Sunday, January 28, 2018

An Interview with Merrie Najimy, Massachusetts Teachers Association

I had a pleasure of meeting Merrie a few years ago at a summer conference and I was lucky to be able to spend some time with her in person to get this interview. She is running with Max Page to represent EDU in the next MTA leadership election. I hope you find Merrie to be as inspirational as I have!
~Melissa Tomlinson

Who is Massachusetts EDU?
EDU is a progressive caucus that formed in response to MTA operating under the norm of always going to the legislature and the statehouse, negotiating bad deals for the general membership. We believed that it was capitulation and the more that they did it, the more it hurt our students and our profession. Over the past six years we have become a caucus that has come to be the caucus of rank and file educators that support each other to go back to our buildings to bring teachers together to understand the roots of the problems we are experiencing and to work together to find collective solutions. EDU is now a caucus that has shaped the business agenda and the direction of MTA. every year at annual meetings we propose progressive NBIs that direct the work of the MTA. We are finding that rank and file embrace our agenda and vote to put it in place.
We are the caucus that got Barbara Madeloni elected. We are the caucus that can do statewide work, fighting testing, demanding a cap on charters, without being hindered by the bureaucracy of the institution.
You are an endorsed candidate of EDU. This is new for EDU. Tell us about the endorsement process that was established.
It is the first time for this internal democratic process. We knew that the state elections were coming up so we created a process where eight EDU members stepped up to be the candidates to run for president and vice-president. We held three forums around the state, regular campaign forums, and a final forum on the day of voting. Members had a chance to talk to the candidates an we had vigorous debates amongst each other to decide who we felt was best equipped to fill the positions.
We had elections to vote for the one out of the eight that would be our candidate to run for president. There was a run-off so before we voted again we had more rounds of member-to-member conversations. Overall, there were about one hundred people for the four forums.
We went through the same process for vice-president, including another run-off and more member-to member conversations.
This has changed everything because last time we did not run as EDU candidates. At that time there was not established procedure for formally recognizing who was an EDU member. With the previous campaign, specific EDU members volunteered to help Barbara and Mary with their campaign. Now the members of EDU feel like this is THEIR campaign. They are volunteering to take leadership positions on the campaign and coordinate work in different areas across the state.
Tell us about some of the successes you have had as a union representative.
I was directly involved in a campaign to stop the privatization of the bus drivers in my district. I was their representative on the MTA (Massachusetts Teachers Association) Board. The decision to privatize was the direct agenda coming from the superintendent. No communication was done with the community at all about this decision.
We would meet at their break time, in the breakroom at the bus depot. I helped them with a SWOT analysis - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
For the drivers
Strengths: strong community relationships and respected by the parents
Opportunities: (related to the strength) many opportunities to communicate with parents and community members
Threats: facing privatization, imminent threat of funding issues
I assisted with the campaign as an information provider. I helped them create talking points. Parents were mobilized to make phone calls and write letters to the district. Editorials and articles for the newspaper were written. The community members of the town let the district know that they were not happy with this and the decision to privatize was changed.
Since then, the start time has changed for the high school; some of the routes have had to be contracted outside of the district  because there are not enough busses. But there has been a new contract negotiated since this campaign. But the change in routes may provide us with another organizing opportunity.
Our success with this campaign became a public relations nightmare for the superintendent. I experienced retaliation soon afterwards. Since then, there has been a turnover of school committee seats, that superintendent retired, and some of those parents involved in the original campaign have took a large role in the decision-making process for the hiring of a new superintendent.
Some teachers are reluctant to build relationships with or approach parents and community members to create allies. Advice?
Start with the parents that you know respect you. Parents of children that you have had contact with for multiple years, or ones that you have a good relationship with. Intentionally think about who has expressed how happy they are that you have been their child’s teacher. Be honest with them and ask them if you can have a conversation with them. Begin to tell stories about what is going on - talk about the real classroom experiences. Speak from experience and speak from your heart. It can be scary for teachers. There is work that needs to be done with union members to prepare for this, role playing for example. Role play, debrief the role play and then after the interaction, debrief about the experience. This does not happen naturally for a lot of members and there is work that should be done to prepare. Even if a connection is made with one parent, it is possible to ask that parent to invite other parents to their house to be joined by a group of teachers. Look for courageous teachers to start this process. But it is from these opportunities that genuine parent teacher organizations form.
Leaders in Massachusetts have been trying some different approaches to collective bargaining. Please explain rethinking collective bargaining through member leadership and transparency.
It is an open approach to the collective bargaining process that involves members from the beginning to the end of the process. Before actual negotiations began, we invited all members to join us for a meeting. We asked them to answer three questions:
What brings you joy in the work that you do with students?
What sucks the joy out of the work you do with students?
What can we propose through bargaining to bring about change?
We analyzed the different themes in the discussions that took place. From those themes we developed a three-pronged platform.
Time for teaching and learning - uninterrupted time with students, less testing, more time in class, less time in data meetings. More recess, art, and music for the kids
 Professional dignity - the administration needs to view the teachers as the experts, autonomy over pedagogy, curriculum, instructional practices and assessment.
Equity: the high school is a different bargaining unit and there was not equity in pay, planning time, or lunch periods.
We developed a platform, communicated it back to the members, got feedback for provisions and then ratified it for use in guiding our proposals during negotiations. The bargaining items included: number of meetings per year, one early release day every week for teacher collaboration and team planning, and a testing task force to analyze the testing in the district and create a baseline for later proposals to reduce testing.
We were able to shift the power by bringing members into negotiations meetings. At first we had limited our power by agreeing to confidentiality in the beginning of the process. But we, as union members, need to recognize that agreements like this limit our power and we need to stop agreeing to these ground rules. We built momentum through the platform itself, it came from what the members wanted. We built our member capacity and soon we were able to convince the school team that it was in their best interest to let members into negotiations. But we did not do this by asking. We showed up to a meeting with 50 members and the lawyers understood that we had the power that we said we had. There was an agreement made of ground-rules that included an allowance of both parties to be able to invite non-participatory guests. We had to uphold the responsibility of making sure that members did not become unruly and did not participate.
The best part was that the membership began to experience themselves as a union. The negotiating team would meet with them afterwards help them analyze what they saw at the table. They were involved in forming responses to proposals. The negotiating team would caucus together afterwards and refine the final response. This was great in building membership power. The members that were involved in this process would go back to their own buildings and communicate to others what had happened. They felt connected to each other and to the union.
What role does the community have in the collective bargaining process?
We invited parents in. But we were not as successful with this part as we had hoped to be because of the timing. We had a short window of time in which to mobilize and we needed to reach the community in a broad way. There was involvement though. The superintendent had not historically been involved in the bargaining process but she had to be in the audience. She then insisted that the administrative team attend. The school committee soon started attending, even local elected officials. The whole process helped bring about a better understanding of the issues that still existed in the district.
The commitment to transparency comes from our commitment to never have a sidebar away from the table to try and solve a problem. We felt that it all needed to be said in front of members. We moved away from the idea that there should be a lead negotiator. We had two co-chairs for scheduling and seven team members that became experts on each of the platform points.
MTA had a recent success with the campaign “No on 2”, a ballot vote that would have lifted the current cap on charter schools. Talk about the work that paved the way for this success.

The organizing work we had done on smaller local campaigns became the backbone of our success with the “No on 2” campaign. Relationships with community members were already built and the push for a no vote became a partnership effort. Also, because we had worked hard to not only listen to our members and their concerns, but to help them advocate for themselves, our members saw the need for their involvement in this campaign. They were willing to volunteer to go out canvassing. As we were canvassing, we told the community that we were educators and they embraced that fact and listened to our opinion on this issue.
Overall, there are a lot of concerns about teacher apathy in the union. Now that we face the hearing of the Janus case in the Supreme Court, this can be dangerous for the future of our unions. Thoughts?
In Massachusetts, because we won that “No on 2” fight, teachers have found a new sense of confidence in themselves and in their union. Apathy is characterized as despair, disengagement, a feeling of being overwhelmed by issues. The way to break that down is just by talking. Not necessarily of union leadership talking to the members, but by creating atmospheres in which union members talk to each other. Create spaces where members can discuss what they are experiencing as educators. Bringing them together to share these experiences brings about the realization that they are not alone. Once they realize that, help members understand the roots that cause these experiences. Ask them to start collectively thinking about what can be done at the local level to change that.
MTA has a campaign already in place to respond to a negative decision in the Janus case. We have been working on an “All In” campaign where each member promises to have a conversation with 20 other members in their building, four times a year. MTA has been bureaucratic with data collection and systems with this campaign. So EDU has taken the premise of the campaign and transform it to dig deeper into the real experiences of members in our buildings and take that information through the cycle of analyzing, collaborating, seeking solutions, planning actions, and direct actions.
 For more information and to keep updated on Merrie and Max’s
campaign please go to their facebook page!

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