By Scott McLennan
T eachers’ unions did not start because educators felt an overwhelming need to have collective bargaining rights. They formed because two
teachers got together, saw a problem and asked, “How
do we fix it?”
Wisconsin educator and union activist Doug
Keillor delivered that humorously pared-down labor
history lesson during the opening session of the 2017
MTA Summer Conference.
Keillor’s point — that unions at the most basic
level are simply people organizing to make things
better — was repeated in many ways throughout the
conference, which was held at UMass Amherst from
July 30 to Aug. 3.
Hundreds of educators participated in workshops
and multiday programs that focused on everything
from professional development to leadership skills to
political campaigns. Social events brought together
participants from across the state.
“There is such incredible energy when educators
get together and share their experiences,” said MTA
President Barbara Madeloni. “Talking to each other
leads to a shared understanding of the problem and
then collective action to fix the problem. I witnessed
our members tapping into that collective energy to
figure out ways to make their locals stronger and then
use that power to benefit students and communities.”
For instance, a team of new leaders from the
Pioneer Valley Regional Education Association
arrived at the conference feeling overwhelmed by
the challenges they faced heading into the new
The Pioneer Valley team, participating in the
Next Generation Leadership Program, told other
participants about rash decisions and drastic actions
by the district’s leadership that have led to staggering
cuts in staff and programs.
“Our story became a case study for the group,
and we got so much positive feedback and so many
ideas about things we can do moving forward,” said
Ariel LaReau, president of the association.
Any of the speakers at the opening session
could have predicted that member-to-member
conversations, which are at the heart of the MTA’s
All In membership campaign, would generate
excitement about actions aimed at building stronger
unions, schools and communities.
T he panelists included Diana Valles of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a Nevada affiliate of UNITE HERE; Jennifer Proffitt, president
of United Faculty of Florida; and Keillor. Stephen
Lerner, who has led many organizing campaigns to
improve pay and working conditions for low-wage
employees, delivered the keynote address and joined
the others for the discussion.
Valles, Proffitt and Keillor shared their
experiences in states that are hostile toward
organized labor and do not allow for “agency fees,”
E ven as each local and statewide union faces unique challenges, Lerner’s keynote address framed the issues that affect all unions as
the result of consolidation of wealth into the hands
of very few entities. “We live in the richest country,
but those at the top want the control without any
responsibility to the public good,” Lerner said.
“Those of us in the public sector may think we are
bargaining with the local school board, but we are
really bargaining with Wall Street.”
He described the ways in which private interests
drive tax cuts and other forms of divestment from
public responsibility to create a condition that labor
activists now call “broke on purpose.”
Unions are on the front lines, he added, fighting
back against those who would plunder public budgets.
Please turn to Conference/Page 26
Deryn Copeland, a member of the Student Education Association of Massachusetts who
attends Westfield State University, Melissa Jones of the Cape Tech Association and Mikaela
Buchinski of the Cambridge Education Association, in foreground from left to right, relaxed
outside the UMass Campus Center during the President’s Reception.
Photo by Sarah Nathan