By Mike Myslinski
Myndi Hardgrave, vice president of the Hanford Secondary Educators Association and the Tulare/Kings Service Center Council chair.
Nicole Bourbeau has taught for 11 years but got involved with her union for the first time this year after the San Jacinto Teachers Association in Riverside County won a grievance filed on her behalf over an involuntary transfer.
Her advice to teachers thinking about union work? "Do it. Don't wait to be involved in a grievance," she says. "We need your support. We need to know how teachers are feeling."
Bourbeau holds a master's degree in teaching technology and is her chapter's communications coordinator. She is revamping the chapter's website and starting a newsletter using tips she learned in August at CTA's weeklong Summer Institute training for 1,000 teachers. Her sister and two brothers-in-law are teachers in Los Angeles Unified.
The union movement swept her up once she saw hundreds of colleagues getting pink slips this past spring. "I feel for other people," she says. "I had gone to union rallies. But this year, I said I want to be part of it."
Her husband Brett, a high school teacher, attended Summer Institute with her and took the Emerging Leaders track, which offered a crash course in labor history, strategies and priorities. He was formerly a vice principal in the Perris Unified High School District and is now on the teachers' negotiating team for the Perris Secondary Education Association.
Seeing so many local school cuts inspired him to get involved. "There are no supplies for students or teachers," he says. "Last year we had to buy a lot of our own paper."
He is even planning on running for the school board in his wife's San Jacinto district.
In San Bernardino County, spouses Michael and Kim Smith are both school site reps and members of the organizing team for Adelanto District Teachers Association. They have been active with their union for about two years.
During CTA's Pink Friday statewide day of protest in March, the couple joined several other chapters in the high desert for a demonstration in Bear Valley on the I-15 freeway, wearing pink, holding protest signs and enjoying the friendly honking of passing motorists sympathetic to the cause of stopping teacher layoffs.
Union work for them also meant attending Summer Institute this year and learning about how to improve diverse school cultures from speakers in a track on the CTA-sponsored Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), the 2006 law that provides nearly $3 billion in extra resources to 499 targeted lower-performing schools. Their schools are not QEIA sites, but they feel the team-building and other methods used in the training will be helpful for organizing at their schools.
"It was a learning experience for me," says Michael, a 12-year teacher who wants to inspire Los Angeles area students who migrated to his Mesa Linda Middle School in Victorville to look beyond their troubled urban roots and see the value of going to college.
"We just felt this was something we could take back to our school sites," says Kim, in her 13th year of teaching at Victoria Magathan Elementary in Adelanto.
Kim hopes other colleagues see that doing this work means improving public schools and protecting teacher salaries, benefits and the profession. "If they don't do it, no one else is going to."
In San Jose, math teacher Vince Iwasaki took a different path to union work. He disagreed a few years ago with his union, the Alum Rock Educators Association (AREA), when it opposed the idea of a longer school day without extra pay at his small collaborative school, the Renaissance Academy of Science, Art and Social Justice.
When it became clear that the change could be used districtwide as a precedent affecting all teachers, Iwasaki saw the light and sought to get involved. Today, he is chair of the AREA organizing team and strongly believes that union work ultimately helps students by using the bargaining table to increase student learning and win improvements that help recruit and retain more educators.
"We need to think of the union as an advocacy organization for kids," Iwasaki says. "In protecting teacher rights and public education, we do advocate for kids. Unions are also the only power we have to take a stand" against those who want to destroy public education.
In the nearby Campbell Union High School District, it wasn't hard for Westmont High School teacher Alison LaBouff to see how she might fit in.
"I like to get involved," the fourth-year educator says. "There were two openings on the bargaining team for our Campbell High School Teachers Association. I just thought that would be very interesting. And I'm not afraid of confrontation."
After taking CTA bargaining training, LaBouff bargained two contract cycles, including one that took 18 months but won retroactive salary increases of 2.24 percent. No animosity with the district has surfaced since, and she hopes to keep it that way as negotiations begin for a new contract this fall.
She began her union work in her first year of teaching and urges all younger colleagues to consider doing the same. "I wanted to learn about how the district was run. This is the way to do that."
At times, there are challenges when it comes to connecting with members and getting them to feel a part of the union.
"It's sometimes difficult to get people to understand that they are the union and that they don't just belong to an organization," says Myndi Hardgrave, vice president of the Hanford Secondary Educators Association and the Tulare/Kings Service Center Council chair.
"Sometimes I'll hear people say ‘the union did this' or ‘the union did that' — like they don't realize they are the union," says Lisa Ellis, a history instructor and Victor Valley College Education Association member. "They don't realize if they don't like what is happening, they can make it different. In order for that to happen, we need to increase public awareness and educate our membership. Often politicians and the media blame unions. But it's the unions that help people earn a fair wage and live better lives. More people should know that."
In Mendocino County, education support professional Duval "Sam" Phillips is a utility maintenance worker in the Potter Valley Unified School District, where he was the grievance officer before becoming president of the Potter Valley Classified Association.
NEA recently flew him to Washington, D.C., for a focus group on student bullying. The invitation reminded him of CTA's affiliation with the 3.2 million-member NEA and all of its resources.
"By working in the union, you learn about resources," says Phillips, a member of the Round Valley tribes and an advocate for Native American issues and for special education students. "You learn you can call on CTA at any time — and that's impressive. A lot is happening in education in California. We all need to have a bigger voice."
Ways to get involved
- Become a school site representative for your chapter.
- Join a protest rally.
- Attend regional Service Center Council meetings.
- Run for the position of local delegate to the CTA State Council.
- Join your chapter's organizing or bargaining teams.
- Write articles for a chapter newsletter.
- Take advantage of union training conferences.
- Help design your local union's website.