In Your Corner – Chris Harris – Steward for School of Health and Community Services

My Journey From A Non-Unionized, to A Unionized Environment, to the Role of A Steward

By Chris Harris

I am currently in my 10th year of employment at Durham College, having worked 23 years as a Child and Youth Worker in various settings that were all in non-unionized, non-profit settings.

My first year of employment at Durham College involved Coordinating a two-year condensed Advanced Diploma Program that was brand new; developing and offering 4 different courses; and managing 5 placement courses with all the responsibilities and “issues” that come with placements. As a new union member I received the regular union communications, the invitations to General Meetings, and of course was very aware of the union dues that were being deducted from my monthly pay stub.  However, I really didn’t pay much attention as I was so focused on my job responsibilities and honestly just trying to survive.

I then began to feel very overwhelmed and thought “I think this is too much, I am having difficulty managing it all”. Unfortunately, I did not feel that there was anyone I could approach.  I actually was fearful that I would be looked upon as being incapable.  So I decided to reach out to the union; specifically approaching a member of the LEC. I was told that due to the fact I was on probation and that there was no policy at that point regarding having new hires assume the Coordinator role, it would be more difficult to support me.  However, she would try in any way she could.  Most importantly for me, I finally felt at least I was receiving some emotional support and had found someone who I could be open and honest with.  One significant change that did occur in the years to follow was that the union presented a successful case for not asking new full-time hires to assume the role of Coordinator due to the workload implications.  I also began to learn the benefits of having a SWF and a collective agreement; two things that are there to support us in our work and ensure that our rights are being upheld.

I then began to attend the Union General Meetings so that I could understand what more the union offered and how they were attempting to support their members. At one of the first General Meetings I attended I will never forget listening to a full-time faculty “sister” who had been employed at DC for 30+ years recount what it was like before the union fought for things like the SWF.  Her story portrayed how pre-SWFs, faculty were trying to manage workloads that were basically unmanageable.  It was at that point that my thoughts/beliefs about the union shifted significantly.  I realized that some of the reasons that were involved in my decision to make the move to Durham College, such as the much higher salary than I had been making; a solid benefit package and a pension were because of what the union had fought for.  The next step in my journey was to try and find a way that I could:  1) support what the union was trying to do and 2) have the privilege and opportunity to support my fellow faculty members who may be experiencing a situation similar to mine (one causing stress) and also to work to ensuring all members’ rights are being upheld.

Now I am proud to say I am an LEC member of Local 354. I am inviting and encouraging all of you to participate as a union member which can look like many different things such as:  attending general membership meetings, seeking support from your steward, reading the many resources available to you as a union member including your local’s website and the OPSEU website; sharing your ideas/thoughts/concerns and even disagreements you have about the union; and asking questions.  The bottom line is:

It’s the U and I in Union that makes us strong (UAWgimmefive)

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and I would like to leave you with these two quotes:

Virtually ALL the benefits you have at work, whether you work in the public or private sector, all of the benefits and rights you enjoy every day are there because unions fought hard and long for them against big business who did everything they could to prevent giving you your rights. Many union leaders and members even lost their lives for things we take for granted today. (TheNewDeal100)

Our labour unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits.  Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor. (John F. Kennedy, Speech Aug. 30, 1960)