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NEA News

To the Union!

This issue covers union and organizing news from around the country such as: a membership campaign in Arizona and how it's especially important to new educators; educators taking a stand for better working conditions, and how a school district in Florida finally won its union voice.
Published: February 1, 2017
First Appeared In NEA Today Winter 2017

Key Takeaways

  1. A district in Florida finally gets its union, thanks to some good old-fashioned organizing.
  2. A grassroots membership campaign in Arizona quadruples Association membership.
  3. Educators take a stand against the myriad issues that thwart teacher retention and ultimately, student success.

Your union is much more than a deduction from your paycheck. It's an investment in your ability to do your job as an educator. From investing money in Kindergartners’ college savings accounts to shaping the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act—the law that replaced  No Child Left Behind—NEA and the Association's affiliates work hard to ensure classrooms where teachers can teach and students can learn.

New Educator Energy Targeted in an Arizona Membership Campaign

Seeking community and support, new educators fuel Yuma Education Association growth

By Cindy Long

It’s tough to make a dollar stretch on an educator salary—especially a new educator salary. But when new educators in Yuma, Ariz., directly benefited from the collective power of the Yuma Education Association (YUEA), they realized that they couldn’t afford not to join.

Last spring, the union and its partners fought hard to pass Proposition 123, which will increase funding for Arizona public schools for 10 years. The law raises spending by about $300 per student and boosts educator salaries, which had been stagnant since the Great Recession.

At the start of the 2015 – 2016 school year, several months before the law passed, there were 19 members of the Yuma Education Association. A year later, the number is at 90 and growing.

Joseph Daily is an active YUEA member who helped pass Proposition 123. He is always on the lookout for opportunities to talk to new educators about the importance of belonging to the union so that they can accomplish even more for students and schools. He finds that many new educators respond well to him because he can empathize with their struggles, both professional and financial. It wasn’t that long ago that he walked in their shoes. 

“It was right in the middle of the Great Recession when I got married and started having children,” says Daily, who has three kids now, all under the age of four. “Money got tight and membership dues were the first to go. I’d been a member for two years when I decided I had to drop it to save money starting in the 2010 school year.”

But even without dues expenses, money was still tight. And when he looked around, he realized that he was surrounded by educators who, like him, were woefully underpaid and stretched in a “million different directions.” Daily rejoined because he knew that without the union nothing was going to change.

“I rejoined the union because I believe that with the power of numbers behind us we could fight for better teacher pay, bring down our class sizes, get special training in various professional development areas, and much more,” Daily says. “I joined because I also cared about my colleagues. I hated seeing first year teachers leaving because they couldn’t make ends meet money-wise or they didn’t feel welcomed or supported. I joined to make a difference for those teachers so they will stay! I was born and raised in Yuma and it is a beautiful place to live, teach, and raise a family.”

He talks to new educators about his own struggles with mortgage payments and the rising cost of groceries, but tells them he still pays his membership dues to belong to something bigger and to make an investment in his profession.

New Teachers Need More Support 

When it comes to the top priority of new educators, Daily says most people assume it’s salary, but he believes they’d choose more support over higher pay.

“We don’t go into this profession for the money. I think the main issue challenging our new educators is they’re not feeling supported,” he says. “I think our new educators want to feel like they belong here and have friends who are colleagues and can understand the same problems and successes that they are going through.”

That’s why he and his fellow YUEA members connect with each other and new educators at a personal level. It develops friendships, which is what Daily says a union is all about.  

“We look out for each other and back each other up. We pick each other up during tough days, and we’re also here to celebrate the great days. With this kind of connection, new educators feel wanted and will join our union because they want what we have—a family.”

Faith Risolo, an organizational consultant with the Arizona Education Association (AEA), works closely with Daily and the other leaders of the YUEA. She says that what Daily and his colleagues are doing to recruit new members is working. She calls it the relational approach.

“Introductions are made at the building level and then new educators are invited to socials. Everyone brings along a colleague who might be interested in joining and they share stories and talk about the work of the union over quesadillas and beer,” she says. “It’s a young, energetic group. The oldest member is 42!”

Risolo says there is a “ton of turnover” in Yuma because of low pay but also because of where it is. Some of the schools in the district sit right on the border of Mexico and many English language learning (ELL) students are still learning how to ask to go to the bathroom in English, let alone learning to read in English. Some educators work in farming communities with migrant populations. Students from the first quarter will suddenly disappear as they move with their parents to where crops are coming in, only to reappear in January. In classes sometimes as large as 40 students, it’s very hard to help returning students catch up.

Nevertheless, she says the new teachers see themselves vested in the students they teach and in the community, and they want to stay, but they need better working conditions.

“Without organizing that’s not just going to happen,” says Risolo.

The turnover had gotten so bad that at the end of the school year, many students were asking teachers if they were coming back in the fall. In communities where home lives aren’t always stable, students must have a sense of stability at school, says Daily. 

“We need to be there for them year after year,” he says. “The best way to keep our teachers here is to support them, and we do that by having a strong and loud voice. The best way to have that voice is by growing the membership of the union.”

Daily says YUEA is like a freight train. “We’re going in a positive direction and it’s getting heavier every day with new members joining. If you don’t want to join us, get off the tracks because we want only teachers who care about their profession, each other, and our students.”

Not only do the new YUEA members have a safe zone where they can talk candidly about their struggles and feel supported, they are continually learning about their career through professional development programs offered by their YUEA colleagues, with everything from classroom management and supporting ELL students to bullying prevention and navigating the evaluation system. More opportunities arise as new YUEA leaders emerge.

“This is a local NEA affiliate being energized by new teachers seeking a community of support and professionalism, and they are spreading the word to others,” says Risolo, who calls Yuma her happy place. “Their message is simple: Take a chance with us, and let’s make a difference in public education.”

Taking a Seat at the Table

<i>On a wide range of issues, educators are taking the lead and improving teaching conditions.</i>

By Tim Walker and Mary Ellen Flannery

A 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) at Stanford University examined a question that has been on the minds of anyone who cares about public education: Why do teachers quit?

Teacher retention, always a concern, has been a top issue in recent years as public education has been under relentless assault from lawmakers intent on slashing budgets and a culture that has de-professionalized teaching. Unlike high-performing nations such as Finland and Singapore, the teaching profession in the United States doesn’t have the elevated status it has elsewhere. The end result is that teaching conditions have declined precipitously over the past decade. 

“Teaching conditions have hit a low point in the United States in terms of salaries, working conditions, and access to strong preparation and mentoring—all of which would attract and keep a stronger, more sustainable teaching pool,” explains Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and co-author of the LPI report. 

Preparation and support are critical. LPI found that teachers with little preparation tend to leave at rates two to three times as high as those who have had a comprehensive preparation before they enter.

Another major issue for educators is autonomy in the classroom. How much voice do they have in decisions that affect their students? Not much, says Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. 

“Teachers are micromanaged. They have been saying for a long time that one size doesn’t fit all, that all students are different,” Ingersoll says. “But they’re told to stick to the scripted curriculum, which might work for a weaker teacher but it drives good teachers nuts.”

“We have heard time and time again from [NEA] members who do not find that they have a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect their work with students,” says NEA Vice President Becky Pringle. 

NEA state and local affiliates, however, have been organizing and bargaining to improve working conditions for educators—looking at everything from class size to more professional development for their members, in addition to better pay and less high-stake testing and more time for actual learning. 

Educators, who know better than anyone the adverse impact large class sizes have on student learning, have notched some critical victories in reducing class size. In 2016, United Teachers of Los Angeles were victorious in persuading the school board to add additional teachers to reduce class sizes in fourth through sixth grades in the top 55 “high-needs” schools. Class size was also one of the priorities for Seattle educators when they went on strike in 2015, eventually winning a reduction in class size in special education classes. “It was an important issue for our members, one we will always be willing to fight for,” said Michael Tamayo, vice president of the Seattle Education Association, and a member of the bargaining team.

Educators across the nation have also taken the lead in reversing the legacy of No Child Left Behind, which imposed a strict, top-down test and punish regime on the nation’s classrooms. Teaching to the test became the norm, as classroom autonomy and creativity steadily dissipated over the course of a decade. In 2015, NEA championed the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which passed Congress in 2015. On a host of issues, including testing and accountability, the new law provides more flexibility to individual states. As ESSA implementation kicked into high gear in 2016, NEA state affiliates took the lead in seeing to it that educators played a role in shaping the new law.

Through ESSA, educators can influence multiple decisions, such as the components of state accountability plans. For example, how much weight to ascribe to tests and what school or student supports should be included? Educators also can help decide what tests should be eliminated and how school assessments and interventions should be designed and by whom.

“In many sections of the new law, there are requirements for meaningful community and stakeholder engagement,” explains Amy Perruso, a social studies teacher in Hawaii, who also serves on the governor’s ESSA task force. “They require state policy makers to reconsider the ways in which education policy has previously been developed and imposed on teachers, students, and even parents. This process has enabled me to have hundreds of conversations with teachers around the state, to get some real insights into the conditions that are faced by our students and teachers on a daily basis, in very grounded, concrete ways.”

Long before ESSA passed, educators had been working with parents and other stakeholders in states to scale back the amount of testing, prioritize more time for teaching, and create new authentic assessments that acknowledge that students are more than a test score. NEA local affiliates are tapping into their members’ expertise.

“These are folks who have the skills, experience, and background to have professional judgment,” says Brent McKim, local president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA). In Jefferson County, Ky., district officials insisted on the frequent use of standardized multiple-choice tests to monitor students and teachers. The message, says McKim, is “we don’t trust you to have the professional capacity to understand if a child in your class is getting it or not, but we do trust a really lousy multiple-choice test. It’s a slap in the face to the professional judgment of teachers.”

Educators in Louisville are collaborating with the school board to pare down the time spent taking tests, and union leaders are consulting with the nationally respected Center for Teaching Quality and leading efforts on the district’s task force for deeper learning. 

Last spring, high school math teacher Ryan Davis delivered a petition signed by every teacher at his school required by the district to give “diagnostic” and “proficiency” assessments. These assessments are administered every three to four weeks and are antithetical to individualized learning and authentic assessment. 

The petition presented by Davis was the first by JCTA members last year, but it definitely won’t be the last. It also wasn’t the first step in their efforts to make time for student learning and restore control of classrooms to the people who know best about curriculum, lesson pacing, mastery of learning, and authentic assessment of learning. 

 “We’re seeding the cloud so that it rains good stuff,” says McKim.

The Dawn of a New Union

Public school teachers in last Florida district  without a union finally win one

By Mary Ellen Flannery

It’s been 43 years since Florida’s legislature put in place the state’s collective bargaining law, and finally Calhoun County teachers have taken them up on the offer.

Until last year, Calhoun had been the one and only remaining public school district in Florida without a teachers’ union. But eventually word reached this rural bend: Other teachers—teachers in unions—have a say in teaching and learning conditions! This past summer, the state certified the new Association of Calhoun Educators (ACE), and its members sat down at the bargaining table to negotiate a historic first contract.

“We heard about teachers in our neighboring districts and what they get—their rights, their voice—and we thought, ‘Why can’t we have that?’” says Russell Baggett, a nationally board certified teacher who has spent 49 years in Calhoun’s schools, as a student and as a teacher. 

They’re not the only ones asking that question these days. New NEA-affiliated unions are still forming, decades after laws first passed to enable them. They include education support professionals in DeSoto County, Fla., this past May; academic staff at New Hampshire’s Keene State College in June; and faculty at Tallahassee Community College and Florida State College in September. More recently, in October, teachers from conservative, rural Clayton, N.M., near the Oklahoma border, also voted in a new NEA-affiliated union. 

 “This vote is about having a real say in what happens in our schools. This isn’t about getting raises or current administrators,” says Clayton fourth-grade teacher Lisa Massey. “We hope this begins a collaborative process with the district where we can work together to do what’s best for students, teachers, parents, and the district.”

In fact, across the South, unions grew by 200,000 workers between 2014 and 2015, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, as the nationwide share of workers belonging to a union held steady. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who approve of unions grew by 8 percent between 2009 and 2016, according to Gallup.  

“Membership in our union requires time, money, and effort, but the value we receive is multiplied by our collective support for things that are important to all of us,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. The value received personally by Eskelsen García? It’s “being part of a family filled with some of the brightest, most dedicated, passionate, energetic, optimistic people I’ve ever met,” she says.

Old-fashioned organizing

Calhoun County, tucked on the northwest side of the Apalachichola National Forest in Florida’s panhandle, is about three times nearer (in miles) to Montgomery, Ala., than Miami. In mindset, it’s a world away. With five schools and 2,200 students, the county is small, conservative, and closely acquainted. “Everybody knows each other. Everybody goes to church together,” says Tony Gentile, Florida Education Association (FEA) Central Panhandle service unit director. 

For more than four decades, those close quarters were enough to ensure teachers had a say in their working conditions. Even as educators in every other one of Florida’s 67 countywide districts voted to unionize, there was a feeling in Calhoun that “they took care of their own,” says Gentile. 

That changed. By 2015 many Calhoun teachers felt school officials couldn’t care less—and teacher pay proved it. With an average teacher salary of $40,792 in 2015, Calhoun ranked near the bottom of the state. By just crossing the county line, teachers could add $5,000 to their annual pay. 

Not only that, but teachers in nearby districts reported something even more magical: They were listened to. Their thoughts on what would work best in their classrooms were respected. “We brought in presidents from other local unions, and they talked about what they were trying to get done for students and how they worked together,” says Gentile.

Union organizing meetings took place in people’s homes, and conversations were held one on one. Fear was an issue, especially since Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 eliminated due-process protections and ordered all new teachers onto one-year contracts only. Baggett says his colleagues in Calhoun feared losing their jobs over “the ‘u’ word.” Baggett was elected the new union’s first president in September.

“We are hometown people,” explains Baggett. “We may go away for school, but we come home to live and teach. If a person lost their position here, they’d have to leave their home to keep their career. So that fear factor is strong.”

But hope proved stronger than fear. In early summer, Calhoun teachers voted yes to a union. In September, they began negotiating a new contract with administrators.

“When I met with Tony (Gentile, who is assisting ACE in its bargaining), I was like ‘Oh my gosh, we can do this? Or we can do that? It’s never been done that way!’” laughs Baggett. 

What he’s talking about are contract proposals to guarantee teachers get individual planning time and duty-free lunches, plus extra pay for excessive lesson preps. Fair, consistent, and legally binding procedures also are being written and bargained around teachers’ performance evaluations, layoffs, leave, and grievances. Previously, if workplace problems arose, “it’d be every teacher for themselves, pretty much,” Baggett says. 

With FEA’s assistance, the bargaining team is looking at contract models from Florida’s 66 other countywide teachers’ unions. Today, they are not alone. And they are not voiceless. 

Says Baggett, “That was one thing that pushed us to start this—having a voice in the conditions affecting us and the students.”   

Unions Break the Mold!

What started as a few isolated cases of non-traditional bargaining and Association activity has bloomed into a full-fledged movement across the country. Don’t take our word for it. Take a look at seven creative ways educators use their collective-bargaining contracts or their influence to support students, educators, and families.

Hawaii Stays Cool

Without air conditioning in classrooms, students and educators in Hawaii suffer from the sweltering heat. The Hawaii State Teachers Association successfully pushed the state legislature and education department to get students and educators much needed relief from over-heated classrooms. Air conditioning and heat abatement equipment is now expected to cool 1,000 public school classrooms throughout the state.

Not Your Regular HGTV Redesign

In St. Paul, Minn., educators and administrators agreed to a school redesign that allows schools to choose their own staff, develop new cultures of successful performance and learning, redesign work rules, modify the length of the instructional day and year, modify scheduling, improve instructional programs and pedagogy, and recognize teacher and leader effectiveness in accordance with state and federal guidelines and statutes.

More In Minnesota

St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) negotiated smaller class sizes, more licensed media specialists, elementary counselors, school social workers and nurses, greater access to preschool, family engagement, a reduction in time spent on testing and test prep, and a decent pay raise.

Education support professionals are negotiating in more supportive ways, too! SPFT also successfully negotiated a number of student-centered items in its new bargaining agreement covering education assistants (EA), including providing substitutes for select full-time special education EA positions when they’re absent. Special education and English language learning students will no longer miss out on learning!

Yes, You Can Bargain For Recess And More!

New ground was broken in Seattle when educators worked for an  increase in recess time, equity in student discipline, limits on testing, and the untangling of test scores from teacher evaluations.

Come In. We’re Home.

Everyone knows a positive parent-teacher relationship boosts student and school success, which is why several local associations nationwide have negotiated teacher-parent home visits into their contracts. 

College Saving Plans Start Early

For 800 kindergarten students within the Greece Central School District in New York, saving for college can start now—thanks, in part, to the Greece Teachers Association, which started an initiative to open New York State 529 College Savings accounts for every kindergarten student in the school district. The local association will make a $25 contribution to each plan.

Do Words Mean What They Mean?

Sometimes, depending on the person’s relationship with the word. With this understanding, educators and administrators from Montgomery County, Md., defined the word “collaboration” within the local association’s contract. Collaboration not only means working together, but also working in a meaningful way, and within a timeframe that provides a real opportunity to shape results.


National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.