Teachers’ Society HQ rife with infighting, low morale

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is grappling with infighting and an excessive number of leaves, including the recent departures of two high-profile employees, as staff members allege the public sector union’s headquarters has become “toxic.”

There are about 70 support and administrative workers tasked with running day-to-day operations for the society out of its Portage Avenue campus, including — but not limited to — advocating for teachers with work-related concerns and planning professional development sessions.

This group is represented by Teamsters Local Union 979; last spring, in response to informal complaints and low morale, the union’s president organized a membership survey.

An adapted version of the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire was sent to MTS staff officers, communications professionals and their colleagues. The response rate was about 70 per cent.

The findings indicated a majority of participants had a negative perception of the psychological health and safety of their office — roughly one-third of respondents described it as “toxic” — and there was a notable absence of trust and confidence in the senior management team.

“Once the data from the survey had been analyzed, efforts were made to schedule meetings with the executive director, Danielle Fullan Kolton, on several occasions. Unfortunately, these meeting requests were declined,” Teamsters 979 president Paul Frias wrote to members in a late-autumn bulletin that summarizes the survey results that were shared with them at an in-person meeting on Sept. 25.

Fullan Kolton, who was tapped to oversee the society in June 2020, did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about agency on the job, nearly four in 10 MTS employees said they never or rarely have the ability to influence decisions concerning their work. Sixty per cent of participants reported they fear sanctions from top managers.

The findings also showed more than three-quarters of participants had no confidence in the executive team’s work-planning abilities, while 81 per cent considered them to be “inept in conflict resolution.”

“(The irony) is the most embarrassing thing to me. We are a union. We have certain values and principles that we are supposed to be upholding, and we’re not even meeting the minimum standard of doing that for our own staff,” said one staff member who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity.

The Free Press spoke to eight insiders about the turmoil at MTS.

Interviewees, including experienced staff members and representatives from the political side of the organization, said the survey only scratches the surface when it comes to exposing the disorganization, burnout and conflict in the workplace.

Multiple employees described frustrations regarding micro-management and a lack of transparency. Others alleged they were subject to intimidation from superiors and indicated the deterioration of their mental health resulted in them leaving work.

“For the record, I would like to express how sad and disgusted I am to see this hallowed institution – the Manitoba Teachers’ Society – become a downright toxic work environment. … I simply cannot and will not stand for it,” states a resignation letter the union’s former economic analyst submitted on Oct. 13.

Over the last year, at least 16 employees have gone on a leave of absence or left the organization permanently. That represents upwards of 20 per cent of the overall workforce.

It does not include Fullan Kolton or Dan Turner, one of her two right hands, both of whom were off work as a third-party investigator assessed the workplace and probed allegations against them before the winter break.

At the start of the school year, union leadership announced the creation of a new human-resources role that was slated to move beyond payroll duties and approach personnel and workplace issues from a broader perspective.

Michelle McHale was hired as the inaugural HR director and was soon tasked with interviewing employees in one specific department — the teacher welfare unit — owing to an abnormally high number of leaves and staff-retention issues.

Her findings led to a wider investigation and the hiring of People First HR, but sources said the consulting firm’s contract ended prematurely when an interim leader assumed the role of executive director, formerly known as general secretary of the society.

Fullan Kolton went on a medical leave on November 13; it was extended the following month and her current work status remains unclear. MTS announced Dec. 20 that a familiar face, former general secretary Roland Stankevicius, would be taking the reins.

A spokesperson for People First HR declined to comment on the subject.

When reached for comment, McHale said: “I am legally unable to comment.” She left the society earlier this month and her departure has been shrouded in secrecy.

“For myself, it has – in a lot of ways – eroded my trust in the work of the organization. When you don’t communicate, people make up their own stories,” said an elected member on the executive of one of MTS’s approximately 40 locals.

“Obviously, there’s something wrong. There’s something unhealthy in the organization, so I think that needs to be acknowledged rather than (met with silence).”

The source noted her members pay upwards of $1,000 to be a part of MTS, in addition to local dues, and yet they have not been able to access high-quality support from their union, owing to chronic staffing concerns that have largely been ignored and unanswered.

Another local executive echoed those comments. While noting personnel issues are sensitive, the unionist called MTS’s silence surrounding a surge in leaves and the handling of HR issues “unacceptable.”

Stankevicius and MTS president Nathan Martindale issued a joint statement on the matter Wednesday.

“At MTS, we are committed to respect and fairness in everything we do – from our daily office interactions to the work we do on behalf of our members at the bargaining table. If there are concerns, we seek to resolve them while respecting the privacy of those involved,” they wrote.

The duo acknowledged the 2023 workforce survey made clear that some staff “hold concerns over certain workplace dynamics” and indicated they want to address the issue.

The external consulting firm’s recent assessment was shared with Teamsters, they said.

Asked about how the society plans to rebuild trust with employees who allege they have been harmed by managers and the organization’s response to their concerns, Stankevicius and Martindale said they will seek to better understand issues brought forward by staff in the coming days and will work together to address them.

Teamsters spokesman Christopher Monette said Local 979 is taking specific grievances to arbitration that involve “allegations related to violations of our collective agreement and a toxic work environment.”

Monette declined to comment further, citing the sensitive nature of ongoing proceedings, aside from reiterating the union’s commitment to ensuring members’ concerns are heard and addressed via “appropriate channels.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press