No One Said Transforming Unions Was Easy

by Stephanie Walters

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I think that’s how many people would describe life as a teacher union staffer these days. Minus the best part, of course.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that folks like me, who understand the importance of unions, recognize that we have a tough road to hoe. The road is even rockier here in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker has attempted to destroy our unions by eliminating our right to collectively bargain with employers. And while the way we operate as a teachers union at the local and state level here in Wisconsin most likely will never look the same as it did just few short months ago, I think we will be stronger for it.

Book: Transforming Teacher UnionsFor many years now, teachers unions (specifically NEA affiliates) talked about the need to change the way we did business, that the reliance on union staff to fix problems severely hindered the leadership development and participation from the rank and file, and that the seeming fixation on bread and butter issues (wages, hours, and benefits) alienated us from parents and community members. At Rethinking Schools, we often wrote about the need to reshape union operations. We are all union members and supporters; some of us are union leaders, too. Our book, Transforming Teacher Unions, explored ways that unions could be more involved in community struggles as well as engaging leaders on professional issues like evaluation and teacher preparation.

Many leaders called for the change from a service culture to an organizing one; this would be a culture where members were far more involved in problem solving and conflict management at the school and district level, and there would be more work with administrations to create meaningful professional development and curriculum.

But for all the talk about creating this kind of culture, it was occurring at a painfully slow pace. The reasons why are too numerous to list here, but I think one of the most important ones boils down to three words: change is hard!

But the actions of the Republican Party over the past nine months shone a white hot spotlight on our union’s difficulty in connecting to members. We had to spring into action; the pace of change was not going to work any longer. It would continue to be the worst of times if we continued to conduct business as usual.

So WEAC decided that as a union they could not continue to do business as usual. Extraordinary attacks called for extraordinary responses and that is what they dialed up. The game plan: take the case for preserving and strengthening the union to members where they live. Literally.

In early May, WEAC unveiled a door-to-door summer membership campaign. The goal: talk to as many members as possible about their concerns and questions about union membership and ask them to stick with the union. I was thrilled about the effort. What a great way to connect with members! What a great way to build solidarity and exhibit union values! Not everyone was as excited as I was about the effort, however. Many were predicting resounding failure before we even knocked on one door.

“Members will hate us coming to their homes. They won’t even open their doors.”

“No one will want to knock on doors; people are too busy in the summer.”

“They will just think we are trying to get their money.”

Bad excuses were thrown around to continue living in the worst of times; excuses uttered by established leaders and staff alike.

Luckily, they were widely ignored because they were soon refuted by members who became the new leaders of the new teacher union movement. I actually saw in these people and their efforts the best of times for the future of teacher unionism.

Stephanie (seated on cooler) was accompanied by many teacher leaders in home visits. From the back, l to r: Tom Baribeau, Janet Rich, Ted Chaudoir, Dave Campshure, Julie Hannon, Jim Geoffrey, Danny Smith, Stephanie Walters, Stacie Kaminski

I went door to door with folks like Ted Chaudoir, a bus driver in tiny Southern Door School District who spoke passionately about why he would continue his union membership when he asked fellow members at their doors to do the same.

I visited members with Stacie Kaminski, an English teacher from Pulaski School District who had never really been involved in her union until this year and came to door knock every Tuesday and Thursday without fail from June to August.

And I went with Sue Smits, until she recruited her friend to do visits with her instead.

These are just a few of the people who came day after day to talk to their fellow members about the importance of keeping their union strong. And their work translated into more than 1600 members pledging to remain members. Some of those people would have continued on as members; certainly a significant number wouldn’t have if folks like Ted, Sue, and Stacie hadn’t asked them to. It was so exciting to hear people say, “I agree with you; I appreciate you coming to my house and I will continue to be a member.”

The commitment and passion they showed was infectious and gave me hope that this union will weather this storm and will emerge stronger because of their efforts.

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.

Download a free chapter from Transforming Teacher Unions: “Survival and Justice: Rethinking Teacher Union Strategy,” (PDF)  by Bob Peterson, Rethinking Schools co-founder who is currently serving as president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.