After the disappointing Janus Supreme Court decision that eliminated the “fair share” laws that fund teachers unions like mine, thousands of educators from across the country marched through the streets of Pittsburgh to show support for their unions. After a year of blows to the teaching profession — a U.S. Department of Education that focuses less on protecting students and more on its own destruction, federal and state budget cuts, and the heavy, ever-looming threat of violence in the classroom — my heart warmed when I saw my colleagues resisting after yet another attempt to undermine our collective bargaining rights and disregard our voices.
Teachers are willing to speak up on behalf unions. But unions will in turn have to show they understand teachers’ most pressing concerns and are ready to speak up for them.
While we depend on our unions to advocate for our working conditions and policy preferences, after Janus, teachers will only stay dues-paying members if their union represents their interests. While I hope that my peers, like myself, stay committed to our unions, our unions must commit to us and actively work to solicit and represent our beliefs.
I’ve taught in a Bridgeport school that serves students from low-income families for five years, and I rely on my union to advocate not just for my job, but also for the resources to meet my students’ needs. Schools like mine in underrepresented communities often lack crucial supports, making it more difficult for teachers and students to succeed. My school’s class sizes often exceed 29 students in our primary grades. And almost every year our school board has cut support staff, such as instructional coaches, who are essential to helping us improve our practice and student outcomes, as they struggle to make ends meet using Connecticut’s unfair school funding formulas. Next year, Bridgeport will have zero instructional coaches. I can only imagine how grim the situation would be for my colleagues and students without the Bridgeport Education Association (BEA) advocating for us in Hartford and at City Hall.
And I’m not alone. Teachers across Connecticut recognize the importance of unions. A recent representative survey of educators across the nation and Connecticut found that 83 percent of Connecticut’s teachers regard unions as essential important, and 84 percent of Connecticut teachers believe the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse without collective bargaining or a union.
So if teachers value their unions, and why would they consider opting out of paying their dues? While teachers believe their unions are crucial for advocating for resources, the same survey found only 21 percent of teachers say their union greatly represents their perspectives. And right now, money is tight for teachers. If unions want to keep their members, then they will need to better advocate for their preferences.
The BEA can do more to understand the opinions of their members and actively work to make our union more democratic. It starts with encouraging every single member to exercise their voice. In May, a group of Bridgeport educators of color and I collaborated with Educators for Excellence (E4E), a teacher led organization, to lead a symposium that brought together teachers, students, and Bridgeport community members to discuss how to improve teaching students of color. But despite the importance of this topic, the BEA president sent a letter to union members discouraging teachers from attending because of the event’s association with E4E. I was frustrated, disappointed, yet sadly not surprised that union leadership could not collaborate with teachers and other community members to problem solve for teachers and students, instead silencing their own members.
Our unions are a critical platform for teacher voice, but how can they be successful in advocating on our behalf without first listening to us? Unions should be regularly collecting our feedback through surveys and monthly meetings to hear what teachers and their students most need.
The Supreme Court’s ruling could divide teachers and divert resources from our schools. But it doesn’t have to. Teachers must speak up and get involved in their unions, and union leaders must, in turn, actively listen and turn our ideas into action. We are stronger together.
It won’t be easy. But I have to hope.
Ryan Brown is a seventh grade math teacher at Read School in Bridgeport and is an Educators for Excellence-Connecticut member.