Member-to-member engagement is one of the greatest organizing tools that NJEA can employ. The the NJEA Public Charter School Members Work Group is taking that engagement to the next level. The work group is composed of local association members working in the 17 New Jersey Public Charter schools that have NJEA affiliates and their respective NJEA UniServ field representatives. Marguerite Schroeder, an NJEA field representative for external organizing, oversees NJEA’s initiatives to organize charter school staffs and to support the needs of members in charter school local associations.
The Public Charter School Members Work Group meets on a monthly basis to evaluate the state of public charters in New Jersey, develop organizing events, and work collectively through challenges that arise at their individual work sites. The group does its most important work when a new public charter is interested in joining the ranks of NJEA members.
As NJEA has worked to unionize more public charter schools, the value of the work group as an organizing tool cannot be overstated. Any local that has gone through the decision to affiliate with NJEA can tell you, it is a time of uncertainty, fear, and very often threats that can cause a great deal of trepidation for our prospective members.
When these calls are received at NJEA headquarters, members of the work group are sent to meet with the prospective members. The question these potential members ask is often the same: “Why should we go through this process to join NJEA?”
That question has been answered by hundreds of field reps, the NJEA website, and an unlimited supply of brochures, fliers, and packets, but nothing replaces a passionate discussion with a member who had to fight for his or her right to affiliate.
Members engaged in conversation with other members who share a common goal is the sort of organizing that is most powerful. However, those who belong to the Public Charter School Members Work Group are in the best position to have conversations with the staffs of not-yet-organized charter schools. After all, the fight to organize is fresh in their minds.
Charter school staff members must fight for the most basic right that many members in traditional public schools have begun to take for granted: the right to organize. Because the action of affiliating in many of our traditional locals was completed decades ago, many members do not realize the strength, courage, and solidarity that is required to stand up and say “we deserve respect, we deserve a voice, we deserve a union.” While this strength is a necessity, it also comes with many questions:
- My principal said the union will cost the school too much money and we’ll have to fire people. Will I lose my job?
- We don’t have a contract at my charter school, is that something that the union does?
- My school took our pension deduction, but it didn’t go to the state. Can you help us?
- My principal and board of trustees have made offers to various staff members to not join the union. Can they do that?
These questions can, of course, be answered by NJEA staff, but when was the last time that you made a major home appliance purchase without reading reviews and doing your own research? You didn’t just take the word of the salesperson at the store, did you? Well, making the decision to affiliate is no different in many ways; you want to hear from the people that have made the same decision, you want to take a test drive, you want to hear the good and the bad parts of the process. The Public Charter School Members Work Group is made up of the peers that prospective members are looking for.
While the work group is sent out to work with prospective members who approach NJEA, they don’t just wait for a call; they seek out potential new locals.
For the last two years, the work group has invited every public charter staff member in New Jersey to the NJEA Convention in November. While at the convention, all public charter members have the opportunity to network with members of all 13 NJEA-affiliated public charter schools. These conversations led to the affiliation of multiple new local unions since November. As more public charter schools are brought under the umbrella of the NJEA, it gives the students and educators in those buildings a voice to influence school policy, classroom conditions, and to work under the circumstances that truly foster learning.
Organizing new local affiliates may be the cornerstone of what the Public Charter School Members Work Group does, but it is not the only purpose. Over the years, the work group has worked to push back the expansion of corporate charter schools in New Jersey, advocated for stronger regulations for public charter schools, and developed relationships between the traditional public schools and public charter schools. While all of this work is ongoing, the work group continues to promote an equal education for all of the students of New Jersey and to bring the public charter employees of New Jersey into the NJEA family, helping them to find their collective voice.
Jaime Valente is the president of the Teaneck Community Charter Education Association and is an NJEA organizing consultant. He is the director of performing arts at Teaneck Community Charter School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.