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How we will remain strong and relevant

Bill Raabe, director of the NEA’s Center for Great Public Schools, recently spoke to the MTA staff about some of the challenges facing teachers’ unions that are playing out in courtrooms and legislatures across the country.

Our opponents are trying to pass initiatives making it harder for unions to survive and thrive — and in some cases they are succeeding. These initiatives go by various euphemisms that sound beneficial, such as “paycheck protection” and “right to work,” but their intent is to deprive employees of the right to form, fund and effectively operate their federal, state and local associations even when a majority votes to do so.

This trend isn’t unique to public employee unions. Private-sector unions have been in decline for decades.

Paul Toner Paul Toner
MTA President

It is no surprise that the decline in rates of unionization has coincided with the rising gap between rich and poor. That gap is now bigger than at any time since the 1920s.

Today, the top 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers control 40 percent of the wealth — the same amount as the bottom 90 percent. This is a worldwide phenomenon. As Forbes magazine reported in January, the richest 85 people in the world now control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population: 3.5 billion people.

Economists recognize that having strong unions is one way to narrow those gaps, especially when unions advocate for progressive taxation to fund public services or — in the private sector — for reductions in exorbitant CEO compensation and profit-taking to help boost the incomes of low-paid employees.

The challenge for the NEA and its state affiliates in this environment is to figure out how to remain strong and relevant. The NEA, like the MTA, has concluded that we need to redouble our efforts to fulfill both of our major missions: promoting the profession and quality education for students while advancing the economic interests of our members.

We must be advocates — and strong ones — for early childhood education, better technology in schools, smaller class sizes, and a longer school day where it is appropriate. We must support having an education workforce that has been carefully evaluated and provided with high-quality, teacher-driven professional development.

In the 1970s, the MTA’s primary focus was on bread-and-butter issues. The presumption was that school committees, PTOs and state education officials would advance school quality initiatives while our role was to make sure that teachers, education support professionals and higher education faculty and staff had fair wages, hours and working conditions.

That’s not enough anymore. We believe that our members should be the voice of public education — and that educators must be the loudest voices in identifying and advocating for sound education policies.

Our members tell us they want us to play that role, and the taxpayers who pay our salaries need to understand that we are looking out for the interests of the students we teach, not just ourselves.

Balancing these missions isn’t always easy, which is why the MTA Board of Directors seeks input from local association and higher education chapter leaders in deciding how to proceed. We hold multiple regional presidents’ meetings and two all presidents’ meetings every year.

MTA Vice President Tim Sullivan and I travel across the state to meet with local leaders to hear their concerns. We also conduct surveys and focus groups to find out what members want.

We encourage our local leaders to be in close touch with their members so that they can make informed decisions when advising the MTA Board on how to vote on policy issues.

We applaud local leaders in the Berkshires for launching a “listening tour” to do just that. We encourage leaders and Board members in other regions of the state to do the same.

As education policies are put in place, we in the MTA leadership need to continually listen to members to learn how well those policies are working.

If more time is needed for implementation, we need to hear that and advocate accordingly. If mid-course corrections are required, we need to say so.

What we can’t do is reflexively say “no” to proposals for change. I believe we need to consider and evaluate each serious, wellintentioned proposal that is made because the public is telling us that the status quo isn’t good enough.

Yes, students in our suburban schools are generally performing well and at levels comparable with the highest-performing countries.

But our low-income students continue to lag. Yes, many of their problems can be traced to poverty, not the quality of their teachers. But that means they need us more than ever to advocate for resources, policies and practices to help them succeed in the face of difficult circumstances.

We must be advocates — and strong ones — for early childhood education, better technology in schools, smaller class sizes, and a longer school day where it is appropriate. We must support having an education workforce that has been carefully evaluated and provided with highquality, teacher-driven professional development.

These kinds of initiatives won’t wipe away all of the ill effects of poverty, but they can help. Making quality education a priority is important — both for our students and for the future of our union.

If we are to remain relevant to you, our members, we need to listen to what you have to say about education policies and provide or advocate for the time, tools and resources that you need to do your jobs well. If we are to remain relevant to parents and others who live in our communities, we need to show them, not just tell them, that we have the best interests of our students at heart.