Conversations are at the heart of All In campaign

Conversations are at the heart of All In campaign

Scott McLennan, Communications Specialist

All In
MTA members gathered for a group photo at the 2017 MTA Summer Conference in Amherst after hearing about building union power through the All In campaign.

Unions across the country are bracing for the impact of a case brought to the U.S. Supreme Court that could strip them of their right to collect “fair share” fees from nonmembers — even though the unions would still be required to represent them and even though nonmembers would still benefit from collective bargaining agreements.

The case, Janus v. AFSCME, is named for Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee arguing that paying an agency fee violates his rights under the First Amendment. The fate of the case, which the court agreed to hear on Sept. 29, will not be known for months.

The MTA is already helping locals create plans to stay strong and engaged in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision against unions.

Janus v. AFSCME

The case, Janus v. AFSCME, is named for Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee arguing that paying an agency fee violates his rights under the First Amendment. The fate of the case, which the court agreed to hear on Sept. 29, will not be known for months.

“Union members understand the value of belonging to their locals and the power that gives them to shape their workplaces and their students’ learning environments,” said MTA President Barbara Madeloni. “Opponents of organized labor are banking on a financial incentive to make members quit, but people are smarter than that. Our members understand what it means to have a voice in their schools and on their campuses.”

Member-to-member conversations are at the heart of the All In campaign, which locals across the state are designing to keep membership robust and to make clear to new educators and other potential members why joining is so important.

Danette Day, a professor at Fitchburg State University, is a member of the Massachusetts State College Association. She sees unionism as being inexorably intertwined with her work as an educator.

When she began teaching in 1989, taking a job teaching English at Wachusett Regional High School, the full implications of belonging to her local union were not clear to her.

Day said she appreciated the work of her bargaining team in settling good contracts. But over time, as she moved to other jobs in private schools and then worked on advanced degrees before returning to the classroom as a college lecturer, Day’s understanding of unionism deepened.

“As I got older, I understood the power of the union and the power of solidarity,” Day said. “We are empowered to do the right thing for others. I might be in a great place with my work, but that’s because of all the things union members did before me.”

Like Day, Audrey Murph-Brown has experienced a changing relationship with her union over the course of her 25 years in the Springfield Public Schools. Membership, she realized, is dynamic and empowering.

“I see the All In campaign as a transformative opportunity,” she said. “If you want the union to do something, don’t call the union office to see what to do. Recognize that you are the union and that you can take on an issue.”

The Springfield Education Association has played a key role in Murph-Brown’s passion for opening avenues of opportunity to educators of color, something she sees as crucial in a community where so many of the students are black or brown.

“Children need that visual. If they see themselves in their teachers, it will improve their self-esteem. That’s definitely an educational piece that Springfield can do better with,” she said.

Knowing that they have protections against retaliation, educators can question the use of evaluations that influence career growth, Murph-Brown noted.

“If you want the union to do something, don’t call the union office to see what to do. Recognize that you are the union and that you can take on an issue.”

Audrey Murph-Brown, Springfield Education Association.

“Sometimes it’s not about taking on big actions, but just confronting micro-aggressions,” she said.

When a big action is required, however, union power is essential. Such was the case when Everett teachers went on strike in 1989. Richard Liston was president of the Everett Teachers Association at the time and recalls that educators were fighting for more autonomy in the classroom.

“It was not so much about salaries but about things like preparation time and the ability to meet with colleagues for curriculum planning,” said Liston, who is now chair of the MTA Retired Members Committee.

Over the course of his 40 years as a teacher, the union was responsible for improving wages and benefits, Liston said. But just as importantly, the union impressed upon administrators the value of having ducators’ voices involved in decisions affecting students and their schools.

Virginia Rutter, an activist at Framingham State University who, like Day, is a member of the MSCA, echoed some of Liston’s sentiments.

“It’s not necessarily ‘us against them’ all the time,” she said. “The union is my means as a worker to make sure that the concerns of the employees are understood.”

Rutter is a professor of sociology, and she sees in union activism the practical application of her theoretical work about groups and movements.

“I see how belonging enhances my own work,” she said, pointing to a month-long teach-in that she and about 90 of her colleagues put together on race and black history last year, connecting the subject matter to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I reached out through the MSCA to engage others, and soon we had a network of faculty across the campus spreading ideas and practices related to social justice,” Rutter said.

While the power of unionism can uplift members one by one, it can also change the dynamic of a whole local.

All In
MTA members attended an open session at the Summer Conference to begin the work of the All In membership campaign. One-to-one conversations are central to the initiative.

Consider what happened to Donna Vanasse, a veteran employee at UMass Amherst and member of the University Staff Association. Returning from a short leave to deal with a family member’s illness, Vanasse was told that her position as a program coordinator was eliminated and that she was laid off.

Vanasse, who is an education support professional, said that she not only lost her job — she also lost her confidence. But she turned to her union, which met with management and pursued legal options before the university reversed its decision. Within three weeks, her position was restored and she was back at work.

That episode prompted the USA to make fair layoff language a priority in contract bargaining — and Vanasse has stepped up into a leadership role in the local.

“I always knew that the union was there, and I was always happy to pay dues. But I decided it was my time to give back,” she said.

Today, the Swampscott Education Association is building upon the camaraderie and connectedness it experienced last year during a contract campaign. The local formed an action committee and organized rallies, one of which drew more than 100 members to a School Committee meeting in the midst of heated negotiations. Members wore buttons and voiced their concerns in the media.

“Our union is the place to celebrate what we do, and what we did last year showed the public what it is we do,” explained SEA member Kate Thomas Shanahan.

SEA member Lauren Skelton-Leard said that the local will foster the relationship it built with the community by circulating a public newsletter to keep people informed about the work being done by Swampscott educators. Veteran SEA members are also engaged in working with new educators to make sure they understand why belonging to the union will make them better educators.

“We fight for what is important for our students,” said Thomas Shanahan.

MTA Vice President Erik J. Champy said the All In campaign amplifies the work that is being carried out through other MTA initiatives to let educators help each other along their respective career paths.

“For many years, I have been very fortunate to work with MTA members across our Commonwealth,” Champy said. “I have seen the extraordinary talent and passion of our public school educators. The ability to build relationships as union members is a tremendous benefit of our association. We have many opportunities to share ideas and experiences that ultimately benefit the students whom we educate.”

This story initially appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of MTA Today.

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