and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens—AEFO (Anne Vinet-Roy). Females are also at the helm of the Canadian Union of Public Employees—Ontario School Board Council of Unions—CUPE–OSBCU (Laura Walton), the Canadian Union of Postal Workers—CUPW (Jan Simpson), and the CLC (Bea Bruske), in addition to those unions representing primarily female workers, such as Services Employees International Union Healthcare—SEIU Healthcare (Sharleen Stewart), and the Ontario Nurses’ Association—ONA (Vicki McKenna). Patty’s first thought was that the face of leadership does not yet sufficiently represent the workers. She noted that we must continue to push for greater representation by Indigenous, Black, and racialized leaders and that the move to having more female leaders is a reminder that change, while slow, is possible when we take the time to listen to one another and to centre voices other than those of the status quo. Patty reminded me that the unionized labour force in Canada is now 53 per cent female, yet the percentage of female leaders lags well behind that. Similarly, the face of union leadership remains significantly whiter than the workforce, and Patty recognizes this change must happen more quickly and that we cannot be our best if union leadership does not look like the workers it represents.

The personal challenge that Patty noted as one of her hardest is finding and maintaining her own unique voice as a leader. She said, “While I have broken the glass ceiling in the OFL, I still have shards of glass in me. I’ve been given the advice, often by male leaders around me, that I should be strong. And while that’s all well and good, I have to also find and be true to my own style. I have to be able to use my own skills of listening and considering as the basis of my leadership.” Patty continued, “Sometimes it’s like wading through the swamp water before finding the shore,” noting that the unspoken rules and processes, and the differing expectations on her as a female leader, have been part of what she has had to carefully navigate while developing her own unique style of leadership. Add into this challenge the fact that Patty’s tenure as president only started months before the pandemic, forcing all OFL work online, away from the grassroots face-to-face work that is so important to organized labour. But for Patty, the challenges are far outweighed by the successes.

When I asked Patty about her successes, she answered with a humility and a considered pause: “Women tend to lead differently, we often bring a different level of compassion and listening to the table. Fists on tables may have their place, but I don’t believe they do with the membership. I have to step back and listen to the lived-experiences of the members; it is the only way I can learn what workers need and it is the only way I feel I can properly represent them.” She drew my attention to the OFL’s year-long internal audit, its Anti-Oppression Review, which is taking the organization through an in-depth questioning and revamping of its policies, procedures, meeting norms, and engagement strategies. The prime tenet of this review is to step back and listen to the membership. She plants this work deeply in her own leadership style: “I’m still flawed, of course. When we make decisions, I have to step back and ask whose voices are missing, who do we need to hear from?” She cited a recent example of bringing in the voices of gig workers to OFL consultations as the government considers lobbying from Uber to create a third tier of worker under the Employment Standards Act. Patty knew that stepping back and letting Ontario’s gig workers tell their stories would lead the OFL to the best possible protections for these workers and would help the OFL fight for the rights of all gig workers.

This change in the type of labour we see in Ontario highlights the changes we are also seeing in organized labour in the province. For Patty, this means remaining true to the core values of worker safety, worker rights, and job protections, extending those to the new face of labour. While recognizing the diversity of our workforce, we must also embrace the uniting force of bettering the lives of all workers in the province. Patty’s goal is to continue to increase the OFL’s presence in the lives of workers—to make the OFL the dining-room name that workers speak of when they speak of being safe, protected, and respected. This means continuing to build capacity between all affiliates, but it also plays into Patty’s belief that we must listen more to on-the-ground workers and centre their experiences in our fight for better working conditions for all. She said, “We have amazing activists across this province, but we also have workers who have the one issue that is the most important to them, and we must be able to harness that focus to bring more workers in as activists for what matters to them. We have people whose primary focus will be affordable child-care, access to expanded health care, long-term-care needs, or paid sick leave. This is where listening to the experiences of the worker must take us; I believe in the same things workers care about and we need their experiences to help shape our advocacy and policy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted how the OFL can engage with and listen to the workforce it represents, but it hasn’t all been for the worst, says Coates: “The switch to online meetings does mean that we’ve been able to better hear from our rural, northern, and remote workers and communities. It means we have shifted how we do outreach, and while nothing can replace the power of face-to-face organizing and activism, being online has given us a new perspective and access to some voices previously unheard. And some of these new voices are now able to be activists because they can work online to engage and shake up the system that is trying to hold down workers.” She continues: “The pandemic has also led to the recognition of other frontline workers: grocery workers, personal support workers (PSWs), and delivery folks, for example. Finally the greater public sees their value and this will help the OFL fight for fair wages, paid sick leave, and other worker protections. Their stories are being told and their experiences are being valued like never before.”

Before letting Patty go, I asked her about how being an OSSTF/FEESO member has impacted her leadership style. She highlighted the uniqueness of her position in 1995 as her Bargaining Unit was organizing with the Federation: “My experience of representing educational assistants in a Catholic board within OSSTF/FEESO was the first time I realized the power of my voice and of the individual story. We worked to educate the leadership at the time to move them from slogans that focused on the ‘public school system’ to the now much more accepted ‘publicly-funded education system.’ We showed the leadership that their membership was greater than what they saw and greater than who they were really representing. So that early challenge has always been a reminder to me that I have to be willing to see beyond my immediate view, I have to have conversations and listen to all the members I represent.”

Patty also pointed out the amazing line of femtors that have helped shape her and who have encouraged her along the way. From local leaders and comrades, through to provincial and now federal female leaders and activists, Patty credited much of her success to other women who have taken the time to encourage her, share with her their strategies, and also just be there to hear about the good and the difficult times. She noted that, “This also means changing how we see the idea of support play out. Is it providing childcare so a colleague can go to a union meeting or event, is it offering support when a woman is in leadership and is juggling family and other obligations, or is it remembering to check in regularly on one another to make sure we’re ok? COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for many of us; we’re seeing how the work-life balance can severely impact our mental health.” This mindset change also includes women being willing to support one another without fear of losing our own positions of power, and for Patty, this recentring of notions of power parallels her leadership style of letting others tell their story and sharing the empowerment that comes when we are united in our fight for the rights of all workers.

About Tracey Germa
Tracey Germa is the editor of Education Forum and education-forum.ca.

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