Elaine Valk remembers what it was like to work in the Sutton Public Schools before education support professionals formed a union. While she can list numerous beneficial changes to pay and working conditions for Sutton ESPs since they organized 10 years ago, Valk said that developing a collective voice has been the union’s greatest accomplishment.
"Having that collective voice has been the biggest benefit," said Valk, a speech-language pathology assistant who is president of the Sutton Education Support Professionals Association. The situation today is a vast improvement over working in circumstances in which each person had to fight individually, she said.
With that in mind, members gathered a few weeks ago to work on "BRAG" statements — which help educators delineate the benefits, resources, achievements and goals of their association and spark conversations about shared interests and values.
The work is connected to the All In organizing campaign now underway in MTA locals across the state, which will provide members with the opportunity to reflect on the value of belonging to a union and talk to each other about the future — including what will happen after a case called Janus v. AFSCME is decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
MTA President Barbara Madeloni said the fact that there will soon be a ruling in the Janus case, which seeks to eliminate the ability of public-sector unions to collect fair-share or "agency" fees paid by those who choose not to join, makes this a critical time to ensure that educators understand the importance of standing together as members.
Membership is the source of our power," Madeloni said. "Educators know what their students need to be successful, and we use our collective power to make sure that those needs are met."
The Janus case will determine whether unions can continue to collect fees from nonmembers they are legally obligated to represent. Agency fees cover the cost of negotiating and maintaining the contracts that benefit all members of a bargaining unit, but they exclude the cost of activities that are related to political activities such as lobbying.
Labor leaders, including Madeloni, characterize the Janus case as yet another union-busting tactic by the right wing. It is widely expected that the Supreme Court will rule against unions’ ability to collect fair-share fees.
“With the support of the union behind members, things get done.”Elaine Valk, Sutton Education Support Professionals Association President
The All In plan involves holding one-to-one conversations between union members. Valk said that has some people moving outside their comfort zones, so members will use their BRAG statements to help guide the conversations.
"We are going to start simple," Valk said. "I want to have short conversations that make people understand: You are the union."
The leadership has been working to dispel the false assertion that the union is separate from those it represents. Valk likes to quote Sutton Education Support Professionals Association Vice President Charlie Petry, who tells members, "If there is something about the union that bothers you, tell us about it."
Lately, the local has been chalking up more memorable victories than complaints. It recently renegotiated the terms of "full-time" employment, helping many workers gain access to better benefits.
"Without the union, nothing gets done when someone has a problem. We saw that for many years," Valk said. "But with the support of the union behind members, things get done."
This story initially appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of MTA Today.