Directors’ Blogs: My Labour Journey and the Value of Labour Education

Written by: Joey Hartman, WELLS Director and Recording Secretary

This blog series is meant to cover general topics related to labour education. It is managed by our WELLS Directors

Back in 1981 I belonged to the VMREU; a mid-sized independent union that has since evolved into CUPE Local 15 in Vancouver. The VMREU, was part of municipal joint bargaining in the lower mainland, and we’d just returned to work after a 14-week strike.

That strike changed my life. As a 23-year-old daycare worker at Ray Cam Centre, I spent my time on the picket line walking with seasoned union activists. They helped me understand the issues, encouraged my many questions, and urged me to get more involved. Pay equity emerged as a key issue over those 14 weeks, and I went back to work with a cheque that made up for all the wages lost during the dispute, plus a much-improved collective agreement to look forward to.  

The power of collective action, good strategy and the importance of unions became clear. Equally important, was the education I received on that picket line. It was through hours of conversation with other workers, mostly women nearing their retirement, who shared their wisdom and savvy observations, and who convinced me to become a shop steward after the strike.

Within a month I was elected steward, and soon after to my union executive. There was so much to learn! As an independent union, the VMREU did not enjoy access to the Canadian Labour Congress training and was not big enough to support a comprehensive in-house program. Its modest steward training program offered occasional evening workshops, which were helpful but limited.

Then I heard about the former Labour Studies Programme at Capilano College. Cap’s open-registration courses used popular adult education to teach a range of labour topics in evening and weekend classes. Most were held in union offices, and all were affordable – even on a daycare worker’s salary. 

I took just about every course they offered: economics, human rights, advocacy, leadership, labour law, history, parliamentary procedure and many more. I met incredible instructors and activists from a wide range of unions, soaked up the information and built skills upon skills.  

The exposure to so many other unions was really valuable.  I learned about so many different cultures, structures, practices, types of work, and ways of looking at the world through these interactions. It also developed a community among learners. We recognized each other at conferences, events, in demonstrations and rallies. 

This labour education set the foundation to spend the next 30+ years as a union and social justice activist, staff, and labour leader. My working career completed as the president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council (VDLC). 

When elected to the VDLC in 2011, I asked Leo McGrady, who had been one of my instructors, what ideas he had for my new role. Together, we came up with the idea of a labour law program housed by the labour council, that would embody the key values of open registration, accessible, affordable, and relying on union-side lawyers, practitioners, and activists as instructors to develop capacity among workers. 

Fast forward to 2020.  The advances of technology, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, dramatically shifted how education is delivered and accessed. Along with Janet Patterson and Stephen von Sychowski, we collaborated to form WELLS to expand upon those same values to provide labour education through online learning. 

WELLS complements and amplifies existing labour programs, which are many and varied. Some require union membership, including to CLC affiliated unions, others are open. But be it in-house union training and CLC Winter School, labour council offerings, university studies, workshops and seminars all combine to support workers to become skilled and effective change-makers. 

Originally published September 7, 2021.