OSSTF/FEESO members attend the Labour College of Canada

labour college fist

Engaging studies in labour leadership

The Labour College of Canada (LCC) is a program of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) that provides university-level labour study opportunities for those in labour interested in developing their leadership skills and knowledge. With a focus on leadership and social justice movements in Canada, the program provides participants with specialized courses and self-directed learning opportunities. The Labour College of Canada program consists of three week-long courses with online components to be completed prior to each course in addition to an independent project. This intensive program is designed for union activists who want to enhance their leadership capacities.

Since 2011, OSSTF/FEESO has sponsored approved Members to attend the LCC during its spring/summer cohorts under funding account 2054. A limited number of spots are approved each year, with applications first being considered by the Labour College’s admission team based on the program’s criteria for acceptance.

Melodie Gondek (District 25 Ottawa-Carleton) (MG), Jared Hunt (District 4 Near North) (JH), and Angéle Lacroix (District 32 Centre-Sud-Ouest de l’Ontario) (AL) are all recent participants in the program. Earlier this year I had the chance to interview them about their experiences, research, and their opinions on the program.
–Describe something you found surprising in your studies.
MG – “My research focused on “jargon” in unions and the labour movement. It was initially surprising to me that this issue continues to exist, because unions across the country are aware that language creates a barrier to full engagement of membership. Between structure and jargon, many members are confused, leading to apathy at best, or disdain of the union at worst. There is also an idea among some leaders that those who “make the effort” to decipher unionism prove their worth for professional investment, leaving behind those who struggle to understand. I found myself wondering why we aren’t collectively doing more to demystify the language of labour.”

JH – “The relevancy of the course readings and in-class discussions helped me a lot. So much of our readings focused on equity and social justice, movement building, outreach, and research/activism. As a student of Labour College I began to understand engagement as learning about activism and organizing. Through my work as a union volunteer and labour movement activist, the things I was learning about helped me put greater emphasis on learning. This meant that when I hosted an event or meeting, I made sure to create space for learning about organizing, community outreach, and equity awareness.”

AL – “I didn’t know what to expect to be honest… I was going head first with an open mind. What gladly surprised me more is the Indigenous components within the program. The recognition of the importance of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, their presentation, and their presence in some of our courses moved us all.”

–What were your overall project findings?

MG – “I focused on how to reduce union language barriers to member engagement.
After becoming intentionally active in our Federation, I noticed that language was limiting Members’ understanding of work as it was happening in meetings and conferences. Within the Labour College framework for independent learning and research, my first goal was to prove an issue existed. My project focused on the use of abbreviations and acronyms as jargon, creating barriers to understanding and engagement of union members. To gather data and measure the extent of the problem in a meaningful way, I chose to do an environmental scan at our Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA). Drawing from members’ various first languages, professions and experience, participants recorded the number of times an acronym or abbreviation they did not understand over the three-day meeting. Over three days, participants did not understand what was being said in our meeting an average of 17 times per day. Language can include or exclude and many Members who learned of this project wrote to me, expressing their feelings of navigating the ‘secret codes’ that make our Federation tick.”

When it is suggested that this is not a significant issue, it’s important to consider who may be left out by short forms and jargon:
New union members
Experienced union members
Members whose first language is not English
Members with disabilities
Otherwise marginalized Members

“Methods to resolve the issue can be simple; chairs beginning meetings with a reminder to limit use of acronyms and abbreviations, workshop signage, and charts. Language is always changing, making it important to take time to ensure all stakeholders have a clear understanding of what is being communicated.”

JH – “I focused on the intersection of OSSTF/FEESO Members and their ongoing involvement in Labour Councils.
Although I interviewed several members to ask about Labour Council involvement, I attempted to broaden my scope by asking if, given our current Labour Council capacity as an organization, OSSTF/FEESO and Members might be ready for an enhanced strategy of involvement. In other words, while researching a variety of sources, I imagined some day of having the opportunity to pitch some rationale about why and how to enhance our involvement. For the most part, during the past 25 years, OSSTF/FEESO leadership and staff have impressively fostered labour movement involvement. The culmination of decades of work is best understood in terms of the many roles and responsibilities of active Members. The numbers are fascinating and illustrate extensive capacity and depth. Better still, if we consider the collective well of labour movement-focused skills, experiences, and wisdom that exists within each active Member and the network of their collectivity.

I used personal experience, scholarly resources, interviews, and union publications (including constitutions) to formulate context and understanding of my question and focus. For 10 years I’ve been very active in many aspects of Labour Council, with primary focus on CLC and Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) projects and community outreach. I developed a communications role in my Labour Council executive to enhance the president’s communication, build-out social media and web presence, and establish a network of local communications specialists.Playing a central role as a communications officer greatly enabled my work on OFL projects like “Make it Fair.” It’s important to note that I learned this approach from OSSTF/FEESO training and structure, namely, combining communications training with political action.

Through my project I arrived at the conclusion that Labour Councils reflect union structure and bureaucracy. Active Labour Council members feel at home attending monthly meetings and committees. They get to represent their union and, when back in their local, they represent Labour Council. But do Labour Councils help defeat Doug Ford-style neoliberalism? When you think about it, the collective infrastructure of Ontario’s Labour Councils is extraordinary; however, their potential remains unrealized. As such, Labour Councils represent a profound opportunity for OSSTF/FEESO leadership, an opportunity that could at once help Labour Councils evolve as political entities and significantly enhance the skills development of OSSTF/FEESO active Members.”

AL – “I asked—How can we help equity-seeking and sovereignty-seeking Members become more involved/engaged/committed in their own union?

I had started this venture even before I started this course without really knowing it. As a leader of one of OSSTF/FEESO’s most geographically spread out Districts, covering the whole province, our reality is quite the challenge. The territory covered by my Bargaining Unit (francophone educators in South Western Ontario) poses a number of challenges to engagement. Our District territory is bigger than the size of Belgium, and we represent 2500 members across the province.

I learnt a lot of things just by sharing with other unions and other members in general – unionized or not. We need to understand branding, we need to put together strategies that will make people interested in something that they didn’t sign up for.
Historically speaking, a union was comprised of people sharing the same challenges and wanting the same resolution/outcome. But equity work tells us that we don’t always share the same lived-experiences, needs, and barriers. So this single approach to engagement can leave many feeling disengaged, especially those from equity and sovereignty-seeking groups. But how do we get the equity-seeking group Members involved for their own sake? What barriers are there to taking that first step in engagement?

I surveyed Members, I read through minutes and reports from the last 20 years of our Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA), and researched our history as a Federation along with the history of the labour movement in general. What I discovered is that as a Federation, we have it all – the tools, the knowledge, the thinking, we just need to do a better job of activating what we already have. From our Equity self-identification questionnaires, to the significant efforts we have put into Member Mapping, we have the information and background to help us take the next steps in engaging everyone. The organization is already taking important steps in developing better strategies to remove barriers, and this is the most fantastic feeling. We will be able to put the energy towards our cause to advance public education instead of equity within the house and membership.”

Describe the benefits of taking part in the LCC.

MG – “I was grateful to have made connections with union and labour activists across the country; it’s a privilege to have comrades with whom to bounce ideas or offer feedback on union or labour issues. About a year or so into Labour College, I also discovered the kind of leader I want to be and where my natural talents lay. I now see strength where I had been selling myself short. Finally, learning the distinction between unionism and labour activism had a great impact on me, showing the symbiotic need for community coalition and political lobbying. From grassroots organizing to legislative advocacy, everyone has something within themselves to propel progress for all.”

JH – “Students of Labour College learn about the richness of the labour movement in Canada. They graduate with a broader understanding, one that provides context and consideration for their own union. The independent project, course readings, and class discussions guide students through a constructive analysis of their individual roles as union members and activists in the labour movement. More importantly, the overall experience helps students understand that collective effort can have a big impact on union engagement and can result in positive change. In the beginning students are asked to frame most learning through the questions, what does it take to increase union membership density in Canada. They are also asked to seek understanding by looking at possibility rather than deficit; in other words, we build from accomplishments, not barriers.”

The course requires students to do a great deal of personal, professional, and academic reflection. It asks students to turn theory into practice (aka praxis) and its intrinsically experiential value cannot be underestimated. The space that gets created as a result of a prolonged study of the labour movement doesn’t exist in any union responsibilities.

AL – “The networking with other affiliates was a powerful part of my experience. Discovering and sharing tools and best practices that worked for some and not so much for others was eye-opening; we all have different ways of approaching this work and we can learn so much from our colleagues in labour. I appreciated developing ways of amplifying my knowledge on the labour movement and about my own Federation. I was pleased to learn more about how as unions, we are all facing the same challenges with equity work and with ensuring all members are included in the work we do.”

Members interested in applying for the Labour College of Canada should contact their District or Bargaining Unit President to find out more about OSSTF/FEESO specific deadlines, funding rules, and application guidelines.

For additional information about the Labour College of Canada, such as the process for registration and any criteria for acceptance, please contact the Labour College of Canada directly
Please note that although the LCC runs two cohorts yearly, OSSTF/FEESO only provides funding for approved attendees for cohorts that begin with the summer session each year.

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