Letter to PRDTU Delegates/Alternates to the BCTF AGM

Dear PRTDU Delegate/Alternate to the BCTF AGM:

First, thank you for representing the PRDTU membership as a delegate at the BCTF AGM. Democracy is a lot of work. You are giving your time and energy to strengthen our union by representing us all. Thank you for this. Second, I ask that you consider your position on proposals that would create a designated seat on the BCTF EC based on sexual orientation. As I said at the PRDTU General Meeting, I am opposed to this for both principled and practical reasons.

As a matter of principle, the BCTF should not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Every member, be they asexual, bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, or pansexual, has a right to equal representation, equal vote, and equal voice in the BCTF. And as a practical matter, these proposals – if adopted – would diminish my voice as a BCTF member. I am asking that you not advocate for any structural changes to the union’s governance model that would undermine my right to equality in the union.

It may seem counter-intuitive how these proposals, if adopted, would diminish my voice as a BCTF member. On face value the proposals appear to amplify my voice. If they are adopted, I could self-identify as gay and therefore would become eligible to hold a seat on the EC that is reserved only for me and others like me (the other members of a newly created special class of membership – specifically the class of not-straight/cis members). How would the creation of this new class of membership, permitting me to hold a seat on the EC that others (straight/cis members) are barred from holding, diminish my voice in the union?

I am a trade unionist. I have been a labour organizer, committed to the principles of socialism and anti-poverty organizing for over thirty years. These experiences, plus my experience as a teacher, early child educator, college instructor, self-regulatory policy advisor, and communications specialist for unions and labour councils inform much of my work as a committed union activist. I also draw from all my life experiences in my union activism, including as an AIDS activist and a Queer Nation activist, to help inform my positions and priorities in my work for our union. That I immigrated to Canada from the United States, so I could legally marry my now husband at a time when the right to marriage equality was not yet recognized in my home country, informs how I approach leadership. 

Most relevant to my union organizing experience is that I was an organizer in the poor people’s economic human rights movement, which developed leadership capacity in low-income communities to build a movement to end poverty. In that role, I worked with unions, low-wage workers, community organizations, and other poor peoples’ organizations to help build and sustain this movement. 

In one campaign we demanded an end to poverty-wages for cleaners at a baseball stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. The outcome: Workers’ wages were tripled, and they eventually joined a union – sustaining the wage victory through a collective agreement that pegged wages to the state’s living wage. In another campaign, I helped organize early childhood educators at UBC. Workers demanded, and achieved, a 20% “pay correction” through this campaign. The pay correction was secured when the provincial mandate was “net zero” – meaning that there were to be no pay increases for public sector workers in that round of bargaining (no increases that raised overall costs for the province). Yet, the bargaining unit that I organized not only exceeded zero, but we also achieved a 20% raise. 

I have also been a vice president, bargaining chair, labour council liaison, local election contact, community organizer, and social justice contact. I have served on the Professional Issues Advisory Committee. I was media consultant to the Toronto and York Region Labour Council. I was president of the North Coast Labour Council. I was also president of a housing co-op. In all these roles, I fought for the rights, pay, living conditions, and working conditions of all workers and all community members.

If I were ever to run for a position on the EC, why might BCTF members consider electing me to the EC? How would I like to be considered for this position in our union? Am I first and foremost an experienced and deeply committed trade unionist, who has been a labour organizer for thirty years and who always fights on behalf of the bargaining unit as a whole? Am I a teaching professional committed to the public school system, teachers’ professional autonomy, and equal access to education for all students and communities? Or am I first and foremost a “representative” of asexual, bisexual, homosexual, pansexual, two-spirit, and trans persons? More importantly, on which basis ought the membership elect anymember to our union’s executive committee? Should we each be judged on only one aspect of ourselves or on our entire selves, as complex persons who bring all our experiences, values, judgements, perspectives, commitments, and priorities to the position?

I oppose discrimination against asexual persons at work or in their union, not because I am homosexual but because I believe that there should be no discrimination based on sexual orientation for any member. Likewise, I oppose discrimination against bisexual and pansexual members because everyone has a right to equal treatment at work and in their union. I am also opposed to discrimination based on the sexual orientation of heterosexual members. While I do not express myself as a trans person, I oppose workplace and union discrimination against trans persons – because all barriers to equal access and all affronts to dignity against trans persons should be removed and opposed by the BCTF as a whole union.

Some in the BCTF propose I should be provided with the special opportunity to hold a seat on the EC that would be designated for people like me, but not others, based on our sexual orientation and/or gender expression/identity. This proposal is unacceptable – not only because it is unfair to the straight/cis persons who would be denied a seat based on their sexual identity and/or gender expression/identity but also because it is insulting to me. I am much more than a gay worker and I would expect that my union recognize me as more than any single point of my identity.

When you vote on behalf of the PRDTU membership on proposals that would build discrimination based on sexual orientation into the union’s governance structure I request that you do so based on what you think is both principled and fair for all members. I also request that if you support discrimination based on sexual orientation, then please say this and be honest that this is your position – taken based on your beliefs and values (and not on behalf of others, certainly not on behalf of me as a gay member). And if you oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation, then please take this position openly – even if you may be called homophobic or transphobic by those who do not agree with your position. As an out gay person, I know what it means to called nasty names. But name calling by others should never lead anyone to abandon their core principles or to hide in silence. 

In solidarity,

Tom Kertes,

Tom Kertes is a public school teacher in Prince Rupert, in the territory of the Ts’msyen.