Wednesday, February 18, 2015

AFT-CT: Our Vision for Change

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.

III.     Transparency

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.

IV.         Organization

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.

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