Balancing self-sacrifice with self-care: Life-long labour activists share their stories

By Jennifer Mathers-Piper – Activist for 18 years

Dedicated progressive activists make invaluable contributions towards the betterment of society. They place the needs of others as their highest priority, making personal sacrifices to create better living conditions for everyone.

There were many before us that sacrificed their lives so that we could experience the rights we have today. I feel that I owe those people something for what they did for balancing

Activists give not only their time and money towards the betterment of society but they give their entire selves. They give their passion and their minds.

Yet we struggle to maintain work-life balances of our own. Many feel this is a commitment that is required of us if we want to change the world for the better.

Our thinking, I believe, is a product of conditioning in a capitalistic society. This idea that if we aren’t productive all the time and killing ourselves, then we are worthless as human beings. I have worked in many different work environments.

From the beginning of my working life, none of the workplace training I ever received took into account that I am a human being. I have worked places that have strict rules against going to the bathroom, drinking water, eating when you’re hungry and having days off – all with the expectation that you should work overtime always and never get sick. These inhuman practices have become normal for many people and are viewed as good work ethic.

These capitalistic habits mislead us and make us feel guilty when we take time to care for our families and ourselves. This is the kind of thinking we as activists try to fight against while, ironically enough, many of us hold ourselves to the same impossible and inhuman standards.

Several labour activists – many with decades of experience and wisdom – share their stories with us about the personal challenges that have arisen amidst their dedication to improving the lives of others. They explain why they keep doing what they do.

Susan Spratt – Activist for 42 years

Susan describes a time when she lived in Manitoba raising her son as a single mother. When her son was 6 months old, she had to return to work and she was having problems finding childcare. She was able to get a neighbour to watch her infant son overnight while she worked the graveyard shift.

Susan tells us her situation, “When I got home from work my son was already awake waiting for me, so I would stay up all day. He went to bed at 8pm so I would sleep for 3 hours before work.”

Susan really wanted to be involved in her union so she would bring her son to meetings with her. She recalls enduring occasional remarks like, “hope he doesn’t make noise because we have business to do.”childcare

She regrets that she missed birthdays and first days of school. She realizes now that she had the option to make different choices. Susan reflects, “If you’re not married to the union then you are not the greatest activist in the world.” She described a world of struggle being a woman in an industrial union where women are expected to conform to male dominated ideals.

Often work-life balance for activists is not manageable on an individual level. Susan explains that proper childcare for activities helps parents to balance their activism with family responsibilities. Through her activism, Susan successfully organized her community in Winnipeg and created a childcare centre by lobbying her MLA at the time.

Unions can help bargain more quality of life language in collective agreements and unions themselves can create similar policies. On an individual level Susan advises activists to take time when you need it and make space for yourself. “You are no good to anyone burnt to a crisp,” she says.

Susan shares, “I still could have done a stellar job even if I didn’t miss as many birthday parties or family functions. The working class would have survived.” She recommends setting healthy boundaries and communicating what you need to make it easier to be active.

Despite the challenges finding a work-life balance, Susan will always feel that being a progressive activist is important. Her parents immigrated to Canada to make a better life. They taught Susan the importance of working hard and that the working class deserves better.

Susan’s dad always told her, “You never get anything sitting on your hands.” She was always driven to work towards the collective good.

Gene McGuckin – Activist 46 Years

After his first few years of activism in the anti-racism, anti-war, and labour movements, and as a member of a small left group, Gene felt like he had to make a choice between being an activist and having a family. He knew that raising a family would require a lot of attention – and so would making the world a better place. He didn’t think he would be able to do both.

His feelings on family changed as Gene realized that the people around him were getting burnt out from working 24/7 and not accomplishing as much as they had hoped. He started to notice other activists had lost their own personal reference points in the world, and he came to understand that “the first responsibility of a revolutionary is to maintain yourself in good fighting shape.”

Community members gather at a picnic organized by the Edmonton and District Labour Council.
Community members gather at a picnic organized by the Edmonton and District Labour Council.

Gene did eventually decide to have a family, and his son was born in 1987. Now with his family commitments, Gene attempted to balance family with activism.

He remembers once, when his son was 3 years old, doing an overwhelming amount of union work and working 12-hour shifts at his regular job in the pulp and paper industry. He was not able to be present at home for about 3 weeks.

One evening when Gene was leaving for work to another 12-hour shift, he saw his son sitting in the living room and said, “Hi.” His son answered, “Hi F**k-head.” The comment from his little toddler gave Gene the sudden realization that he needed to dedicate more time to him.

Gene has some suggestions for other activists to help ease the pressure and create balance in our lives. He feels that having a couple of really good vacation periods every year is a must. He suggests putting effort into having good eating habits and making sure when you are tired you lie down. Don’t be afraid to tell people when you need to step back for a time.

Also, for Gene and his family, special events that involve the entire family, like union picnics, have always made it so his family can be a part of the work he is doing, instead of seeing his activism only as something that competes with them for his time.

Gene has found that working together with great like-minded people and learning from them has been one of the best experiences for him though his years of activism.

Agata Matyszczuk – Activist for 5 years

Agata is an on-the-ground, grassroots activist who has also struggled with work-life balance. She feels that as progressive activists, we are up against a society that’s self-destructive and we are attempting to help change the way people think.

“That is hard work and it takes a lot of time to teach the next generation,” she says. “If we don’t stand up for basic human rights then we will be going backwards.”

Once when Agata was campaigning to help a civic progressive party in the Vancouver election, she was abruptly taken off the job in public transit to work the campaign full time. The work she had to do was downtown. It was a long commute so she had to sleep away from her home in Port Coquitlam.

She didn’t get to see her family or her dogs, which are part of her family, during the campaign. At the end of the campaign she admits to a full burnout.

Agata describes, “The day I burnt out, the whole day I had a bad headache. I almost felt like I was having an out of body experience. Looking at everything from the top. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t function properly that day, I hardly ate, and I started to feel sick to my stomach.”

To prevent burnout, Agata suggests to other activists, learn to say no sometimes and try to put family first: “You need to spend time with your family.”

She says, “Pick and choose your battles by picking something you are really passionate about.” Agata also suggests that it makes things easier if you can find someone to be an alternate. “Find someone who you can work with well and then you both have someone to call on if you need to.”

Agata gets her motivation for activism from human rights abuses. She feels that everyone is entitled to basic human rights.

Brent Reid – Activist for 41 years

Father and husband Brent has struggled to balance family commitments and commitments to activism. Brent feels that social activism is a calling and not a job because it’s something he loves to do. Over his years of activism his family has always been very supportive and understood that dad just wasn’t going to be available.

From 1992 until 1997, Brent was involved in 3 different strikes in his workplace at the Elk Falls paper mill. During that time he chose activism over family. He wanted to do his best to meet the needs of the members so he spent a lot of time at the office. His children were ten and seven years old by the time Brent was into the last strike.

In the middle of the 1995 strike his dad was also very ill so he was trying to get to the hospital as much as possible to see him. During this period, Brent felt it was easier to fight battles for everyone else and immersed himself in his work.

After the strikes, the work didn’t stop. It continued on for 3 years and it was overwhelming. Brent would have liked to spend more time with his kids. “I was home every night but I was out with the boys more,” Brent admits.

He believes that because he was not present for his family regularly his kids missed out on structure and family dinners. He missed valuable time with his son during his formative years.

As is true for many activists, Brent shares that it’s hard to live up to the standards one sets for themselves and others. “There are feelings of inadequacy when I can’t keep up.” Brent says, “It’s hard to sleep with millions of rats running in my head all the time.”

To create more work-life balance Brent now makes time off with his family a priority wherever possible. “Time off needs to be consecutive. Two days off in a row and to make sure you are actually away from phones and email,” Brent says. He also makes a point to notify everyone when he is going to be away to take some pressure away.

Brent feels strongly that workers need to have a say in workplace democracy. As early as grade nine, Brent stood up for what was right. A big motivation for Brent is that he has set a good example for his kids.

Brent is proud to see his kids vote in every election and he has marched with them in social change rallies. Brent cares about people and wants people to have the opportunity to live better lives.

Baljinder Jagpal (Babs) – Activist for 17 years

Wife and mother of two, Babs is a long-time workplace activist.

She remembers some years ago when her family was visiting from overseas, activism created a family issue for her. She was representing a member after work in a disciplinary meeting and the meeting went on much longer then she expected.

That evening, she and 20 relatives had booked a birthday dinner at a restaurant near her home in Surrey. Since Babs was the only shop steward at her workplace in Vancouver back then, she felt she had no choice but to stay for the meeting.

By the time she got to join her family for dinner, everyone had already eaten and it was mostly over. Everyone was really upset at her. They were all looking forward to having dinner with Babs that night, and she missed it. Babs feels a sense of duty to the union members she represents but also in this incident she felt she let her family down.

In the early years of workplace activism, Babs spent a lot of time on the phone in the evenings. She really appreciates the technologies now because it saves her time. She can text message or email people and it’s a bit easier to find someone. She is able to manage her time better than before.

Something Babs does to maintain balance in her life is she designates certain times to take care of union stuff instead of having it interfere with other parts of her life. She also finds it important to get paid union time when negotiating collective agreements to take some pressure away.

Babs has continued her activism though the years because she says, “I feel like I have a strong voice when I am talking to my employer on behalf of the members.” She enjoys helping others with their problems and she feels empowered by her union.

Susan Sanderson – Activist for 31 years & husband Gary Robinson (1956-2013) – activist for 28 years.

Susan is a community and political activist as was her late husband Gary. Susan first became involved in her union as a Brewery worker and moved in to secretarial work. Gary spent a lot of time in the railway sector where he became active in his union. As an activist family Susan and Gary struggled to find time for all life’s demands including raising their 2 sons.

Susan recalls a particularly hard time when their boys were five and seven years old while Gary was on Surrey city council. On top of all the demands of his job, the family was also caring for Gary’s elderly parents.

Susan was feeling extreme pressure. “I felt incredible pressure as a woman to keep house and family. It seemed impossible to be politically active and keep house at the same time. Maintaining all the parts of our lives takes time,” Susan explains.

One advantage of that time, Susan feels, was that there were no cell phones or electronic communication. If someone called they would leave a message on the home answering machine and she felt that was easier on the family.lakehockey

This was a particularly challenging time for Susan and Gary. They often had to choose between family events and activist events. Much of the time they would choose activist events and Susan feels regretful for doing that. “Our kids were only small once and I felt Gary and I missed out on a lot,” she says.

There was one special day in the winter when it was cold enough in lower mainland BC to play outdoor pond hockey. Susan remembers that there was a family outdoor pond hockey event in their Surrey community that she brought the kids to that winter.

Gary had a political event scheduled for that day and they both felt it was important for him to attend. Susan explains, “I felt that it would be something we could do again with Gary there but it never happened again.” Susan feels like this was a memorable moment, which can never be recreated.

Susan remembers the lack of support from fellow activists regarding family matters. Susan felt the pressure for Gary to participate in certain activist events was unreasonable. She describes, “No one said to Gary, of course you should be going to play pond hockey with your kids! We felt there was no support.”

Susan and Gary had to be very organized to balance out the demands of working full time, raising a family and participating in community activism. Susan felt they were very fortunate to be able to hire someone to clean the house when things got really tough. They also believed the kids should assist in maintaining the home. Gary was responsible for the cooking and Susan was responsible for the cleaning.

In order to maintain balance, Gary would play hockey and Susan would work in the garden or read.

Susan finds it is an important part of her life to give back to her community. She receives fulfillment from her work and sees activism as something that helps to give her definition as a person.

Moving Forward

After hearing the stories of these incredible activists, I am overwhelmingly grateful for the contributions and sacrifices made in order to make the world a better place. My hope is that one day, we can change our thinking about what is required to make change so that those burdens are lessened on activists.  As an activist of 18 years, I believe it is possible that we can find ways to be activists and nurture our humanity at the same time. It doesn’t seem entirely impossible to simply make activism part of our daily lives rather than make it our entire lives.

Overworking ourselves can hurt our causes because it makes the social change movement less desirable and appealing to the average person. It can’t just be a small group of activists advocating for change. It has to be as natural as breath to all of society. For that to happen, everyone must be allowed to join the club. There can be a place for everyone.

We have a social way where we take care of and support each other. Activism can involve simply taking care of the people around you and working towards making lives better. If everyone makes that thinking part of their lives it would be only natural to push governments to create policies that do the same.

Spending time with our families and nurturing our personal relationships outside of activism can remind us about how important the work we do is for the future.

As I make breakfast for my 17 month old daughter, I see her watching her cartoons intently. In her show a little gerbil sings to hhardworkaheader about not comparing herself to others and finding her own way to do things while working as part of a team to accomplish missions in life.

I know at least for now she is being exposed to a message that I want her to hear. I hope she will learn some day why social activism is important but I realize I won’t be able to teach her those things if I’m never home or I never spend time with her.

I think small things can make the world a better place too. If we all contribute a little bit and work together within our own personal limits in a balanced way, we can do much more than we ever thought possible. We might not have all the money or all the time but we have each other and a collective vision for a better world.

We hope this can be a living article. You are invited to share your own experiences in the comments section below.

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