Union leadership usually begins on a voluntary basis, when none of your colleagues wants to accept the challenge of standing up for a worker’s rights, in the office or on the shop floor.
It puts you in conflict with management, marks you as “the enemy within” and exposes you to enmity from colleagues who either denounce you for going too far or not far enough.
Behind it all is the desire to improve the working life of those around you and often it mirrors what activists learned close to home.
Such was the case for Ruth Rosenfield, who has decided to call it quits after 26 years as president of the 2,500-member Montreal Teachers Association. She succeeded Don Peacock.
They are the women and men who staff the English Montreal School Board at the elementary and secondary levels, adult and vocational education centres, social affairs institutions, the Outreach network of alternative schools and substitute teachers. It is the largest component union in the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers.
They are the unheralded keepers of the flame of public education in the face of many obstacles. These include deteriorating buildings, lack of pedagogical materials and the drift among highly motivated families to private schools, especially at the secondary level.
Rosenfield, 63, headed her union during a difficult quarter-century when these issues arose and was called upon frequently by the media to comment on public affairs. She has a concise and focused way of delivering a message and as such became a familiar presence in debates about education and language.
Rosenfield says speaking in public was not something that came naturally for a shy young woman who after her B.A. and teaching diploma at McGill University started her career as a kindergarten teacher at Bedford School in Côte des Neiges in 1973.
After three years teaching at Lorne School in Point St. Charles, Rosenfield followed her voluntary work as a union rep with a staff position in 1980 as an executive assistant. She was elected president in 1987, and re-elected every year after.
Rosenfield’s parents were “very left wing. We could even say beyond left wing all the way to I’m a red-diaper baby.”
During the Second World War, her father, Max, a union shop steward in an aircraft factory, was fired for leaving the floor after looking into a worker’s grievance. He then joined his father’s printing business.
“It did come relatively naturally to me to maybe think that the union was a good thing,” Rosenfield said.
Her immediate interest back then was having an “unmanageable class size, but when I became a union rep, it opened up a whole new world for me.”
The experience of having to speak on behalf of others compensated for what she says was being “very shy” outside the classroom.
“It was a very gradual process of learning to find my voice and articulating on behalf of others, much better than I can ever do on behalf of myself. Easy-peasy it was not.”
She credits her confidence to overcome shyness to lessons learned at the dinner table, including from her Joliette-born mother, Lottie Rubenovitch.
“She was a very positive influence in my life. She believed that her children could do anything they set their mind to, a mantra of my childhood.”
Rosenfield’s starting salary as a kindergarten teacher 40 years ago was $7,766 with two half-day classes of 27 students. The range for teachers today is $39,139 to $74,124, depending on education and experience.
Today, the maximum class size is 20 at the elementary level and full-day kindergarten means teachers are responsible for only one group.
Some critics bemoan the fact that teachers’ salaries in Quebec, negotiated at a central table with other unions, are among the lowest in Canada. But in Quebec, other values have prevailed at the bargaining table, she noted.
“We have very good protection in terms of job security that we did not have when I started. Our salaries have improved, but our salaries are near the bottom compared with the rest of Canada.”
When crunch-time came with Quebec governments seeking drastic spending cuts, “we gave up some benefits to maintain people’s jobs.”
“There are some who believe that we should have kept the benefits and let the people go, but I am a strong defender of the idea that one of the union’s most important things to do is maintain people’s jobs.
“I am proud that the teachers’ unions of Quebec banded together to save jobs. That has had an impact on why we are not the best paid.”
She recalled that in the fall of 1976, teachers here went on strike for two weeks over the issue of workload. Elsewhere in Canada, activists believe teachers will only go on strike over monetary issues, she said.
“I think we have a different mentality in Quebec. We probably have the most regimented collective agreement. We always knew we had to look at a number of issues.”
Faced with increasing competition, especially at the high-school level, from private schools, Rosenfield believes the board has failed to sell the advantages of public-school education, including the dozen or so specialized formats that have been developed.
There have also been 10,000 students who have opted for the French school system, because of a belief that the level of French acquired there is necessary to work in Quebec.
While the teaching of French in English schools has improved exponentially since the 1970s, Rosenfield pointed to other advantages on the anglo side that contributes to a much lower dropout rate: “People from the French school boards mention something called le caring. It seems as if maybe we English-sector teachers are warmer, kinder, more focused on meeting the needs of our students.
“Given the success rate that we have with our students in French, I think parents could more comfortably think about putting their children in an English school board school.”
Rosenfield, who is single—“I’ve been married to the MTA for 26 years”—is retiring in June and plans to play lots of guitar and sing as a volunteer in public schools.
“I’m really in my nature a camp-counselor type of person.”