I grew up in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. We had the coal mine at the bottom of the hill, a cross road where the company store sat and then the road at the top of my little town where sat the Elementary school and the Fire Hall. In between were all of our houses, most of which were divided in two with one family on one side and another family on the other side. It was a colorful place. Literally. We were primarily Polish and Italian, Czechoslovakian and German. One half of the house might be sided yellow and the other half blue. It wasn’t an easy life for the men who worked there, but it was better money than most could make elsewhere. My father lost his right leg at the age of 30 in that coal mine (and went right back to it as soon as he was able) and my grandfather died of black lung after a life time in the mines.
I grew up there in the sixties and seventies, so you can imagine that I definitely understood what the union was about and what a strike looked like. My father, who didn’t go far in formal public school, was the hardest worker I knew (still is to this day) and a voracious reader. He made it to management and so I learned that side of the labor/management debate too.
As a business student in college, I was taught that unions were the result of poor management. I believe that’s true. If you study the history of unions to the Industrial Revolution, there were deplorable working conditions in most places.
As a retail manager, I was taught what to do to help prevent unions from organizing in the workplace and that included treating our employees so well that they didn’t see the need for a union organizing in our stores.
And then I became a teacher. I walked into my job with the same thoughts. I’m a hard worker, I do what’s right, why would I need to join the union? These aren’t the sixties in the coal mines, this is a public school!
That’s when I met Tom Waag, a veteran teacher at Pine Valley who sat me down and said, “let me explain this to you, young lady.” From Tom, I learned of the working conditions and pay that he encountered when he started as a teacher and how hard they’d worked to improve their contract so that I, in turn, could enjoy a fair starting salary. I have to add here that Tom Waag was the best union person I’ve ever known. Why? Not only would he fight for you if you were being treated unfairly but he’d be the first person to tell you so if he thought your claim was unjustified and a load of bunk. Solid man. A hard worker, straight shooter and great guy.
As a teacher, I learned early that no one was asking the questions I had when presented with a contract settlement that I thought was unfair to those of us on the bottom of the pay scale. As a young teacher, I was about to pay 18% for my health insurance and there was not even close to enough raise to make up for that–this was the settlement my union got for me? That’s how I ended up on the negotiating team, the veterans probably figured they’d better teach me how it worked. That’s when I learned how hard it is to negotiate and just how long it takes. I also lobbied for NYSUT as a Committee of 100 member, fighting not for worker’s rights in Albany, but for our public schools and the issues we faced.
And just like my father, I went from the union side to the management side. Now I negotiate contracts for the district, approaching every negotiation fully aware that my colleagues on the other side of the table are working to keep what they’ve got and gain some while I work just as hard to contain our costs. It’s no easy job.
With everything that’s happening in Wisconsin and across the country, I’m drawing on a lifetime of varied experiences with unions and wondering about their future. I think we’ve developed a good level of trust here at RCS–that giving a realistic view of our budget future and telling the truth, that being transparent and straight-forward about what we can and cannot do, that working together to keep our district financially stable–will see us through all of the significant changes with our new governor. Time will tell.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure where we’re headed over the next ten years as public school districts. I do know for sure that unions or not, we’ve all got to work as hard as my dad in that coal mine to improve and collaborate and change or we’ll be as obsolete as that little coal mine is today. I’m here for the long haul to keep RCS moving forward, growing and changing and improving. We need everyone to give all they’ve got so we’re standing at the top as an outstanding school district that serves our community well—and I’m counting on the unions to help us get there.