What do we want from our union?

There’s an elephant in the room that we need to talk about.

The IEA Representative Assembly is a collection of 1,100 elected delegates who come together democratically to decide what stances the IEA should take legislatively, what our beliefs are, and what direction the organization should take.  It’s really a fascinating, frustrating, entertaining, and exhausting several days.

It’s also incredibly valuable for any teacher to attend.

This year’s meeting was the most memorable I’ve attended.  A lot of this was due to the fact that it included the first face-to-face meeting of the two major party candidates for governor.  It was sobering to realize that one of the two people IEA President Cinda Klickna was peppering with questions will be leading Illinois in a few short months.


If you haven’t seen the discussion, you should watch it.  It’s superb.

A seminal moment occurred during a question asked of Republican candidate Bruce Rauner, who railed against “corrupt union bosses” throughout the primary election campaign. Asked to identify the “union bosses” he’s been talking about, Rauner, to his credit, looked Cinda in the eye and, after a short, uncomfortable silence, muttered, “Well, you would be one of them.”

Ignoring the fact that he is completely off base on this contention, it’s his explanation of why he feels that way that has me troubled.

He said that unions, schools and taxpayers have divergent interests.

While it’s true that one can point to specific incidents in years past that support his point, it’s also true that the IEA and NEA are working hard to change that.

At this and past RA’s, I’ve strolled the hallways, occasionally stopping to talk to people. I also listen to the side conversations going on during debate. One thing is obvious; there are two factions within our union. They are on the same track and are hurtling towards each other.

The result of this collision will likely decide our fate.

One side feels that the old way of doing things won’t work; that we dug ourselves in so deeply on issues that we were unable to climb out to fight back. They believe that we should be one forging the narrative and taking control and responsibility for education quality.

The other faction believes that any concession by the union is a sign of weakness. We should lock arms and form a concrete wall to oppose anyone who dares say the current situation isn’t working.

When you bury yourself up to your neck, your attackers can easily step around you.  That’s the situation we’re in.  If you become completely resistant to change and refuse to adapt with the times, you will be viewed as a being a relic of the past and placed on the “pay no mind” list.

When this perception is combined with the constant and orchestrated attacks against unions nationwide by our “friends” in ALEC, and the activity of the two brothers who like to throw seemingly endless amounts of money into every election, tearing down the union, neutralizing our ability to advocate, becomes considerably easier.

Here’s the conversation that needs to take place; we need to admit that, for a long time, unions were not open to change. It’s a part of what got us here.

It’s easy to blame our current plight on the younger generation for not caring (I’ve heard that one more than a few times), or greedy corporations, or the clueless/corrupt politicians.  While there is some validity to these claims, we need to face facts:

We have made it easier for them.  It’s now on us to find the solution.

I want a union that is focused on what’s best for kids, best for teachers, and best for our schools.  Strong public schools are in the taxpayers’ best interest as well.  It’s what we need.

When I have this conversation with someone who believes that a union is weak unless it stands like the aforementioned concrete wall, the immediate knee jerk reaction is, “SO WE SHOULD JUST LIE DOWN AND LET CORPORATE REFORMERS AND POLITICIANS RUIN PUBLIC EDUCATION?!?!?!?!?!?”.

That’s not what I’m saying.  Arguments aren’t always black and white.  Absolutely, there are things that the union needs to draw lines in the sand over. Our collective voice remains our best advocacy weapon.

My issue is with those who believe that we should take a hard line stance on any change to the system and do everything we can to block it.   Being willing to adapt and to work with others with whom we might not agree on everything isn’t rolling over.  It isn’t weakness.  It’s what we need to do as an organization if we want to stay relevant.

We need to admit that our past reluctance to forge the direction we’re headed has made our voice far less prominent than it should be.  That has to change.

This is the what’s helping Rauner, and others of similar mindset, and making it easier to win the public relations battle.

When we pick our fights judiciously, when we keep in mind that we are here to do what’s right for kids, everyone who truly cares about public education wins.  It’s the one thing we can do that will start swinging the pendulum back our way.  We need this or we’re finished.

Our previous mindset contributed to what got us here. By changing how we operate, and by clearly showing what we stand for and what we care about, we can achieve our professional goals as individuals and as members of the state’s leading education advocacy organization.

I really want people to start thinking about what they want from our association.  What should we be doing to help further the interests of public education?  That’s why we are here.  That’s why we should be here.  If we don’t adapt to the times and get in front of the “education reform” crowd, we are going to be left behind.

That’s what Rauner wants.  That’s what the groups trying to destroy us want.

What I want is an association that understands that, as society changes our kids change, therefore we need to be able and willing to change.  Unions and kids don’t need to have separate interests.

We all have one main interest:  great public schools.  We are the experts about what our students need and what we, as education employees, need to have to do our best work. It’s time our organization lets people know that.

I’d love to read your posted comments below. Or, let me know what you think on Twitter by following @paulgamboa.  Thanks for reading!

Tales from the Front Lines - Blog by Paul Gamboa
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