Ontario Early Childhood Educators Unionize during Pandemic
A group of early childhood educators with the Halton District School Board, near Toronto, were in the middle 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 Ontario Designated Early Childhood Educators (DECEs) are paired with elementary school teachers to provide all-day kindergarten.
A group of 160 DECEs in the district are classified as “occasionals.” They wait on-call to receive their next assignment, often the night before or even the day of. These occasionals are the group that organized; other DECEs were already in the union.
The Halton board pays occasionals at the lowest rate on the DECE wage grid, regardless of their experience, and even if they are completing long-term assignments. Lesia Carlson, for instance, has 18 years of experience, including five years working for the Halton board.
They earn $21.23 (Canadian) 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 early childhood educator 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 nonunion care and service professions where the workers are mainly women. Fewer than 2 percent 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), the union drive brought a sense of connection to workers who previously felt they were alone.
MOMENTUM IN A PANDEMIC
After school closures were announced, Sheikh wasn’t sure if the campaign could continue. But when nearly 70 workers turned out for the campaign’s first Zoom webinar, it was clear that the pandemic was adding rather than subtracting momentum. “People who we’d never heard from before were coming out and asking questions,” said Sheikh.
The organizing committee decided to move forward with its campaign under new guidelines issued by the Ontario Labour Relations Board on March 29.
The OLRB is permitting 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 National Labor Relations Board in the United States from March 19 through April 6.
On April 3 the union filed for certification and the OLRB scheduled a 48-hour online vote to begin 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, the Halton board did not mount an “anti” campaign.
Workers used the time to their advantage. ETFO had filed with just over 50 percent of cards signed—safely above the 40 percent minimum required to trigger a vote, but lower than the supermajority typically needed to fortify support against a potential anti-union campaign. Luckily the organizing committee had momentum on its side, and after filing it received a full employee list for the first time, which it used to expand its reach.
COLLECTIVE POWER VIA ZOOM
Zoom calls were a regular feature of the campaign. Though sometimes unwieldy, online meetings gave workers a sense of unity and collective strength from 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 questions. Members of the organizing committee enrolled in the online Organizing for Power training series led by Jane McAlevey to 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 existing ties. By Sheikh’s calculation, during the period of physical distancing the organizing committee convinced 40 workers who had not already signed union cards to vote yes.
“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.”
“As a woman and a Muslim, I want our voices to be heard,” said Fatima. “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.”
“I was open and honest about work and my day-to-day struggles,” said Carlson, a mother of two who has been sewing masks for front-line workers. “I made it personal and my colleagues connected with that. Our discussions brought us closer together. I think the one-on-one calls made the biggest difference.”
She made phone calls, texted co-workers, and used social media to encourage her colleagues to vote. After voting online, they shared photos of themselves.
99 PERCENT YES
The final result was a 99 percent “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 camaraderie 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 one-on-one conversations.”
ORGANIZING NEEDED NOW MORE THAN EVER
Amy Korzack is a full-time DECE in Halton region and played a key role in supporting the organizing campaign by her part-time colleagues.
Korzack is the president of her ETFO local and recalls when she and her colleagues negotiated their first union contract with the Halton board 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 auto workers 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.”
Ryan Hayes is a researcher and cultural worker based in Toronto, where he is a board member with the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts.
A version of this piece was originally published at rankandfile.ca.