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Social mapping helping OPSEU build stronger relationships

In the run-up to the 2017 contract negotiations (and ultimately a strike at all 24 Ontario community colleges), OPSEU’s CAAT-A (Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology – Academic unit) executive realized that locals had to engage in extensive capacity building and outreach with their members in order prepare for what was expected to be an intensive round of bargaining. With the employers expected to take a hard line on issues such as precarity and academic freedom, says Kevin MacKay, a professor of social studies at Hamilton, Ont.-based Mohawk College and one of two OPSEU delegates, “we had a sense that the membership wasn’t ready to take these things on. A lot of the locals’ leadership didn’t know their own membership.”

In response, he says, OPSEU embarked on organizing two-day, weekend workshops for each local, focusing on bolstering their membership in the run-up to the talks. The OPSEU coordinators prepared various materials to be distributed, and also recommended that individual local executives engage in a membership social mapping exercise to better understand who they were representing. In some larger colleges, MacKay says, the local leadership team didn’t even have shop stewards at satellite campuses.

On one level, the social mapping surveys provided a foundation of information about the memberships of each local, in terms of gender, race, sexual identity and so on. The information, MacKay says, allowed local negotiating teams to have a better sense of the issues that mattered to their members. But, he adds, the mapping exercise had an unexpected benefit: it forced the local executives to get out and meet their members and build relationships. That engagement proved to be invaluable in strengthening the locals, creating new activists and bringing fresh faces into the union leadership. “It was a useful process in so many ways,” MacKay adds. “It gave the leadership a kick in the pants.”