This year’s laureate of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s (CTF) Special Recognition Award, Susan Swackhammer, recounts how she became a union president in a “bizarre twist of events”. The First Vice-President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation (ETFO) describes how she felt after her first-ever union meeting: “When I came home, I remember my husband saying to me, ‘So do you want a coffee?’ to which I replied, ‘Do we have anything stronger?’. He then exclaimed, “What have you done?!’”

A trip down memory lane

When the eldest of her three children decided to have kids of her own, in the 70s, Swackhammer, an elementary teacher, chose to resign and stay at home. In the mid-80s, when she decided return to teaching for financial reasons and because “it got less fun to be drinking coffee and watching soap operas,” she became an occasional teacher as there were few permanent positions.

She soon realized, however, that occasional teachers weren’t members of the teachers’ unions. The ones in her school board had joined the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) in the hopes of improving their work conditions. At the time, there hadn’t been any bargaining with the local board for several years, and teachers in the Catholic board were making twice as much.

“As an occasional teacher, you’re pretty isolated because you’re not part of the staff and tend to wander in and out of different schools”

At the encouragement of her husband, Swackhammer attended her first union meeting a colleague had mentioned. When no one initially volunteered to be nominated as one of five union stewards, she raised her hand. Unbeknownst to her, this meant she was agreeing to hold office. When she delivered her speech calling for a more unified and solid support of the current president, she never anticipated the results: being elected as president!

Despite her initial reluctance, Swackhammer immediately went to work. The five stewards decided to ask all 250 occasional teachers in Brant County, Ontario if they were prepared to go on strike should the school board refuse to bargain. Most of them agreed, and, when the board refused to bargain, they made history by engaging in the first strike of occasional teachers in Canada. It lasted from February to the end of March 1988.

“Every day, I felt such responsibility. It was the middle of winter, it was freezing cold and all these teachers were walking on the picket line. What did I know about bringing this situation to as successful conclusion? But the next thing you know, a busload of teachers from Toronto would join us on the picket line that afternoon. This brought such a feeling of solidarity, but also, a sense of care and responsibility for a successful outcome.”

The strike did indeed prove to be successful: the occasional teachers received a pay increase of approximately 21% and won representation on school board committees, among other gains. A year later, Swackhammer was successful in obtaining a contractual teaching position, and because of her involvement with the strike, she was sought out by the Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario (FWTAO, one of two precursor organizations of ETFO) to become involved in the Brant Teacher Local. In 1991, she became the president of her local, and four years later, became a member of the FWTAO’s Board of Directors.

In its letter of nomination, ETFO highlights the indispensable role Swackhammer played in the formation of the federation and its governance structures in 1998. As a member of the provincial executive, she served as first vice-president until 2000, and again from 2009 to today. She has represented ETFO at faculties of education, Queen’s Park, CTF, the Board of Governors of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF), Education International (EI) World Congress, and numerous international forums on women and education.

Though she hasn’t been teaching since 2002, she still lives vicariously through her son and daughter-in-law who both teach. She admits she misses the authenticity of children, knowing about the latest trends, and bestowing new knowledge to young minds.

“I run into many of my former students – such as the mayor of the city where I live, and the pharmacist in my drugstore. Teaching is such an awesome profession as it allows you to look back and think you had a role to play in our students’ success in life.”

Thanks to her teaching experience, Swackhammer was able to gain knowledge of the system, know the importance of dealing with different classroom issues, and develop a greater sense of empathy. Now, in her role as vice-president, she oversees the work that needs to be done to combat discrimination against LGBTQ people, racialized people, persons with disabilities, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. Outside of Canada, Swackhammer also advocates for the cause of women’s rights and education in countries around the world such as Thailand, Columbia, Benin, and Cambodia.

When reflecting upon her career, Swackhammer reveals how she wouldn’t have done anything differently because she believes everything happens for a reason. She also indicates how she never thought she would make an impact. She simply performed her work because she loved it and wanted to contribute in areas where she saw the need.

“If anybody sees a strong female able to be the second highest official in this organization, if young women can understand they are capable of having a family, and keeping that family together while they do this kind of leadership work, then I’ll feel good about that achievement.”