Local spotlight: Taking care of the whole person
Picture this: at your local's annual general meeting all members are in attendance, happily talking and sharing. The agenda is being disrupted by individual members who want access to the mic. They want to address their local leaders and share with them how they really feel. Stories begin to flow about how the union has helped them, even saved them, from situations that seemed beyond their control. The gratitude expressed is palpable. Tears flow as people share their stories.
This isn't union fiction – this is the reality of Ottawa Fisheries and Oceans Local 70713. Under that proactive leadership of Rotha Lennox, the local uses a holistic model of representation that is based on caring for people.
Rotha, who has taken all of the union training offered by PSAC, recognized at one point through personal challenges that many workers have no other place to turn to than their union.
She enrolled in the union counselling training offered by the Ottawa and District Labour Council. With additional skills from night school classes on such topics as dealing with complicated grief, she decided to change the way she does union work. Rotha took this knowledge and began to apply it in the local.
“Members often come to us when they are already in trouble. They may be facing disciplinary action from absenteeism or performance issues. When they come to me the first thing I do is listen,” says Rotha.
Rotha says that people are dealing with so much stuff in their lives that they can become overwhelmed. A change in someone's work pattern is a symptom of something else that's going on in their life.
“People feel they will be stigmatized if their issue is made public, so we are very careful not to allow that to happen. What we often find is that issues of addiction, depression, or complicated grief are affecting these members.”
As a “union friend” Rotha and her cadre of union advocates work to build the trust of the individual and then provide them with the support they need.
The local holds sessions in their workplace twice per week, where members bring their lunch and they share. It is an opportunity for people to connect and build relationships. All of the sharing is confidential. These lunches open the door for members to come forward with more challenging issues which are then dealt with individually.
Rotha shares two examples of where these open sharing sessions encouraged members to come forward with the challenges they were facing.
A male union member, a closeted gay man, eventually shared his internal turmoil over having chosen to have a woman act as his girlfriend so that he could be accepted on a local hockey team and fit in. This was causing him much distress. Rotha says the union counselling approach gave him an outlet to unburden himself and eventually move forward with his life. This allowed him to be more productive at work.
In another case, a female term employee came to the union when her contract was going to be terminated early. After a few discussions, she felt safe enough to share that she was living with HIV and experiencing neurological problems as a result of its progression. The union was able to work with her and management to address this sensitive issue. In the end, her term was extended and she was able to access disability payments when she was no longer able to work.
The family remains indebted to the efforts of the union and continues to keep in contact with Rotha. On the anniversary of their beloved daughter's passing, they say a prayer for those at the union who assisted their daughter – who would have otherwise been terminated with no protections.
“At our local meetings we sometimes have to shut down the accolades that flow from members, along with the tears. It's pretty powerful,” says Rotha. “We have gotten rid of a lot of the negativity that can characterize unions. I'm proud of that.”
Date Modified : 2011/12/12