Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Leaders and The Led – Part 2

The other day I wrote about what I perceive to be the chasm that exists between the executive and the general membership of organizations such as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF). Before continuing, I want to make it clear that I am a firm supporter of unions and federations, and believe that the people they represent would be in far less desirable positions than they are today if they did not exist. My concern, however, is that if the current divide continues, the long term survival of such entities is in jeopardy.

Today, during a time of increasing conservatism, many of the people best served by their organizations have attained a degree of affluence that, paradoxically, seems to be leading them to adopt a more conservative mentality. How many times, for example, have we heard people who should know better say, “Well, there was a time when unions served a purpose, but that time is over. We really don’t need them anymore.” Whether the speakers are teachers or tradespersons, the irony is that they would not be in a position to make such statements were it not for the success achieved by their bargaining units. They seem to forget that the salaries and benefits enjoyed did not arise out of the magnanimity of the employer, but were the result of often hard-fought battles. I can remember many times during the last few years of my career hearing young teachers utter such anti-union sentiments, some going so far as to say they resented ‘being held back’ by the federation. Few seemed to understand that even though they might be management’s ‘pet of the month’, the vagaries of administration are such that circumstances can change quickly, and falling out of favour can carry with it consequences that, without the protection of a federation, can be rather severe. The notion of individual ‘rights’ over the well-being of the collective is indeed a worrisome trend.

From my perspective, the best way to combat this is to make the membership feel like a valued and essential part of the organization. While it may seem that I am stating the obvious here, unfortunately, there is an attitude amongst the upper echelon that they have nothing to learn from the rank and file. In my own experience, the executive is often either condescending or defensive when advice is given by someone outside the power structure of either the executive or a federation committee. Indeed, they can get downright hostile if a member shows some initiative in trying to effect some changes in thinking. I’ll discuss my personal experience with this in my next post.

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