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The IR Guru Interview:

Our series of profiles on prominent figures in Industrial and Labor Relations

Ethan Ake-Little – Executive Director of AFT Pennsylvania

“There’s a growing realisation that unions are about strengthening employee rights not just about pay negotiations.”

How did you end up on the career path you have?

I’ve been in the education field since 2011, starting as a school biology teacher in Philadelphia. However, I am also interested in sociopolitical issues – I studied history and political science as well as biochemistry as an undergraduate – and I later signed up for a PhD at Temple University. There, I was part of a graduate labor union called Temple University Graduate Students Association, which represents teaching and research assistants. I became the President of the union and the two-year term I served coincided with the organisation going through a new collective bargaining process, so I became the lead negotiator with the university.

After completing my PhD in 2019, unexpectedly I received a call from the President of AFT Pennsylvania to interview for my current job since the previous Executive Director was retiring. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. 

What does your role entail?

AFT Pennsylvania is a state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers’ labor union in the US, which represents 1.5 million members.

Our organisation represents 57 local AFT affiliates, including public and private schools, community college and university faculty and staff, vocational school employees, such as school nurses, and Pennsylvania state employees. We have 30,000 members.

I am the chief HR person for the organisation internally, managing a team of around 12 employees. I also work with the board to implement policy, and support and oversee communication and programming. The latter involves not just members but creating alliances with other unions, as well as non-profit organisations.

Unlike in other unions where members assume that the leadership will look after them when it comes to negotiations and don’t ask questions, teachers, professors or anyone with an academic background are inquisitive and want justification for every decision being made. That requires myself and the organisation to be very clear and articulate about our vision, goals and what we plan to do. 

What experiences prepared you most for your current role? 

I learned some important lessons working as a school teacher that I have been able to usefully apply in my current job. My first job was in a city school with a high proportion of low income, high poverty students. I had to manage my classroom in a consistent and structured way in terms of policies and in my approach to students, and I had to have a well-articulated programme of learning otherwise the students would question everything. I also had to be able to cater to different student abilities.  

Now I’m in a managerial role all three of these skills have become key to the work that I do. Working in a labor union and being the lead HR officer of my organisation, I have to be consistent in the way I articulate and execute policies.  I also have to be able to explain clearly why we do what we do to members, staff, leaders of local branches and my board and I am required to mentor a range of employees, working at different levels of seniority or effectiveness. 

At graduate school I was able to gain technical knowledge. Going through the collective bargaining process was a baptism of fire. There were legal laws and union laws I had to get to grips with and there was no training that could prepare me for that.  In addition, a lot of my research work for my PhD was quantitative. Data analysis is a big asset when you are working in an organisation such as ours that supports and manages a large number of people. This is especially true in the education sector, which is becoming more of a numbers driven field in the US.

What elements most attracted you to the union sector?  

The last four years in the US have been a very interesting time. There was a period in 2018 and 2019 when huge numbers of teachers in the US went on strike, protesting public funding cuts, low pay, class sizes and other issues. 

This job may have been an unexpected one for me but it allows me to integrate a lot of different interests and skills that I have learned, particularly with regard to the policy aspect. It resonates with me for two reasons. First, teacher retention was what I wrote my dissertation on and apart from the fact the topic was hugely interesting, the data analysis involved comes in very handy when it comes to policy analysis. 

Second, having been a classroom teacher myself, I know what the teachers are feeling and experiencing, and what the issues mean to them, such as around pay. This is important because whatever work we do, whether contract negotiations, advocating for teachers in grievance or dismissal cases, policy work at state level or lobbying at Washington DC, putting the teacher at the centre of it all is our main aim.  

Where I have the advantage is that I can see all the issues from both sides, from the teacher’s perspective as well as from the administrator perspective, with a responsibility to balance resources.  I don’t believe that meeting the needs of both are mutually exclusive.

What are the current key trends/ innovations for labor unions? 

With all its political, social and economic issues, 2020 was a year for lessons learned. Issues that had been growing for 10 years like lack of education funding were compounded. A lot of jobs were at risk when teaching shifted online and campus life halted or funding was pulled for particular specialist educational organisations as states said they were only covering what was constitutionally required. We were also hearing from members that their employers, the school districts, (which are responsible for administering schools in a particular area) didn’t really know what remote learning involved. 

This gave us a huge opportunity to fill the gap, ‘grow our business’ and offer more resources that our members need. For example, we have been designing and providing remote teaching workshops and as well as seminars on critical issues such as how school funding works or on labor laws to help members be better informed and aware of the rights they have and how things work.

Labor unions have traditionally been lobbying organisations but they are slowly recognising that members need to be equipped with resources and information to be able to make effective decisions and that there’s a future role for us in providing that service. 

Crucially, the programmes we have are now more proactive in filling that need. We have shifted away from waiting for members to ask us for something; now we make the determination ourselves to put together resources we think are valuable and that we know members will require at some point.

Of course, we are also now providing workshops or seminars virtually. An unforeseen benefit of that is being able to record those sessions and events so we can share them with a bigger audience, not just those people were able to attend. The innovation for us has been widening access to information and making it available at any time when members most want or need it, rather than at a one-off event.  

How do you think the role of labor unions might grow in the next five to 10 years?

I believe the US labour movement is broadening out and capturing more white-collar workers – traditionally, unions have been thought of as being for blue collar workers. Google now has its first union though.

There’s a growing realisation that unions are about strengthening employee rights not just about pay negotiations. And workplace issues such as work-life balance and the right to disconnect when remote working are increasingly affecting IT workers, legal workers, financial workers and so forth. In other words, professional workers are starting to see how unions may be useful. This is an important shift; unions will play a bigger role in supporting more employees.

Interview by Rima Evans 

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