Union Matters Podcast #6: Empowering NSGEU Women

This week, guest host Mary Otto, President of NSGEU Local 43, speaks with NSGEU’s 1st Vice President Sandra Mullen about the NSGEU Women’s Conference, empowerment, and the 2019 Convention.


See below for a full transcript of this week’s podcast:

Hi and welcome to Union Matters, the NSGEU Podcast. My name is Mary (MO) and I’m going to be your host for today. I’m a member of Local 43, which represents the lab workers of Canadian Blood Services. I’m really excited to be at the NSGEU building here in Burnside, where I will be participating in the NSGEU Women’s Conference. I’ve been a member for 15 years and I’ve been wanting to come to one of these women’s conferences for pretty much the whole time, but I, for one reason or another, haven’t been able to do it. And I really wanted to share with our members what goes on at the women’s conference, so I have grabbed Sandra Mullen (SM), who is the 1st VP of NSGEU and one of the organizers to join me and talk about it. Thanks for joining us, Sandra.


SM You’re welcome, Mary.


MO I know you’re super busy, so I really do appreciate it. Do you want to tell us a little about what the women’s conference is?


SM Sure. The Women’s Issues Committee, which is just that, we plan a conference, usually in an off year from convention, so, of course, our convention is coming up next year. The mandate of the committee s to host annual workshops. We will be revisiting those terms of reference, but we have in the past hosted a workshop. Last year was on women in political roles in the legislature, running for political office. We did some workshops with communications, took a tour of the legislature, just to make our female members aware of what’s out there for them.


MO We have a lot of female members. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily realize NSGEU is 75% of our members are women.


SM Correct, exactly. So, of course, the Women’s Committee, like the provincial committees, one representative from each region, a chair person who is a board member, and I’m the executive liaison. So this year we, in planning our conference, just due to a number of issues as to what time of year it would happen, it is today and tomorrow (November 17 & 18). There are many issues that pertain to all females, or people who are trans-gendering. So it’s not just women’s issues, this was the first invitation we put out that did not specify only women need apply. However, we did not get any other applicants, we would have certainly taken some. So we are going to be talking about things that will pertain to all our members. The theme of this year’s conference is Empowering Women to Empower All, because you empower the women of the union, which are 73% of the union, they’re going to take this information back to their locals, to their community, and we hope that that’s how we build a stronger membership and have the women be courageous to get involved. And we have some first time people coming, we have people who have been, like yourself, Mary, involved in a lot of things, but not having been to our women’s issues conference. So, we’re looking very forward to the participants who are coming and we hope that, not only are we going to give them information and they’re going to hear what we’re presenting, but we need them to participate and they empower the people at the table.


MO And that’s actually one of the things I really love about NSGEU is it is so participatory. I find that pretty much any event I come to I’m asked for feedback and what did I like about the conference or the educational thing and I’m actually taking part and I feel that my voice is very important. I feel that it is something that NSGEU does well – listening to all of our members and giving us a voice and the fact that each of our members, their voice counts.


SM It really does. You will see from the group there are people who have probably never attended a union function, there are people who have been here before, but they’re contributing to something. We’re pulling together panels of people who are going to be in the audience. We want the people at the tables to ask questions of the panelists that we do have.


MO And who are the panelists that you have?


SM Our first session this afternoon that we’re looking very forward to is about women that make a difference, so, as most women do make a difference in their lives of their loved ones, there’s what you do in your family, your community, and in your union. First up we have Tammy Martin, the NDP MLA from Cape Breton, eager to come and share her story. We have Sandra Margietti, who is a well known, active, former school board member, and that was only due to the fact that Stephen MacNeil decided we didn’t need school boards anymore.


MO Which is a horrible blow to women in politics, because it was the one level of elected officials where women were in the majority. A lot of women, I also think a lot of women get their start in politics through union activism, running for elected position, but also the school board was they way a lot of women got involved in local politics. I really feel that by eliminating the school boards it was such a blow to women in politics.


SM Well Sandra has been a school board member for 20 years, elected by her community, so she’s well known in that community. She represents persons of colour. She also happens to be well known to the executive of NSGEU and her son happens to be Jason MacLean. So we’re eager to speak with her. I’m not sure we’ll record all the answers that she gives us. I think Mr. MacLean’s a little nervous.


MO Well, obviously, she is perfect for the role of how women empower people because she obviously did a pretty good job of empowering her son to get involved and run, otherwise, probably without her, I think he’d probably agree that he would not be the President of NSGEU right now.


SM He says the very same thing, and I think, in his welcome message you’ll hear that. I like to say there’ two Sandras in his life and she’s first. The last person we have on our panel was fortunately able to arrive by plane late last night. Jacqueline Swaine. Jackie is president of SEIU here in Nova Scotia and she is on the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and Chair of the Women’s Committee for the Federation of Labour. So, of course, the Federation of Labour here in Nova Scotia represents the 90,000 unionized workers. That committee will be attending our conference as well. Jackie will be sitting on that panel as someone who works and participates fully in their union activities.


MO Absolutely. I’ve met Jackie on many occasions and she is absolutely a fierce leader, which I think is one of the things I love about the union movement, that there are so many strong, powerful female voices. I know it’s one of the things that got me more involved in union activity are people like, I remember going to my first convention and meeting Margaret Anne McHugh, who has just recently retired, she was the Education Officer here at NSGEU, and she was just like, okay, you’re coming, and you’re getting involved and you’re getting active and I’ve heard so many story from friends I’ve made within the union and it’s really a sisterhood. People who have made these life-long bonds where, you know with women you would maybe wouldn’t have met normally in your day-to-day life, you have really not a whole lot in common other than your passion for, you know, union activism, you click, these bonds are made, it’s an amazing thing to see and how may of these women are helping lift each other up. I really appreciate that about you as well, because it something that you seem really passionate about. I know I’ve certainly felt very supported by you.


SM Well, thank you. I certainly remember my first women’s conference that I attended and it was one of the very first things that I participated in and I came home totally amazed and empowered that all of these women shared their stories and in this day and age, I’m talking 12-14 years ago, there were women out there who had never been away overnight from their children, and the children were 14! I walked away from that thinking that the scope of who we represent is not what I though, or not what I lived. I continue to believe that there is that, in our membership, so that we have to start at grass roots level to make people feel welcome, and if you feel welcome, you’re more likely to come, if you feel welcome your more likely to attend a local meeting. There are many people who have no idea what their local number is, but some invitation sparked their interest so they apply, and it’s not to be condoned but it’s about making people feel comfortable to want to participate, to go back to their locals. I saw it at the very first women’s conference that I attended. I was really happy to become a member of the Women’s Issues Committee and to bring that back to the table, because we all think that we’re making progress, but there’s still that situation out there where people are at a grass root level very, very early.


MO I think there are lot of barriers that we don’t even think of that keep people away, and often women away. I think we need to do a better job of educating our members on what’s available, so the fact that you can claim childcare and eldercare, I think that really needs to get out there. If you’re attending your local meeting and it’s in the evening and it’s when you would normally be at home with your kids (it’s not for when you would normally be at work, because obviously you normally would have to get childcare) and it’s also for eldercare as well, because let’s face it, a lot of people and a lot of women are taking care of both their kids and their parents. Or their kids have gone and now they have their parents living with them. I had my grandmother as my tenant for a while. But having that in place, being able to say we have this childcare form you can fill out and you can get reimbursed for some of those expenses, but if you don’t know that’s in place, it’s a barrier to you showing up. Hopefully today on this podcast we can share that. And that’s some of the stuff you’re doing with the Women’s Issues Committee, too, isn’t it. Looking at what those barriers are keeping women away?


SM Oh, absolutely. That’s why I say that the members that are attending are going to be important in empowering the sisters they sit with. You may be coming to the table as a newbie, and you’re going to be sitting with someone who may be involved for 25 years. We did try to mix up that level so that people empower each other. We don’t always hear the question that somebody might have at a table, so somebody else can answer that. And regarding child care and eldercare, it’s very much a barrier to most people. Let’s face it, wages have not grown like they should so you don’t have all that extra money to pay on things so you can attend something. It’s always been the union’s point to make sure that people don’t go out of pocket. I realized that when I attended that first conference and how everything was provided. It was such a wonderful way to experience the sisterhood of the union. We’re going to be doing a little bit of that, we’re going to share some information, provide a whole lot of information. We have somethings that we often take from granted that we’ve known about for years that we’re bringing back. Today will be a lot about what is out there for our membership. Everything from the Cancer Nova Scotia people. We have somebody coming from Feed Nova Scotia to launch a new campaign. I don’t want to spoil it for you, Mary, and give you the whole agenda, but today is going to be a really good day. We have Susan LeBlanc, who is a young newly elected MLA here in Dartmouth. She’s definitely a good friend to the NSGEU Women’s Issues Committee. She’s a great speaker on how to be a young women of young children in an elected role.


MO I know, it’s gotta be so hard. That’s one of the exciting things when I look at the provincial government right now that we actually have a few MLAs who are younger women who have young children and the fact that they’re doing it.


SM She is our guest speaker this evening. She’s really looking forward to it. I know the women are thoroughly going to enjoy her talk tonight. One of the tips she gave us some time ago was, in the campaigning day she realized they offered her a clothing allowance because, and that’s some kind of policy, but, we don’t always have that normal wardrobe that they expect as a campaigning member for a party, Little things like that, that she gave us that we would never have known, so We’re really looking forward to her talk tonight.


MO That’s awesome. I’m super excited about that as well. She’s a very engaging speaker. For those of our members who maybe didn’t know about the women’s conference, I’m assuming there’s probably going to be one again in the future. That’s open to any of our members, isn’t it? Anybody can apply from across the province? It’s not just for people here? I know sometimes people think of the NSGEU as the building in Burnside, but really, we have members from right across the province. I don’t know if people realize, but you’re not local to Halifax-Dartmouth, are you?


SM No, that’s right I live in Weymouth about 3 hours outside of metro. Yes, the conference, we try to have it in the off year from convention. A few years ago we changed to a triennial convention, so it is a bit challenging and we need to revisit how we do that conference itself. How can we budget for better workshops? It may not be a full-blown conference, but, can we host a workshop? We do a lot of things and we do offer that conference call, which goes out to the whole membership. So certainly it goes out to our activists and presidents from all the locals should get that information. Because of budgetary limitations we could only accept 40 members out of 4000 real activists, 30,000 members. How do we get activists? I like to say we go on a fishing trip. We’re gonna reel them in, get them comfortable coming to something and meeting other people and these are the people who then go back to their locals, perhaps step up to a more active role in the executive and get involved.


MO I’m the president of my local, and it can absolutely be a struggle sometimes to try to get more people to join the executive or get involved. There’s so many different opportunities out there for people to get involved in the NSGEU. It’s something we all struggle with sometimes. How do we engage out members to get them out and involved? I can guarantee, if you go to your local meeting and you’ve never been or you maybe you do regularly go to your local meeting and that’s fantastic – I would be happy to have my members come to every meeting so I can hear what’s going on and what their concerns are, but if you go up to your local executive and say, hey, I want to get involved, or I want to know what is going on in the NSGEU, they are going to be absolutely thrilled.


SM It is really wonderful to see people come in at the start of the conference and go out the door tomorrow afternoon with a revitalized energy and the want to participate, or, the other side of what we’re doing on Sunday, Mary, is an education side. It’s going to be focussed on the NSGEU. We’re going to have a panel with some very important women in our union, I’d like to say the top female in the union right now is Robin MacLean, our executive director. We will have a panel with staff tomorrow morning. We also are going to end off on showing women and the participants of this conference how to make change in their union, and that’s how to write a resolution. It’s timely, because we’re coming up to deadlines. January starts our countdown to convention. Teaching people how to write a proper resolution will allow change to get made at convention, so that timing of our conference is perfect. We are going to not only empower people to get involved, we are going to educate them in how to make that change. That’s what we’re doing tomorrow. A couple other things as well, but I think it’s timely.


MO I think that’s wonderful. So for those of our members who are listening, a lot of people don’t necessarily realize that at convention, any of the locals can write a resolution. If there’s something you really feel strongly about, either something that is impacting your local or you want to see a change in the direction of the NSGEU, you can write a resolution. There are very strict time lines that you have to follow. You have to get them in by February or early March. I’m thinking of submitting one from my local so I can take that time, sit down with my local members, write this resolution and submit it. If’ it’s done correctly then it will go to convention where representatives from all locals across the province can debate and then vote on your resolution. If the membership agrees it gets passed. That’s one way you can have a direct impact on how the next three years play out in the NSGEU. It’s really an inspiring thing for anybody who has never been to convention. My first convention I was blown away. I know sometimes people find it a little boring. I’m a political junkie, so having people debate these resolutions on the floor, I got so excited and so pumped up, just seeing how and individual member of such a large organization can have such a direct impact on how this organization works. The people have the power. We’re such a democratically run organization. It’s an amazing thing to see and I think it’s great that you’re empowering our members to do that.


SM I hope to see some of our women, if they don’t stand up and present resolutions, but they will speak to them. Having that knowledge about the proper way to write a resolution is going to help. There is going to be a town hall with all the local presidents in early January to review all the timelines that are required as we approach the countdown to convention. Like you said, convention sets the term for the next three years. It is an awe-inspiring event if you’ve never been.


MO So what you can do is, you’re going to want to go to your local meetings. You will have a local meeting before convention were you will elect members to go to convention. Every local is entitle to representation at the convention. If it’s something that interests you, go to your local meeting and you can run and get elected to go to convention. That’s where you can see all this take place.


SM The delegate count will be going out to the locals in the very near future. All the delegates from all the locals will be joining us May 8th in Halifax, but I’m sure that there will be many podcasts between now and then that will speak to convention.


MO I think there are plans to do podcasts at convention. You may end up on here!


SM We look forward to hearing from the members who attend convention and I hope that you will be able to speak to some women participating in the conference this weekend.


MO Thanks for taking the time to speak to me.


You’ve been listening to Union Matters, NSGEU’s podcast series. We hope you subscribe. If you have any ideas, comments, or questions, let us know by sending us an email to communications@nsgeu.ca or call us toll free at 1-877-556-7438. You can join our NSGEU Facebook page and post comments there. See you soon!

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