Canadian Breakthrough: Meeting Ombudsmen

International Labor Organizing

The Cleaner
The Cleaner

Prince George When doing the “ housekeeping” for the BCGEU regional leadership meeting, Lynda Morrice, the educational director, introduced Carol Adams, a communications staff was going to be the “ ombudsman” for the meeting, and that if anyone had any problems whatsoever, bring them to her. Later in talking to both of them and other union officials, I was careful to point out that I had no problems, but was curious what the ombudsman’s job really was.

It turns out that this is a fairly critical detail and no doubt a key ingredient in making Canadian meetings calm and collected, which it seems they almost invariably are. In big meetings of say the Winter School in BC or the Canadian Labour Congress conventions there will be two ombudsmen, one for men and one for women. The heart of the job is that they are the human “ problem” receptacles clearing the halls for a smooth meeting. Anyone

who has ever organized a big meeting or convention, especially a “ sleepover” knows the actions can be great, meetings productive, and everything can be miserable if there are problems with the rooms. I can still remember a time ACORN members in Washington DC were convinced that the student luggage helpers opened their suitcases and took stuff before they got the room. We needed an ombudsman!

So what kinds of problems have they had to handle? Firemen rappelling drunk and naked off the side of the hotel at the winter school into the snow certainly seemed like it needed ombudsmen galore! A lot of the problems revolved around shooing delegates out of the bars, making sure that women were not harassed at meetings and felt comfortable, and when necessary sending people home, especially since the unions were frequently paying lost time and the rent on the hotel rooms. These are the kinds of problems you want to find and want to avoid and handle smoothly, but the scores of minute concerns about rooms, roommates, and even as one official mentioned, whether the pillows were too hard can drive managers crazy in the midst of a million things that need to be done. What a good thing!

To keep the cross cultural exchange active, I volunteered that I had started assigning a “ cleaner” to conventions to make sure every last detail was handled, no one was left off the bus, in jail, or on the streets, and in the words of the movie, “ everything was cleaned down to the nap.” They loved it.

I can hardly wait to add an ombudsman to some meeting in the future with thanks to the Canadian labour movement, and I know they’ll rest easier if they have a “ cleaner” for the last details left hanging.