Why I wanted to participate: My mother was a bus driver. My aunt’s a teacher. My grandmother’s a bus driver. They were all part of unions, so I’m from a union family. I believe in the strength in numbers, and I believe in advocacy. When I was a first-year teacher, I had some issues where the Minority Affairs Committee came in and helped me by observing me and giving me advice. That’s something my union did for me, and I wanted to pay it forward when I was able to.
What I saw: Being an MEA ambassador gave me an opportunity to go “behind the scenes” of MEA. So often as members—and even non-members—we see the end product of all the bargaining, conversations, and organizing but never realize what went into making it successful. Becoming an MEA ambassador helped me to pull back the curtain and see the “magic” behind the show. I had no idea how far and wide the structuring of our union went.
What I learned: Being an MEA ambassador, I learned how important it was to connect with my fellow AAEA members on a positive note. I didn’t wait until there was an issue to speak with members. I learned to make myself present and readily available whether it was for a hurdle that needed to be crossed, some socializing and apps at Applebees, or just a “hello, how’s it going” on the playground. What I thought bridging members to the union was before being an ambassador is vastly different than what I have learned it actually is.
Successes: I was very successful connecting with people and just listening to their needs. I would go to orientations for new staff and talk about how to be part of the union—not just joining but what does your union do for you? And what can you do for your union? So often members don’t connect with the union until there is a fire to put out. By being an organizer, I am helping the union become a proactive body instead of one that is reactive.
Why I wanted to participate: I was raised to believe in unions and fighting for the common good. You need somebody to stand up for your rights. I worked for one year in North Carolina—in a right-to-work state—in ’96. Came back and eventually saw the change in Michigan. Every year since 2010 I’ve increased my involvement in the union because it’s not getting better here.
What I saw: The number-one roadblock with newer, younger teachers who haven’t joined the union was financial. They have college debts and this payment and that payment. I followed up to expand their knowledge base about the union, and let them know this is a contract year for us and we need you. As a former football coach I’m always using team analogies to explain the union. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. You only get out of it what you put into it.
What I learned: It starts with opening the door, letting them talk, and listening. After listening, we did a whole lot of planning. We did a training at the beginning of the year for new hires about their retirement plan options, because they had to pick what plan they’re opting into. And the very next one in November was about student loan forgiveness. The other thing we did was not just for new hires but to focus on the biggest workplace issue not related to salary—which is student behavior, discipline, school violence. So we started a committee to come up with a game plan of how we could get some wins in that arena. Like a think tank. Giving people a safe place to talk and share ideas. Sometimes those people who don’t ever speak up have great ideas.
Successes: We held two events for new hires and we got 100 percent of them to join. That’s our claim to fame… I was asked to describe my thoughts in one word, and I said “pride,” because I didn’t give up on people, and I learned and grew as an individual from the experience. And the success we’ve had is going to make a tremendous impact in our local for a long time to come.
If you are interested in learning more about member-organizing opportunities, contact Associate Executive Director Marcy Kamienecki at firstname.lastname@example.org.