Tales from the Front Lines - Blog by Paul Gamboa

“Must be nice to get your summers off!!” It’s the phrase that gets under teachers’ skin more than just about any other. As with almost all teachers though, my summer wasn’t without a lot of work to help me grow as a professional. While I was enjoying “taking the summer off,” several of the more invigorating moments of my teaching career occurred.

I am beginning my sixteenth year in education. As is true for anyone who has ever taught, I could fill thousands of pages with the things I’ve seen, the kids I’ve taught and all the unique experiences that only an educator could truly understand.

The experiences, though, have grown exponentially in my role as president of our association, a position I began last year. This job provides me the opportunity to visit the 36 buildings in my district regularly and see the awe inspiring diversity of programs, demographics, needs and other things my district is fortunate enough to have.

Looking at things through this lens, it made a session I attended at the IEA Summer Leadership Academy take on more meaning than I ever could have imagined.

While attending a session in Presidents School, we were discussing a common topic that pops up in many of these sessions: the three frames of progressive unionism. While it would be impossible to define the three frames — industrial, professional and social justice — in detail in the length of this column, there is one aspect that we focused on the most: social justice unionism.

Social justice unionism is a natural byproduct of what we do each day: advocate for our kids. We come to school with one thing in mind, providing the best public education we can for all of our students regardless of who they are, where they came from or what issues they face. Social justice unionism means that we need to fight to make sure that all kids have a voice and that all kids have the right to receive a world class public education. Our contracts are something that affect everyone in our schools and communities. The contract protects the promise of public education.

We do this in our daily lives in the classroom, but it’s enabled and empowered by our right to collectively bargain.

Social justice unionism means that we need to work with our constituency groups, not just members, to see how we can use this right to meet the needs of the community. It means we need to reach out and use our power as a collective voice to fight for kids and other groups that don’t have one. Our collective voice is what gives us our strength and as teachers we need to use that strength to protect the rights of our most vulnerable members of society: our students.

This is the power that we have in the right to bargain. It’s not just about protecting ourselves, which anti-union people love to use as a rallying cry to flay us of our rights. We need to get the word out to others that collective bargaining benefits all, especially our students. It is contingent upon us to use this power to help others. That’s the reason we’re in education in the first place.

It’s also what makes the continued and tireless attacks to steal our right to collectively bargain from Governor Rauner even more disturbing. If our right to bargain is stifled, the voices of our students, the voices of our community, and the rights of both groups are stifled as well.

Despite what many groups would have you believe, our contracts are not just to protect us. They are to protect our working conditions, which as we all know are the conditions our students learn under. Negotiating lower class sizes benefits students. Negotiating time for teachers to collaborate benefits students. Negotiating time to observe teachers and attend conferences benefits students. Attracting the best and brightest into a profession, despite people like Rauner eviscerating and demonizing us every chance he gets, benefits students. We achieve this through collective bargaining.

Back at the 2014 IEA Representative Assembly, Rauner was quick to try to claim that he is not anti-collective bargaining. No one believed him then and his actions have shown we were right not to. His track record, though, since assuming the office is even more abysmal than we could have imagined. It seems like almost every piece of proposed legislation does all it can to take away our right to collectively bargain.

If you’re not paying attention to what Rauner is trying to do, you need to. He’s attached language, illegally mind you, to almost every piece of funding legislation that he proposes. In that language, he tries to strip us of our right to collective bargain. I’d laugh if the ramifications weren’t so mortifying.

It was has become so bad that recently Rauner signed a bill making pumpkin pie the official pie of Illinois. I actually took time to read the entire article about the bill just to make sure there wasn’t a clause saying the pumpkins can only be raised on farms that agreed to his employee empowerment zone ordinance.

The legislature also named corn as the official state vegetable. Nice to know we’re focusing on what’s important as a state. I’m looking forward to raucous debate surrounding naming the official state breakfast pastry. No reason to get a budget passed anytime soon.

Despite turning down the volume on the anti-union rhetoric after the primaries, we all knew this was coming. The extent to which he’ll go to ram his agenda through is staggering.

To no one’s surprise, it’s become painfully clear that unions are Governor Ahab’s white whale and he will stop at nothing to eliminate our voice. This also silences the voice of all our students.

This summer marked a watershed moment for the NEA. We saw a powerful moment of clarity for what we are, what we stand for and where we’re going.

For those you who don’t know what the National Education Association Representative Assembly (NEA-RA) is, you should. It’s a time when 9,000 educators come together to participate in the largest democratic decision making body in the world. It’s where delegates vote on the NEA’s stance on issues, budget, legislative platform and countless other things. However it’s also where NEA defines what it is and what it stands for.

At this debate, the delegation voted that the NEA is to take an aggressive stance to combat institutional racism and work to eliminate the massive toll it takes on millions of students every day.

The discussion on whether the delegation supports this lasted about a minute or two (unprecedented in the seven RAs I’ve attended). The body unanimously decided what should have been obvious to all of us from the start. I do not use the word unanimously hyperbolically. There literally was not a single “no” vote amongst the thousands in attendance.

It was at that point that we acknowledged that we truly are the last line of defense for our kids against the outside forces trying to dismantle public education. It is imperative that we stand up for them and use our collective voice to be the voice of those who don’t have one. As an organization, we are going to stand up and be a defense against a devastating force that so powerfully impacts the kids we teach.

While many of the initiatives and stances voted on in the RA are somewhat symbolic and really don’t have the power to alter the course in which our association moves forward, this one is far from it. This indicated a shift that will positively impact every student we have in our schools and in our lives. We are an organization that believes protecting the rights of all students is at the core of our beliefs. We need to take a stand and fight against these core issues which affect countless numbers of students.

During the NEA-RA, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia closed her keynote speech with, “Hermanos y Hermanas, in our hearts we are social justice warriors.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

We need to be the voices for those who have none. This is why retaining our rights to collectively bargain is the single most important fight we’ve had in our lives. If we are to be social just warriors, we need to forge forward with using our collective voice to fight for what we know is right for our kids. Rauner knows that stripping us of this right will make it far easier for him to force feed his distorted vision of what is good for kids and good for the state on all of us.

We need to get the word out that collective bargaining is good for our students. It’s time for us to use our rights to truly be social justice warriors and become practitioners and leaders in social justice unionism. This right protects all and needs to be defended at all costs.

I hope that all of you have a smooth start to the year. As always, I’d love to hear your feedback and comments in the section below. You can also follow me on Twitter: @paulgamboa. Thanks for reading.

Paul Gamboa is a teacher who is currently serving as president of the Indian Prairie Education Association.