Mother & daughter learn labor lessons together

A picture of Deborah Robertson and Kiarra Whitelow together in a classroom.
Deborah Robertson and Kiarra Whitelow together earned certificates from Wayne State University’s Labor School last year. The mother-daughter duo are presidents of the teacher and support staff unions at Harper Woods School District in Wayne County.

Deborah Robertson had a tough go in her first year as president of the Harper Woods Education Association in 2021. She had only been a building rep for several months before becoming vice president, and only served in that role a few months before stepping into the top post.

“My first year of being a union president was an emotional roller coaster for me, and we were going through negotiations,” Robertson said. “I was figuring things out, and I was letting people get to me because I wanted to be right for everybody and I wanted people to like me.”

A number of factors helped her get through that difficult stretch and emerge into strength and calm – now in the second year of a solid contract with a powerful sense of who she wants to be as a leader.

“I had to take M-E out of the equation,” she said. “It can’t be about me. What you do will never please everybody, so I’m not here to please. I’m here to do my job, and that’s what I had to learn. At the end of the day, I want it to be remembered that I fought for what was right.”

Robertson was assisted by a skillful MEA Executive Director, Timm Couto, who led a strong bargaining team to a five-year deal that included a total of 15% in on-schedule increases plus additional steps to bring members previously frozen to their rightful salary step.

Couto then steered Robertson toward an opportunity to get extensive training in unionism and leadership through the Labor School at Wayne State University. Robertson seized the chance to apply for a scholarship to attend the online certificate program.

Even more exciting was the partner she asked to join her: Robertson’s daughter, Kiarra Whitelow, is president of the support staff union in Harper Woods representing custodians and bus drivers. Together they became the first mother-daughter duo to graduate from Wayne State’s Labor School.

“That’s a gift that mothers dream about, doing something you love and having your daughter join you,” she said. “I’m proud to be the first African-American woman to be president in Harper Woods; I’m honored to be president along with my daughter, and I’m blessed to go to Labor School with her.”

Both women received the scholarship and completed 10 Labor School courses between September and May to earn the certificate last spring at a cost of only $25 per class. They now are attending the Advanced Labor Academy together in pursuit of another certificate.

“Labor School gave me the historical perspective; it gave me the futuristic perspective, and it taught me how to engage daily,” Robertson said. “Before that, I had the desire and the motivation. I needed help with the tools.”

Like her mother, Whitelow took an unusual route to leadership of AFSCME Local 1228. She began her career in the district in 2013 working in food service at the high school after graduating from Grand Valley State University.

At the time Whitelow was working on a master’s degree in literacy at the former Marygrove College, which she since completed. Meanwhile, she moved from food service to working as a special education parapro under a teacher who guided her with teaching strategies and other accommodation tips.

“I loved being a parapro; I really did,” Whitelow said. “It was great working with the kids, but in the end I became a full-time custodian because it was a union job with benefits and I needed health insurance.”

New paraeducators in the district are employees of a third-party company, but the unionized custodians and bus drivers receive the same health care benefits as the teachers negotiate, which is MESSA. “People need health insurance, and MESSA is great,” she said.

She soon stepped up to fill a leadership void in the local. In the future, Whitelow is considering seeking a job as a reading specialist, which might allow her to join MEA – something Robertson dreams to see come true. If that happens, the daughter’s path to the classroom would mirror her mother’s.

Robertson spent many years as a paraeducator, lured into the role by a principal who saw her skill in working with children when she volunteered in her son’s elementary classroom years ago.

She slowly completed a graduate degree at Marygrove while working. It just so happened that she and her daughter earned master’s degrees at the same time and walked the stage for diplomas together.

“It took quite a while for me,” she said.

A photo of two women smiling while holding an award.
The mother-daughter duo are pictured receiving their first certificate from WSU’s Labor School last spring, and they are pursuing the advanced certificate now.

Robertson teaches social studies and is one of those educators able to hold students to high standards but also build strong connections because they know she cares, her daughter said. “They have an affection for her,” Whitelow said.

If students aren’t listening in class, Robertson says she blames “Napoleonism,” and in response they sometimes repeat one of her aphorisms: “I say, ‘You’re not respecting me because I’m a little,’ and they go, ‘Oh, here she goes. Come on now. Let’s hear what she got to say, because people want to be heard.’

“People want to be heard,” she repeated. “They want to be heard more than anything, and that is true in the union also.”

Mother and daughter come from an extended family that migrated north and escaped poverty through union jobs, including United Auto Workers, Teamsters, and Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. Robertson recalls her father explaining unions as she was growing up.

She is a longtime student of labor leader Walter Reuther and a fierce defender of the collective bargaining agreement. “Nobody – not the superintendent, not central office, not Timm at MEA or Deborah at HWEA – is bigger than the CBA. Why do you think we put blood, sweat and tears in to negotiate that?”

Her convictions have only been strengthened by deeper learning at Labor School. From those lessons, this year or next, she’s hoping to organize a breakfast to bring together the strength of union leaders, district administrators, and city leaders to reinforce school-community connections.

“I want to unite us together because for so long as the Blacks moved in and the Whites moved out, the community has not always embraced this school,” Robertson said. “But as homeowners and residents, we have goals and vision in common, and we need to be partners if we want to bring it to reality.”

Unions demonstrated that lesson in the past as they welcomed Black people, women, Latinos and others to build power and remain relevant amid the civil rights movement decades ago. Today those bonds must be renewed as LGBTQ+ people are welcomed into the fold, Robertson said.

She is fond of quoting a line from her favorite movie which she’s seen dozens of times – Hidden Figures: “We either get there together, or we don’t get there at all.”

That sentiment is rising in popular culture, Whitelow added, evidenced by union organizing and job actions in diverse industries across the country. She was particularly heartened to see solidarity on the picket lines of Hollywood writers, actors and directors last year. She is a writer with big dreams.

“People look at labor like it’s separate, but the writers, the teachers, the auto workers – they’re all fighting for things that should be as simple as breathing, and they want to be heard.”

Whitelow knew some labor history but has been moved by the study of how people died to win rights and protections we now take for granted, a legacy that makes her want to leave her AFSCME unit in better shape than she found it, she added.

“To see other people fighting the good fight gives me something to hold on to,” she said. “I’m the type of person that can rejoice in anybody else’s win because your win is my win. If you can do it, I can do it.”

Robertson agreed. “Unionism is breathing new life and it’s building back up. The rebirth we are witnessing is phenomenal, and to learn how to build labor strength alongside my daughter is a tremendous blessing.”

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