I love Labor Day celebrations. The parades. The end-of-the-summer barbecues signaling autumn’s approach. Paying homage to the legendary leaders whose activism won the rights working people have now.
All of it reminds me of how far we’ve come…and how tenuous our achievements are, especially when protections and workers’ rights we’ve taken for granted for decades are in jeopardy today. For educators, those rights have given us the power to have a voice in the issues that concern our students and professions.
So let’s keep in mind that Labor Day means more than honoring past victories and rejoicing in what earlier generations accomplished. We’ve got to make gains for future generations.
This Labor Day, I’ll be saluting the many NEA members who spent the summer building their local unions’ strength, by reaching out to other educators and helping them appreciate the power they have when they raise their voices together.
[Check out my guest column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in honor of Labor Day, about how the 2018 teacher walkouts and #RedForEd are a refresher course on what the Labor Movement means to America.]
From New Hampshire to Hawaii, more than 180 member-organizers in 17 states took part in the NEA’s “Education Summer” program. They knocked on educators’ doors to find out what’s working well in their schools and classrooms, and what could be better. They connected newly minted and early-career educators with mentors who can show them the ropes and help them grow in their professional practice.
During Ed Summer, these member organizers got to know educators throughout their areas to learn about their challenges. More often than not, they discovered they have a lot in common. These face-to-face conversations helped bring new members—and new energy—into local unions.
The member organizers generated support for pro-public education candidates and ballot measures. In Colorado, they even turned out at two dozen “solidarity events.” They attended these events decked out in their union t-shirts, intent on building educator visibility, strengthening ties with community coalitions, and supporting other union members’ campaigns.
This was Catina Neal’s third year with Ed Summer. The Minneapolis special education assistant partnered with other education support professionals who hadn’t organized before. One of Catina’s partners was an education support professional from Somalia. Together, they visited educators from Somalia and other East African nations and signed up many new members.
“A lot of ESPs are glad we’re reaching out, because some don’t have much knowledge about the union,” Catina says. “We tell them, ‘Our union is your union.’”
Catina also chatted with a member who said she was thinking of dropping her membership in Education Minnesota. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, lots of union foes have come out of the woodwork to convince educators and other union members to drop their membership.
The court’s decision weakened the right of educators and other working people to come together in unions and to bargain collectively. These groups are doing everything they can to take advantage of the decision. Opting to leave the union plays right into their hands. It makes educators weaker, and less effective at advocating for themselves and students.
“I had the conversation with her about the importance of being in the union, and I told her that we need solidarity,” Catina says. After their chat, the member decided she’d rather stick with her union.
In New Mexico, Ed Summer events included an Early Career Support Showcase specifically for educators in the first five years of the profession. (The photo above features some of the participants.) Workshops included professional growth and classroom management.
Anna Soeiro, an Ed Summer participant and special education teacher in Santa Fe, says that through programs like the showcase, NEA-New Mexico is “raising up an entire new generation of happy, healthy, and engaged teachers.”
“If I can make a difference in one kid’s life, that’s great, but if I can make a difference in teachers’ lives, it’s more sustainable, it’s like the gift that keeps on giving.”
In Colorado, Carlos Valdez, a high school history teacher in North Aurora, also reached out to early career educators. “I wanted to know what they were struggling with in terms of day-to-day stuff. We found that ultimately, a lot of the issues were connected to school funding, things like not having enough education support professionals, or not having enough supplies.”
“We framed our conversations around lifting our voices, and taking ownership of making changes in their school buildings, or even in their districts,” Carlos adds.
Ed Summer culminated for Carlos in a solidarity event: occupying an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in early July to protest the separation of immigrant families at the border. For Carlos, the protest was personal. Although he was born in Los Angeles and his father became a citizen in 2010, both his parents were undocumented when they came here from Mexico in 1983.
“All the activities of Ed Summer gave me purpose as an educator and a union member,” Carlos said. “They provided a source of empowerment, and I met a lot of great educators in my district. I feel good about going into the school year and energized to really start anew.”
This year on Labor Day, there’s a lot to be thankful for—especially the great Ed Summer member organizers who are doing amazing work to make our union stronger and lift up educator voices.