By William Junker
William Junker is the president of the Barnegat Education Association.
I have been a special education teacher for 17 years, but in my first five years I was merely trying to figure out how to stay afloat in my classroom. I had little remaining time to care about politics, grievances or union dues.
Far from my daily thoughts was the contract negotiated between union representatives and the school district that detailed my working terms and conditions. I was honestly ignorant about my local association and NJEA.
In my sixth year, I attended an association meeting where my local leaders were drumming up support for another building, where administrators were “looking down” on teachers who were leaving faculty meetings that ran over the contractual time. I left the meeting thinking “this isn’t a problem in my building, and what influence could I really have?”
Over the course of the next few years contract settlements worsened, raises became smaller, and I became more and more frustrated by how my local was operating. As a result, I made the decision to opt out of the union in 2008. I wanted nothing to do with the union. I became a fee-payer.
At about the same time, there was a complete breakdown in the relationship between administration, the board, and the association. A reduction in force created a lot of uncertainty for all of us.
I could list the many things that I deemed as major problems with my local’s union leadership, but the overall feeling was one of inequality among the 530 members. We were losing staff at an alarming rate to other districts.
On the first day of the next school year, I was called in by the director of curriculum and instruction, who questioned why I didn’t reply to district emails over the summer. I was dumbfounded. I was a prior teacher of the year, the leader of our professional development team and School Improvement Panel, and a baseball coach. In every evaluation I was described as a distinguished professional, but there I was defending myself for something that was clearly outside of my contract.
It took well over a year to achieve settlements in the next two rounds of collective bargaining. While the negotiations lasted, no one from the union would provide any answers to staff—and, as it turned out, there were many issues with the Memorandum of Agreement and the salary guide.
I finally had enough and decided to take my own advice to heart: if you aren’t part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. I started asking questions. I joined the union, stepped up as a building representative, and started attending NJEA workshops. In the fall of 2016, I found myself the president of a local in desperate need of improvement.
I finally had enough and decided to take my own advice to heart: if you aren’t part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.
Over the last two years, with a new approach, I am proud to share that our association has built positive relationships with the board of education and administration. We have worked on a “one member at a time approach” to regain trust and right many wrongs.
It has not been easy, but by listening to member issues, taking them head on, providing answers, and, when possible, solutions, our 2017 negotiations team—with the help of UniServ and NJEA research—successfully negotiated a contract in 10 weeks. This contract included a better-than-county-average settlement, Chapter 78 relief and a certified staff guide that cut out seven steps. At ratification, only 18 out of 530 members voted “no.”
To build equity, we have added three vice-presidents to represent our middle and high school level, our elementary level, and educational support professionals (ESP), as well as open lines of communication. We now have a total of eight ESP representatives from each our groups and at least two Association Representatives in each of our six school buildings.
We send all our monthly meeting agendas to the entire membership in advance and invite every member to attend. Finally, we maintain both public and closed group social media pages and provide a monthly newsletter filled with various strategies and information for our members.
These changes were immense and may not need to occur in many places, but one member—you—can make a difference. If you disagree with how your local is running, you can be the change. Instead of opting out, step up to the plate and be a voice for what is right.
If your local is running well you can be the extra hand, the added voice or even a future leader to sustain what is working well. Neither beliefs nor politics should be a roadblock to doing what is right for you and your fellow co-workers.
Each member is the difference who can make right the things we see as wrong. All of us are leaders, have voices and have an equal stake in our association. By opting out I was part of the problem, now I am part of the solution.