Today, I overheard a colleague, who is not a member of our union, and who often brags about voting for the very individuals responsible for the horrendous legislation whose consequences we are now dealing with, complaining that he has not had a raise in three years. He then told me that what we needed were Teamsters–if we had Teamsters as our union, then we’d get somewhere.
I have also received e-mails from a teacher in our district, a former union member, gloating over the PERC victory in his lawsuit against UTD over the contract ratification vote, which cost US–you and me–many thousands of dollars, while his case was bankrolled by the union-busting Right to Work Foundation in D.C. His so-called “victory” found no evidence or even indication of fraud, and flatly rejected his claim that employees were not given enough notice of the vote–it only found that the online voting, despite numerous security measures, was invalid. PERC has not yet indicated what method of voting will be acceptable. The instigator insinuates–preposterously–that without UTD, teachers would finally be able to get their missing steps.
What is wrong with this picture?
Public school teachers are actively working against the interests of not only other public school teachers, but against their own interests. Every time a teacher votes for someone who goes to Tallahassee and helps pass (or even sponsors) laws that damage public schools and the teaching profession, he is helping those working against us. Every time a teacher takes legal action that costs union members and creates a stir that turns them against one another, he is helping those working against us.
Ironically enough, after they have perpetrated the damage, they seem shocked that we as public school teachers are not better situated.
As a union in a right-to-work state where Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state legislature two to one, and also hold the governor’s seat, we are constantly on the defensive. That is not going to change anytime soon, unless we have a dramatically different outcome in our 2012 elections from what we have seen up to now.
Always being on the defensive can make it very tough to demonstrate triumphs and achievements, and very easy for those attacking us to make us look weak and ineffective.
How many times have I heard fellow teachers say, “If our union were stronger and had more power, I would join.” They then point to powerful teachers’ unions like the ones in New York and Chicago as evidence that ours simply does not have enough clout to make it worth joining.
What’s wrong with this picture?
New York and Illinois are NOT right-to-work states. All public school teachers MUST be union members, or else pay a mandatory agency fee to the union for having had their salaries bargained for them. Thanks to the broad membership and the hefty war chest, those unions have far greater clout when they go to the bargaining table with their districts and in elections.
Here in Florida, you get the same salary and benefits whether you are a union member or not, though it was the union that bargained them for you. Thanks to this, far too many people think they not only need not join the union negotiating their salaries for them, but that they are well-situated to criticize their bargaining agent for being too weak…when it is exactly THEIR failure to join their union that MAKES it weak.
What I answered the gentleman who told me that we needed Teamsters in our school was this: “What we need is 100% membership. When we have 100% membership, we will be strong. And when we’re strong like that, we’ll start getting more of what we want and deserve.”
That is the truth, as plain and simple as you can get. There is great strength in numbers. And in Florida, as in all other right-to-work states, numbers are our weakness.
Our victories have been defensive, precarious ones. Succeeding in getting Charlie Crist to veto SB 6, only to see it come back reincarnated (and signed by Rick Scott) as SB 736. Defeating several bad charter bills this year. Winning the first round in the legal battle over the pension “reform” enacted last year, and hoping to win in the Florida Supreme Court. Maintaining 100% employer-covered health care for employee only. Averting layoffs. Defensive victories, all, which makes it easy for a critic to complain he hasn’t had a raise in three years, or that we don’t have any offensive bills in the legislature to protect us going forward, etc.
It can be hard to quantify the value of a disaster averted. We have held our ground against an avalanche. It has not been easy. It is far easier to sit back and criticize than to actually throw yourself into the front lines and fight a battle where you are outnumbered two to one–sometimes by your own friends and colleagues.
When our legislators pass bills that cripple us and budgets that maim us, whence comes this righteous indignation that the union should have, somehow, magically been able to avoid the disastrous new evaluation system or get raises for employees that would not have resulted in layoffs? When the cost of insuring the district jumped by $65 million this year, in the aftermath of draconian budget cuts, whence comes the righteous indignation that the union should have been able to preserve the same benefits at the same costs, without cutting jobs or salaries? Instead of blaming the people responsible for the mess we find ourselves in, so many of us turn against the only people who are actually fighting for us. Call me idealistic, but I still find it unconscionable.
Is our union perfect? Of course not. Will it ever be
perfect? No, because everyone has his own idea of what perfect looks like anyway, and it appears we will be on the defensive in this state for many years to come. But our union is the only organization we have working for our interests right now.
And it is the only one we need.
Personally, I have been a union member since my New Teacher Orientation. I have long believed strongly in the power of organized labor to better working conditions and living conditions for every worker. I believe in strength in numbers. I did not need to know every detail of our union and all about who its leaders were for me to sign the card. All of that was secondary to my commitment to organized labor and, in fact, my debt to organized labor. The sacrifice–the dues that come from each paycheck–is a very small price to pay indeed for the benefits I reap every day from the hard work, sweat, blood, and tears of unions past and present: weekends; abolition of child labor; sick leave; paid holidays; maternity leave; a contract; due process protection; duty-free lunch; limit to hours in workday; paid planning time (or compensation for extra periods); no premium for my health insurance; the invaluable freedom to speak up when I see injustice being done to our staff and/or our students without fear of retaliation, without fear of losing my job. So many people in so many careers–including teachers in non-union schools–simply do not have all of those rights and privileges–particularly the last.
Yet so many of us take them for granted. We think they could never be taken away. Then we are shocked when, year after year, our legislators chip away, or attempt to chip away, at those rights. We may take them for granted now, but each and every one of them was fought for, and each and every one can be taken away when we have no unions fighting for us. Ask teachers working in Georgia or North Carolina.
The decision to be a union member was an easy one for me. But I did not become active in the union at first–not because I wasn’t interested in participating in the union, but because I was overwhelmed with my new career and wasn’t even sure where to start.
I just want to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to you all once again for electing me steward. Though it can be a thankless and frustrating job–and has caused me to see sides of our administration I had never seen before–it is also incredibly empowering. Between serving as building steward and actively participating in several other committees and task forces of UTD, I feel I am doing more than just complaining: I am trying to do what’s right, and trying to change the things I disagree with, both within the union and outside the union. Every other union activist I know is the same. We often disagree with each other, with other members, with other stewards, with leadership–but we all see the big picture, which is that we are all we have, and it is up to us to do our part to make teaching in Florida a sustainable, rewarding career.
We are going through a dark period right now–but that is all the more reason our commitment to our union should not waver. It is very hard to calculate how much we have not lost thanks to our union.
I hope none of us will have to see firsthand how much there still remains to lose. Could it be better? Sure–ask someone in an all-union state, where they have better pay and better protections (and often, better government). Could it be worse? Sure–ask someone who works in a state where there are almost no teachers’ unions at all…or someone locally who works in a charter school.
Let’s stop fighting each other, because we’re only fighting ourselves and giving our enemy the upper hand. Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let’s link arms and see what we can accomplish when everyone is on board.
We are all we have…and we are all we need. Let’s make it work.