Saturday, February 21, 2015
My Sisters and Brothers,
How did I decide to run for AFT-CT First Vice president? Like Jan, it was not a straight road, and like her, life experiences both brought me to, and I think, prepared me for, this next step.
When I graduated high school, I didn’t have any clear direction. I attended Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson and started working. I graduated with a degree in management and began working in textile mills, ware houses, a lumberyard, and an egg processing plant, as both a manager, and a laborer. I felt the sting of plant closings and layoffs more than I want to remember.
In school I was fascinated by the work of William Edwards Deming in Japan after WWII. Part of his management philosophy was to include the frontline worker in the process of management, yet in life, I never saw this carried out.
At the same time, I attended some classes at UConn, interested in the Natural Resources field, but life got in the way. I married, bought a house, and a year or two later, children. This summer will mark 40 years of marriage to Michelle, my high school sweetheart. I have 2 sons, 3 grandchildren and 2 “adopted grandsons”, the sons of my good friend and L+M president Stephanie Johnson.
In my mid-thirties, I landed a job building airplanes, at Kaman Aircraft in Plainfield. I did that for 10 years, with a few layoffs when contracts ran out. On one of those layoffs I went for government retraining. I tested high in math and science; they recommended the medical field and asked if I had ever considered nursing. I attended Windham Tech and became a CNA and found something that gave me fulfillment, helping people. Eventually, I took the leap and re-entered school, attending Three Rivers Community college in Norwich, while working full time at Backus Hospital in the ER.
When I graduated in 1999, I was 44. This summer will make 21 years in the ER, 16 as an RN. The work is incredibly fulfilling. It is also incredibly hard.
Several years ago I became involved in an organizing drive. The hospital had changed, becoming a corporation first, a hospital second. The drive was difficult. The hospital spent millions trying to defeat us. They hired the biggest union busting law firm they could find, Jackson Lewis. They fought us hard for 13 months after we won the election, trying to prevent us from getting a contract, but we prevailed, with the help of our union sisters and brothers.
I loved organizing. I loved being in a fellow nurse’s living room and listening to them. That’s how we won. I remember one oncology nurse, sitting on the sofa with her husband, telling me that she didn’t care that they took away her pension, or her bonus. A tear came down her cheek and her husband took her hand and she looked at me and said, “John, they took away my peanut butter. Some days, my patient’s only have a brief window in which they feel well enough to eat. Now, to save a couple of dollars, I don’t have protein to give them.” She signed a card and I vowed to myself that I would never give up this struggle.
One of the first trips for the union was shortly after we voted. I was asked to go to DC and tell the NLRPB of the stall tactics of the hospital. Afterwards, we went to a reception at the AFL-CIO and they asked me to speak. I told them that yes, unions are under attack, but that right then in Norwich, CT, there were 400 new members. The AFL-CIO people loved it. I realized that they work in the DC office and do not always see the fruit of their labor, and I was showing them this fruit. I also realized something that changed forever my view of the union.
I realized that it wasn’t just about the 400 nurses at Backus. It was about a worldwide movement that gives workers a voice and it was about speaking out for those who have no voice.
I have met many people and made friends nationwide. I have served on the AFT Small Unions Task Force with Erin Benham, spoken at the orientation of the leaders of the 34,000 member National Federation of Nurses when they joined AFT, I have been privileged to become part of the coalition of the L+M and Backus locals and of HOPE Unions, the 6 locals of Backus, Windham and Natchaug hospitals who are all under Hartford Healthcare. I am working with Dan Durant on a community engagement group we call Norwich Rising. I have watched with pride as my members have grown as unionist and the Backus nurses have become respected nationally. And though Randi Weingarten mispronounces “Backus”, she now does it with a smile and a nod towards me.
I love the union. I believe in it. I also know that we are under attack daily and we must build a union we can be proud of, one that is above reproach, which operates in a manner that is transparent, that puts members first, that respects and reaches out to leaders and members, and that plans the work and works the plan.
That is why when Jan came to me and asked for my support I said yes, I would support her in any way she needed. When she asked if I would run as her 1st VP, I promised to always tell her the truth, even if it meant I disagreed. The fact that this made her happy tells you a lot.
Jan Hochadel is a true unionist. She believes as I do that respect, inclusion, listening, and planning are the keys to an AFT-CT we all desire. We believe that leaders should answer to the members, not dictate to them. Jean Morningstar and Ed Leavy, current AFT-CT officers, believe it too. I hope you do. I hope you share these values and together we can build a union we can all be proud of.
In service and solidarity
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
AFT-CT: Our Vision for Change
I. Membership First
The power of the union is in its collective voice. The job of leadership is to understand the needs and concerns of the members, to help them address those concerns, and when needed, facilitate collective action. In a time when workers and unions are under heavy attack, it is crucial that members are empowered to speak for themselves and those around them than it is for others to speak for them. That idea is currently stifled at AFT-CT.
AFT-CT’s leadership has a responsibility to continually speak not only to the presidents of locals, but to their executive boards, and most importantly to the memberships. They must listen to the member’s thoughts and opinions, not tell them “we got it.” To accomplish this, the leadership must visit each local and their members so they can understand the unique needs of the membership. It cannot be done exclusively from an office. It will require on-going conversations about where AFT-CT is, and where it should be headed. Consensus is built from the ground up, not from the top down. The goal cannot be to make everyone happy, but to give everyone a voice.
A union is the collective voice of many, not one person speaking for the many. In AFT-CT today, the members’ voices are too often silenced in the belief that leadership can speak for everyone. This was seen clearly during the implementation of the teacher evaluation system last year. At a preK-12 meeting in October, a number of members talked about a protest or signing a petition – in short, taking collective action. Instead, they were told to let the officers handle it. It was even said, “We have to protect the Governor on this.” Whatever we think of the Governor, we know this: he is not an AFT-CT member. Our members should be the voice to decide what actions should be taken, and anyone who believes in the cause will be invited to join us.
This lesson was learned at L&M. The local presidents Harry, Lisa, and Stephanie showed real leadership by engaging their members. Working with Greg, Ole, Dan, and Matt, they listened to their members, they organized, and they took one of the most extreme actions a union can take. And they prevailed. They did not have to seek politicians, because politicians sought them. They wanted to walk with the members. They wanted to be part of what the unions created. They knew the unions were right. The L&M strike showed the power of leaders working with their members. It showed that the bond between our members and their community is our strength – this needs to be one of our primary goals. It is a source of great pride that Harry, Lisa, and Stephanie support this ticket. They know what AFT-CT is, what it needs to be, and what it can be. Their signatures on our petitions are testament to our shared vision for a better future, and shared goals to improve the lives of working people in Connecticut.
II. Communication & Collaboration
If we believe in the movement, in the ideas that unions are working to better the lives of it’s members and their communities, then that union must represent the voice of the membership. That membership voice can only be heard in an environment where people feel safe, and where different opinions are encouraged. AFT-CT has an amazing collection of smart, talented people, both in the membership and on staff, who believes strongly in the labor movement and has a vision for what our future can hold. We may see different paths on how to reach that goal, and we should – no one person has all the answers – but we must work together. The best way forward will be found in open and honest exchanges of ideas. We have to be realistic: not all decisions can be made collectively, not everyone is going to agree with every decision, but everyone needs to feel that his or her ideas and opinions will be welcomed and valued.
Executive Committee meetings must be a place where everyone is comfortable to express a different opinion without being berated. During last year’s budget debate, Vice-Presidents were shunned and chastised for speaking and voting against the $1 a month raise in dues. Disagreements on policy should not be seen as personal attacks, but welcomed with the idea that true discussions are not only possible, but also necessary. These beliefs extend not only to the Executive Committee, but also to the people who work in the office. A great deal of member’s money is invested in AFT-CT’s staff. We need to create a climate in which talents are maximized and people are challenged to improve, a climate in which evaluations are used as a plan for growth. The goal is to create a team who is driven to improve the lives of members.
Whenever possible, communication should be done directly. E-votes, which were originally only used for “emergencies” that could not wait for the next Committee meeting, have increased dramatically over the past several months. These votes deny Committee members the opportunity to discuss the issues, and they rarely provide adequate information. People who vote against a proposal are denied the opportunity to explain their reasons. Most recently, approval for a $40,000 six-month position was sought through e-vote. That position, which had not been in the budget or approved by the personnel committee and, it turned out, already had a candidate picked out, would have passed if the description had not been read carefully. The Executive Committee members and the democratic process must be shown more respect.
E-votes should be reserved for the rare occasion when deadlines make no other process possible. When negotiating with management we demand a climate of respect, where different opinions are sought, not rejected, and our leadership should uphold those values more than anyone. The work we need to do is too serious for tantrums and personal attacks. We may not always agree – let’s hope we don’t – but we will be professional and we will be respectful. We are all brothers and sisters in this movement, and we must treat each other that way.
Our members work hard. For some of our members, the monthly dues are higher than their hourly wage. They have the right to expect that the money be spent prudently. Membership should be assured that the organization is transparent in its finances. True reasons for decisions and proposals made during committee meetings should be explained in open and honest conversations with all. When Council members cast a vote for proposed increases, they must be provided clear and truthful explanations why those increases are necessary.
The consistent use of the e-votes previously mentioned, especially for the community organizer/communication liaison hybrid position requested in December, also demonstrates the lack of transparency. It became clear that a person had already been selected for the position, which was not mentioned in the request for the e-vote. This was also not acknowledged at the Council meeting until the question was directly asked. This lack of transparency is in contrast to what we stand for as a union. We cannot allow delegates to continue being asked to cast vote while information is withheld from them by their elected leadership. As President, I would only use e-votes in extreme circumstances when there is no other option so that everyone asked to vote on an issue can have information and ask questions.
There are numerous examples of this lack of transparency in AFT-CT today. The current president is quoted in the paper stating that “we” are endorsing the CEA choice for Commissioner of Education, but it never said who she means by “we”; no committee approved or even discussed the endorsement. When she was questioned directly during the January Executive Committee, she simply downplayed the importance of any statement and denied that AFT-CT has made an official endorsement. On January 9, a letter was sent requesting the AFT-CT to formally support one of their local’s Superintendent as Commissioner. She has never responded to the letter. This has left members questioning why AFT, the organization to which they pay dues, is supporting CEA’s candidate rather than a candidate who has the clear and public support of an AFT local, and who is equally qualified for the position. AFT-CT’s leadership must be beholden to the Executive Committee, the membership, and the truth. That only happens when there is transparency in policies and practices.
For us to move forward, we need to work together to form a vision of where we are going, and develop short and long-term plans of how we will get there. There are a number of steps we plan to implement to begin this process:
· Formation of an efficiency committee: This committee would analyze how AFT-CT’s money is being spent and how we can be more effective. We need to budget for technology upgrades and plan for other necessary improvements to the facility. We need to have a strategic plan in place that does not rely on dues increases every year.
· Staff Evaluations: When the Executive Council approved the staff contract, one of the main reasons for its approval was that the deal promised a new evaluation system. There is absolutely no excuse why the current president failed to meet with the staff union during the negotiated timelines and establish the evaluation system. I believe the staff union would be willing to collaborate with a leadership that is seeking to work together with the staff to help our members and strengthen the labor movement. An evaluation system must be part of that process. AFT-CT supported the teacher evaluation system and took part in the discussions, but chose not to evaluate its own employees. Our politics and our practices must align.
· Organizational Plan: We will work with the staff, AFT-National, and the Executive Committee to develop three and five-year financial and organizing plans. The current practice of moving from group to group with no defined vision does not work. We must organize, and we must do it thoughtfully and purposefully. There are too many workers who have no voice in the workplace. We can provide that voice, and we need to – it is our responsibility.
· Accountability: We believe in a leadership that works as hard as its members. Effective leadership requires a presence. Our members must feel that we are standing beside them in their struggle for respect and dignity in the workplace.
These steps and others need to be taken. More importantly, though, we need to change the way we think about being a union. A union is not one voice; it is the voice of everyone. We need all our locals, including the people on the Executive Council, to feel connected to, and feel a part of, AFT-CT. Our goal is to build a labor movement through vigorous discussion in a climate of respect, built working together. Decisions will be made after listening to membership and we will end the day as brothers and sisters in the movement.
I am excited to begin working on the challenge before us. I am looking forward to be working with this team, with this Executive Committee, and with this membership. It’s time for a change. It’s our time.