By Ryan Hayes
A group of Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) with the Halton District School Board (HDSB) were in the midst of a union drive when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With schools closed and physical distancing rules in effect, workers had to quickly shift gears and experiment with new approaches in order to win their campaign.
Already isolated? Bridging the gaps between precarious workers
“I wanted to stand with my co-workers and have a collective voice, so the employer could understand that we are together and deserve more respect,” said Lesia Carlson, a Designated Early Childhood Educator (DECE) with 18 years of experience.
DECEs are paired with elementary school teachers to provide all-day kindergarten in Ontario. Carlson has worked for the Halton board for the past five years. She is part of a group of 160 DECEs with the HDSB who are classified as “occasionals”. Occasionals wait on-call to receive their next assignment, which is often only the night before or on the day of.
The Halton board pays occasionals at the lowest rate on their DECE wage grid regardless of their experience, including those completing long-term assignments. If they are called-in to work, occasional DECEs earn $21.23 per hour. “Most of us need two jobs just to meet our basic expenses,” said Sarvath Fatima, an occasional DECE with eight years of experience in Canada. Prior to that, she worked as an ECE in Qatar and India for five years.
“We’re underpaid and we don’t get benefits or a pension,” said Fatima, highlighting a familiar reality in care and service professions where the workers are predominantly women and lack unions. Less than 2% of the full-time and occasional DECEs with the Halton board are men.
Due to the nature of their work, occasionals are rarely in the same place at the same time. According to Aminah Sheikh, an organizer with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), workers who previously felt like they were alone found a sense of connection through the union drive.
Adapting to the crisis: Organizing never stops
Sheikh wasn’t sure if the campaign could continue after school closures were announced for the period following March Break. But when nearly 70 workers turned out for their first Zoom webinar, it was clear that they were gaining rather than losing momentum due to the pandemic. “People who we’d never heard from before were coming out and asking questions,” said Sheikh.
The organizing committee decided to move forward with their campaign under new guidelines issued by the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) on March 29. The OLRB permitted applications to be submitted via email, including scanned copies of signed union cards, on the condition that the employer is still operating. Construction industry employers unsuccessfully tried to have all new union certifications suspended, as was done by the NLRB in the United States from March 19 until resuming on April 6.
On April 3, ETFO filed for certification and the OLRB scheduled a 48 hour online vote to begin on April 15. Under normal circumstances, votes are held within five working days. Employers often use this window to launch anti-union propaganda campaigns, including “captive audience” meetings where managers discourage workers from voting yes. However in this case, the HDSB did not mount an “anti” campaign, and workers used the extended lead time to their advantage.
ETFO filed with just over 50% of cards signed – safely above the 40% minimum to trigger a vote – but lower than the threshold organizers normally use to fortify against a potential anti-union campaign that could jeopardize their ability to win a majority vote. The organizing committee had momentum on their side, and after filing they received a full employee list for the first time, which allowed them to expand their reach.
Making it personal: The strength of organic leaders
Zoom calls became a regular feature of the campaign. Though sometimes unwieldy, online meetings enabled workers to experience a sense of unity and see their collective strength while remaining within the confines of their homes. Sheikh said that “Zoom fatigue” was not a concern. “People prioritized getting on the calls because they were concerned about their work and livelihoods.”
Worker leaders like Carlson and Fatima helped generate excitement and maintain focus during online meetings. They also connected with colleagues individually to explain the case for unionizing and discuss any questions they had. Members of the organizing committee enrolled in the online Organizing for Power training series led by Jane McAlevey to help hone their skills.
When workers reviewed the employee list, they realized that they had more connections than they had initially thought, and assigned point people based on their shared ties. “I was open and honest about work and my day-to-day struggles. I made it personal and my colleagues connected with that. Our discussions brought us closer together. I think the 1-on-1 calls made the biggest difference,” said Carlson, a mother of two who has been sewing masks for front-line workers.
“As a woman and a Muslim, I want our voices to be heard. When I spoke with my co-workers, there was a similar feeling that life was getting harder with less work and sometimes no jobs for days or even weeks,” said Fatima, a trusted colleague who was ready to offer a way to address their shared concerns. “A union is how working people gain a voice at work and the power to shape their working lives.”
“I made phone calls, I texted co-workers and used social media to encourage my colleagues to vote,” said Carlson. Even though they were physically distant, Carlson and her co-workers “shared photos of ourselves after we voted online, which was fun. We were passionate and we acted together and that was powerful.”
Building power one tough conversation at a time
By Sheikh’s calculation, the organizing committee convinced 40 workers who had not already signed union cards to vote yes during the period of physical distancing. “It wasn’t easy,” said Sheikh. “We built an organizing committee of strong women. We Zoomed and Zoomed some more. Many DECEs made calls all day long. People who didn’t know about unions were hard to move. It required multiple conversations. Lots of workers had sick family members and were struggling under the pandemic.”
The final result was a 99% “yes” vote with 126 of the 127 workers who voted online casting ballots in favour of unionizing. “Workers didn’t have much time to talk to each other before. We actually built stronger relationships in a time of social isolation,” says Sheikh. “The campaign gave us a feeling of comradery and allowed us to connect with each other,” added Carlson.
“But how deep can it go?” asked Sheikh. “It’s still hard to form a real connection and open-up when you are meeting for the first time through a screen. If our next campaign is entirely online, we’ll need to build a larger organizing committee, and spend even more time training for tough 1-on-1 conversations.”
Lifting everyone up: Organizing the unorganized
Amy Korzack is a full-time DECE in Halton region and played a key role in supporting the organizing campaign by her occasional colleagues.
Korzack is the president of her ETFO local and recalls when she and her colleagues negotiated their first union contract with the HDSB in 2011. The board refused to voluntarily recognize occasional DECEs as members of the bargaining unit, telling the union not to worry about a group of only a dozen or so workers. Soon after, the number of non-union occasionals ballooned by a factor of ten.
In 2016, Korzack’s local helped pass a motion at their union’s convention that called on ETFO to invest its resources in organizing the unorganized. Korzack comes from a union family, her father worked at a Ford plant for nearly 37 years. But when Korzack was in school, she didn’t expect that being an ECE would be a unionized profession. ECEs didn’t have the same public association with unions as autoworkers or teachers.
The motion resulted in Sheikh, who previously worked as an organizer with COPE Ontario and SEIU Local 2’s Justice for Janitors campaign, being hired as the union’s first staff person solely responsible for new organizing. Before the Halton campaign, Sheikh helped 180 occasional Toronto DECEs unionize with ETFO.
“All unions need to organize,” said Korzack. “In these difficult times of shared vulnerability, our compassion for our fellow human being and fellow worker grows. Now more than ever, organizing is what we need to do to confront the massive inequality and corporate greed in our society.”