by Sonya Langford

In the current economic environment, with the scarcity of jobs, and loss of health benefits for some people still fortunate to hold on to their jobs, it often feels that we union members are wearing a target on our backs.  However, despite what seems to be a growing anti-union sentiment in the press, unions are NOT the cause of the economic downturn in our country.

I can't speak for all labor unions, but when it comes to my local, council and state organization, I can defend our union with confidence, without making apologies to those who want to attack. I know that in WEA we do good things for our members. With more cuts looming on the horizon, unions are needed now more than ever.

Despite what critics say, school union members care about far more than just their paychecks. Of course the union will continue to advocate for professional wages reflective of our education and experience. But we also care about a safe and healthy learning environment, for not only our members, but also our students. And we care about the direction of education reform at the state and national levels.

It is disheartening when our own school employees are the critics. It is easy to forget what unions do to support and protect us.  Some time ago a union member who had only been teaching for a year called the Soundview office and said she wanted to drop her union membership. When asked why, she replied that she did not use the union for anything.

We pointed out to her that sick leave, personal leave, TRI pay, planning time, and class size limits were all in place because of her union's hard work at the bargaining table. This member had viewed union work as limited to filing grievances, or helping members in trouble or in danger of being fired.  In the end, not only did she not drop her membership, she went on to become an active leader.

In Soundview, classified unions weren't organized until the mid to late 1980s and early 1990's. Before then increment steps were not guaranteed. If the Legislature did not include a raise for school employees, classified employees eligible for step increases remained frozen on the salary schedule, sometimes for multiple years. In addition, there were no RIF protections and employees were let go without recourse during budget cuts. In recent years we have experienced classified RIFS, and without this protection, health benefits for classified employees could have easily been stripped away by drastically cutting hours just enough to make employees ineligible.

In the years since our classified unions have existed, salary schedules have improved when compared over time with similar sized districts. And opportunities for staff development are now in place for classified employees.

One of the most important protections for all union members, certificated and classified, is the layer of defense against hostile parents, unreasonable administrators or students who make false accusations. School employees are vulnerable targets, and one false accusation can destroy a career. This does happen, more often than people know. As a union member you have the legal support of a WEA attorney to fight these accusations. It is insurance that no school employee can afford to do without.