Rosanna Hussain always wanted to help people. Whether volunteering at the Muslim Food Bank or organizing events for a women’s help line, she wanted to give back to her community. So when she flipped through her first collective agreement, she was intrigued at how unions use labour law to help people.
“I had taken a college course on the history of unions, so I knew a little bit about the labour movement. Then I began helping people read the collective agreement and look things up. That’s when I knew I wanted to become a shop steward, because then I could help people at work every day,” she explains. Hussein began getting more involved in UFCW 1518, attending general meetings as well as social events, like the Children’s Holiday Party and the Labour Day Picnic. “Any chance I got, I talked to people from the union and asked questions.”
She finally mustered the courage to stand for election, and was elected as alternate shop steward. “I was motivated by Kim Novak, when she was a union rep. She gave me that feeling – that you don’t have to be afraid. You can just step right up there and do it. Kim was fearless. She didn’t fear management; she could go in and talk to members about the issues at hand. She was so inspiring.”
When Hussain found out about UFCW 1518’s HeadStart program, she knew it was the next step on her path toward union involvement. HeadStart is a three-month fast track program that trains high potential activists and stewards. Selected participants are paired with union representatives, who mentor them in the business of the union, including servicing, bargaining, member engagement and arbitration. Hussain, who works at Script Care Pharmacy, was invited to join the Fall 2017 cohort, along with four other members. One year after the program was launched, what are HeadStarters saying about it and where are graduates now?
ENGAGEMENT & LEGACY
“My expectation was that I would come into the program, learn all the information I could and then bring it back to my store, so I could be an amazing steward and provide a better support system to my co-workers,” says Brittany Roche, a graduate of the inaugural HeadStart class.
Roche, who worked in the bakery at Save On Foods, is currently on temporary staff as a union representative on the Member Engagement team. “I didn’t know that at the end of it I could potentially become a union rep,” adds Roche. “I felt that if I could solve problems in store, that was the goal. Now I still get to do that, but on a larger scale!”
The Member Engagement team that Roche belongs to was an initiative born out of HeadStart. It is composed of HeadStart alumni and led by union representatives Dave Archibald and John Autin. Stefan Nielsen graduated from the program’s second cohort. Originally on staff at Safeway, he now works as a temporary union representative on the Member Engagement team. “Our main task is to be out in the stores, re-engaging with members who have otherwise felt detached from the union,” says Nielsen.
Member engagement is a key goal of UFCW 1518. “HeadStart was born out of a desire to create a strong succession plan for the union,” explains Ade Adesuyi, UFCW 1518 Managing Director of People and Culture. “But another aspect was about trusting our members, inspiring them, and giving them the opportunities to reconnect with the union and get involved.”
Kelly Malcolmson, a participant in the Fall 2017 cohort, calls HeadStart a “two-way street.” “They are helping me and they are teaching me, but they are also listening,” says Malcolmson, who works at Save On Foods. “This experience is going to make us better shop stewards, and thus better representatives of the union when we go back to our workplace.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
In addition to learning firsthand about the job of a union representative, each HeadStart cohort participates in special projects of the union. With the reopening of the collective agreement for Safeway and Save On Foods in 2018, the focus of the current HeadStart participants has been on bargaining outreach. They took on the laborious job of telephoning 10,000 retail food members to update their contact information and encourage them to send bargaining proposals. “As basic as it sounds, it is a very important job,” recognizes Hussein. “When you pick up the phone, you’re making a connection and that’s going to have an impact.” That impact is already being felt: within a week of launching the bargaining outreach campaign, members sent in more than 1600 responses, far exceeding the total number of proposals received during the last round of negotiations.
The Spring 2017 HeadStart class was just in time for the provincial general elections. This cohort’s work revolved around getting out the vote and campaigning for the BC NDP. Participants helped with recruiting and training party volunteers, as well as canvassing. Working on the BC NDP campaign was an intense but exciting experience for Jake Kardosh, who worked at Save On Foods before being accepted to HeadStart. “I think I did 340 hours in those five weeks of the campaign period,” recounts Kardosh, now a temporary union representative on the Member Engagement team. “I’ve always been politically active but that was the most intense experience I’ve ever had. It was too much at times but if the opportunity came up again I would do it instantly.”
The motivation for most HeadStart graduates and participants seems to be taking up the union’s social justice mandate and making a difference. “UFCW 1518 is, at our core, an anti-poverty organization and we have to push for fairness in society as a whole. If we can do that, our members win and the rest of British Columbia wins. Everyone wins,” comments Nielson. “I have always had a desire to help but I didn’t know where to put that,” Malcolmson adds. “HeadStart is now giving me a place to explore that and feel more useful in my community.”
Roche also understands that giving back is an essential and groundbreaking part of HeadStart. “When we invest in our members so that they can give the knowledge to others that means we are investing in everyone. So it’s worth all the time that we put in,” says Roche. “Every minute of it.”
The next HeadStart program runs in Spring 2018. Information about how to apply will be posted to the union bulletin board in the new year, so keep your eyes peeled!