A NOTICE TO NEW TEACHERS, OR WHAT’S IN A UNION?

Unions are critical to our unity.
Our unity is critical to our survival.

For the last fifteen years or so, politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government have engaged in a no-holds-barred, all-front campaign to destroy the teaching profession. One of the most popular, and most effective tactics has been to attack educators’ professional organizations, especially in so-called right-to-work (translation: anti living wage) states.

Florida: In the Vanguard of Violence Against Public Education

Unions in Florida, already hard-pressed by an historically hostile state government, have taken a severe beating at the hands of the legislature, the governor, and the state supreme court. Teachers’ unions in Florida have experienced a loss of power and influence as the House and Senate unabashedly connive to dismantle the very underpinnings of our public education system in the name of reform. A campaign to corporatize education has been sweeping the nation, and Florida is leading the charge.

Pasco County: The Vanguard of the Vanguard

Pasco County School District has been no exception. Pasco’s superintendent, Kurt “the Bubba” Browning, wasted no time in trying to circumvent the contract and discredit the union publicly at his every opportunity. Being the well-seasoned politician that he is, he is also very adept at engineering the confusion of issues by his constituency, usually by way of half-truths and omission of relevant facts. He knows very well how to say a whole lot without really saying anything at all. He has spent a great deal of time and energy openly disrespecting our union, the United School Employees of Pasco. Browning seems to revel in producing slick video speeches on a regular basis. He can produce as many spiffy videos as suits him, but his actions have been far more illustrative of his hostility toward us than his words can demonstrate otherwise. He has, beyond the smallest fleck of a doubt, shown himself to be no friend of teachers. One of his primary objectives, as any discerning observer will conclude, is to drive our union out of the equation, and if that happens, we are going to regret it terribly. He yearns for carte blanche. Nothing in life itself is more true at this moment. He absolutely loathes having to deal with USEP, because USEP is all that stands in the way of Bubba becoming the district dictator of schools. If we expect to withstand this homegrown good ol’ boy’s seemingly perpetual push for power, we had better keep USEP strong. Without USEP, we are totally screwed.

The War on Public Education and Union Attrition

One of the more regrettable aspects of the War on Public Education has proven to be an aggravating factor in our struggle against corporate dominance: Young teachers are far less likely to join the union in the first place.

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves. A great number of Baby Boomers have either retired, or are retiring. To make things worse, other veteran teachers are simply bailing out, exasperated with what has become of our profession. They are being replaced largely by young teachers, many of whom can hardly see any value in union membership, and even when they do, they balk at paying dues when their starting salaries are so paltry. Many first year teachers are afraid to join, pointing out that because they are employed on annual contracts, they can find themselves unemployed at the end of any given school year. The result is union attrition. It must be stopped.

Unions: Our Collective Voice

The wholesale government assault against public schools, coupled with declining membership in educators’ unions, has become a perfect storm for teachers. It has created synergy for the weasels who intend to privatize, monetize, and corporatize public education. Momentum, as well as money, is on their side. Unions are on ours. If there was ever a time for teachers to be in a union, now is it. As difficult as they may be to see, there are enumerable reasons for teachers in general, and young teachers in particular, to join their local union.

In districts where a collective bargaining agreement is in force, virtually every aspect of employment has been negotiated and agreed upon by the district and the union. This is a very, very important point. Virtually all of the minutia of our workday is governed by the agreement between the school district and us, by way of the Master Contract, negotiated by our union on our behalf. The Master Contract is what protects us from unfair or arbitrary policies or practices being imposed by the district. A vast majority of the protections that we take for granted are covered by language in the contract.

The length of our workday, the number and duration of our duties, our guarantee of a duty-free lunch, how much of our planning period can be usurped; all these items are spelled out in detail in the contract. These things we unwittingly take for granted because many of us don’t understand how important they are. We would certainly notice if they suddenly disappeared and the district was allowed to act with the impunity Bubba so covets. If it weren’t for the union, administrators could give anyone any duty, at any time, and for any length of time. We could be forced to work beyond a 7.5 hour day without compensation. Florida labor laws do not address overtime pay for salaried professionals. We could be forced to take a working lunch. We could be forced to teach without a planning period. The contract is more important than one can imagine.

Another really big deal is the amount of paid time off we receive. We would not get nearly the paid time off that we do if it were not for the union’s hard bargaining on our behalf. Additionally, our paid sick leave accrues annually. Says the contract, “Sick leave shall be cumulative from year to year. There shall be no limit placed upon number of days a teacher may accrue.” That language is very important. There is no law or regulation anywhere that says an employer has to allow employees to accrue paid leave. If it wasn’t in the contract, you can bet we would lose it fast, and forever.

The disciplinary process for teachers is covered by the contract as well. Big deal again. Without contract language governing the disciplinary process and guaranteeing due process, teachers would find themselves serving at the unrestrained whim of their administrators. The district would be quick to take advantage of Florida employment regulations, which include no-cause termination at any point in an employee’s career. Teachers work in a giant minefield. Make a mistake, honest or not, and here comes trouble. Many of us have had an administrator at one point or another who just couldn’t leave us alone and who would have absolutely zero compunction about ending our employment, or even our career. If you think things are bad now, then imagine not having due process to at least provide a framework to defend yourself.

Affiliation with State and National Associations

A very important, though often overlooked benefit of joining the local union is that by consequence, you also become a member of the Florida Education Association (FEA), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). These are the state and national organizations that fight for public educators, and they are the only organizations that stand in the way of the crooked politicians’ and their corporate cronies’ incessant onslaught against public schools. They don’t run on charitable contributions. They are funded by a small share of every affiliated local union’s dues; they are funded by rank and file members. That is absolutely fit and proper. Declining membership means less money collected, and less money collected means less effective organizations.

Defending Public Education Against Corporatization

Corporations are spending billions in a well-funded, well-orchestrated, nationwide effort to discredit public schools in order to transform the American education system into a profit-generating enterprise using the very same money once meant to, among other things, pay teachers’ salaries. The FEA, NEA, and AFT are the only organizations we have on our side in the fight to save public education. We need to keep them funded. Let’s face it: this country runs on money. If you dream to have any influence in our government, like it or not, you’d better be willing to pony up. Litigation costs big bundles of cash, and these organizations depend on dues money to pay for the suits they bring on our behalf. Hopes and dreams don’t pay legal bills. Unfortunately, advocacy of any sort costs money. We can’t expect organizations to fight for us without it. When you look at the big picture, it is easy to see that union membership is an investment in your own career, your own profession, and in fact, in your nation.

Very Inexpensive Legal Protection

A huge benefit of union membership is personal liability and legal protection. Incidentally, the state has spent a great deal of energy trying to lure teachers away from unions by offering their own version of so-called “personal liability protection,” but it doesn’t take too long of a look at the fine print to see that the “protection” is nearly worthless. The deductible is ridiculous (FEA protection has no deductible), and the exclusions are nearly as long as the policy. The whole program turns out to be a mean-spirited sham cooked up by legislators to erode union membership by pretending to offer a benefit that in actuality hardly even exists. In fact, the aforementioned fine print renders the insurance all but safe from ever actually being used. That is the pure truth.

More than a few teachers have found themselves in a bad position legally, and have found themselves subject to unpaid suspension pending the outcome of criminal proceedings. I know one such teacher. The teacher was arrested, charged, and summarily suspended. USEP put the teacher in touch with the FEA. The FEA assigned an attorney, and two years later the teacher returned to the classroom. Had it not been for the teacher’s union membership, a teaching career would have been over. Done. No question about it. It’s difficult to even put a price on a benefit like one that saves a career. That’s what union membership does.

The Cost of Belonging

Understandably, many new teachers balk at the cost of membership. With stagnated salaries and the fact that all new teachers are now subject to an annual contract (or more accurately, worrying every summer whether they’ll have a job in the fall), many can’t see how important union membership is to their careers. Considering all the benefits that come with union membership for $26.49 per pay period, a union membership dues deduction is money well-spent.

There are myriad discounts available to union members through the FEA, the NEA, and the AFT. A little homework and effort more than offsets the cost of union membership dues. I have spoken to teachers who tally their savings on purchases of products and services and some have boasted savings in the thousands of dollars per year.

There are indeed many advantages to union membership. There are far too many for me to list and describe here. New teachers should explore the advantages of joining the union by talking to seasoned teachers who are members. I am confident that the advantages far exceed the costs.

Teachers’ unions are the only established organizations with both the willingness and wherewithal to fight the corporatization of education. While they have suffered greatly at the hands of opportunistic politicians and greedy corporate scoundrels eager to monetize the institution for profit, they are still all we have fighting for us at this point.

If we, Florida’s teachers, don’t keep the unions in the fight, for our students, our public schools, and our profession, then we stand to lose everything. There is no better way to safeguard your livelihood than to unite with the rest of us. Without unions, we are as good as sunk. We can’t win it if we’re not even in it.

If you are a new teacher, you really should consider networking with some veteran union members in order to gain a full understanding of what unionism is all about. For all the problems unions have had, and will surely continue to have, we are still far and away better off with them than without them. We need to stay in the fight, and if we’re going to do that, we need to be in the union.

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