Sunday, July 09, 2006

What You Need to Know as a New Union Member

Ms. Cornelius has an excellent post that led off this week’s Carnival of Education on what new teachers need to know and do to be successful in their classrooms. It’s wonderfully well written and incredibly accurate—great job on her part!

It got me to thinking—as a new teacher, what should you know about being part of a union? Here’s some things I thought of that can help you interact with your association in a way that helps you both. These answers are NEA specific, because that’s the group I’m a member of—if anyone from the AFT would like to jump in, go for it!

1) You’re not just a member of one union, you’re a member of several.

You’re not just a member of your local, you’re also a member of your state association and the National Education Association as well. You’re also a part of your local Uniserv council, which represents all the locals in your areas. You’re going on more mailing lists now than you ever imagined possible.

2) Know your local chain of command—these are the people who can help you if you have a contract problem.

The person that you’re likely to be closest to is your building rep. The association will also have a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer, at least, and the larger groups may well have more. It’s fascinating to look at a district like NYC and see just how big a leadership block can grow to be.

If you think you’re getting a raw deal, the first person to ask would be your building rep. If they don’t know the answer they should know whom to ask.

3) Read your contract. If you don’t have time, find someone who knows the contract well and become good friends with them.

My contract was given to me in a big pile with my insurance paperwork, benefits handbook, and a bunch of other things. I didn’t critically read it until my 4th year, when I was on the bargaining committee. Sure, I scanned it when I thought it might be relevant, but I didn’t live in it the way I do now.

As a new teacher no one expects you to read your contract, especially if you're in one of those locals where the contract can run 150+ pages. If something comes up that you think might be covered under the contract, ask someone who’s been around a while what they think. That person might be the building rep, or it might be someone on your team, but please ASK QUESTIONS.

The danger in trying to go it alone is that you don’t know what’s happened before. I had a transfer situation come up recently where two new staff members read their contract on their own, thought they had things all worked out, told the principal the way they thought things should be, and were pissed off when it didn’t work out the way they wanted. If they’d asked someone before going to the principal they could have known that a situation exactly like theirs had just happened two years before.

4) Your principal isn’t going to tell you what rights you have. They don’t have to. There isn’t a Miranda Warning for teachers.

Let’s say your principal tells you you’re being transferred, and further says that you can’t fight it because she’s read the contract and she knows all about it.

If you defer to that, you’re a sucker. Maybe your principal is right, maybe they’re not, but you owe it to yourself to get a second opinion from someone who knows. Don’t assume that what’s in the contract is all that there is to say on the matter, either—there might be a past practice that you don’t know about, or there could be another section in the contract that has some bearing on your situation.

This was one of the big issues in the last negotiation that my district did. You have the right to representation, but you have to be the one to ask for it. The district is under no obligation to tell you to go get your rep; it’s in their best interest if you try and go it alone, really.

5) Understand just how much support is behind you, if you need it.

If you have a tough situation your local association can be there for you. If it’s something we can’t handle we can call the Uniserv office, where there is full-time staff that lives union politics and loves a good fight. One step up the chain is the state office, where they have lawyers on the payroll who can help.

If there’s a way to help, we’ll find it.

6) Your Union will do stupid things. These will be highly publicized and make you wonder why you’re a member. Please don’t judge the entire organization based on those stupid things.

This gets truer the higher up the ranks you go. When the NEA is debating gay marriage or the war in Iraq, for example, you might wonder just what that has to do with teaching and learning. Similarly, my own Washington Education Association has spent time debating latex in schools and on whether “they” should be recognized as a proper singular preposition.

Remember, though, that bad news is what gets the noise. The quiet stories are the teacher who gets the transfer they were entitled to, the person who gets the back pay their principal was withholding from them, the victim of administrative harassment who finally gets some measure of justice. YOU might end up living one of these stories, and that’s when your association is there to help you.

(That's why I think it's great when stories like this get mainstream play. The story here turned out fine, but what would you have done if it had been you?)

Know too that, as a union member, the majority of what goes on at the state and national level really isn’t going to impact you anyways. It’s your local association that’s going to negotiate the contract that impacts you directly, so that’s who you should pay the most attention to.

7) The Union isn’t a monolith.

This will come as a surprise to many who’d like to portray the association as some sort of Borg-like collective marching in lockstep to ruin public education, but there’s quite a variety of opinion out there on what we should be and how we should evolve. If you decide to get active in your association—and it’s something well worth doing—you’ll see just how fiery the debate can be. That’s OK. Debate is the birthing ground of progress, and anyone either within or without who says that there shouldn’t be discussion is someone you should gleefully ignore.

Here in Washington I’m glad we have the Evergreen Freedom Foundation bird-dogging the WEA every step of the way. There’s nothing wrong with oversight, and I’m glad that our leadership has been made to justify themselves every now and again. It builds character.

8) You can be involved as little or as much as you want.

If you have to make a choice between attending a membership meeting or taking care of yourself, take care of yourself. Anything really important you’ll hear about anyway.

If you feel like you’ve got it all under control and you want to begin down the path to being the next Al Shanker, go for it. It’s a fun trip!

I’m sure there’s more things that I should talk about (like dues, sloganeering, and the fact that you’ll probably never go on strike), but that can wait for another day.

If I had to sum everything up in one sentence: You’ve got to be in, so why not try to make the most of it?


Blogger NYC Educator said...

Good analysis, I think, and it could easily apply to the AFT as well.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

If the unions focused only on my pay, benefits, and working conditions, then I'd gladly be a member. But their leftward political leanings (and let's be honest about that, at least) are *not* in my best interest. And since I'm compelled by law to give them money whether I want to or not, I've become very anti-union.

I support collective bargaining. I don't support a Democrat political agenda.

Want to follow the workings of both state and national unions from a very knowledgeable source? Check out the Education Intelligence Agency (no, it's not my blog) at Check it out often.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Dr. Homeslice said...

Great piece! I love it!

12:19 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

This is just great! I too wish that the national organization would stick to educational issues. But your local is what really helps you.

Excellent post!

1:54 PM  
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5:05 AM  

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