Are Unions Still Necessary? The Story of “Sam”

Sam (name has been changed to protect his identity) was a member of the Mat-Su Education Association (MSEA) for years.  He knew that he was covered by a collective bargaining agreement that set his compensation, his benefits, and his working conditions.  He knew there were certain rights that he had under the contract and certain responsibilities he had to the district.  He also knew that the MSEA would have his back, if he ever needed them.

At the end of the last school year, Sam decided he would like to have the experience of teaching in a rural Alaska community.  Sam applied with a small district in western Alaska and was hired.   Excited about the opportunity, he confirmed with the hiring superintendent that he would get credit for some of his years of teaching in the Mat-Su School District and was told that he would make a certain amount of money.  He then accepted the new position and resigned his position with the Mat-Su School District.  In August, Sam packed his bags and moved across the state to the community where he would work and live.  He moved into district housing and was excited, as most of us are, to start a new school year.

Unfortunately, what Sam did not realize was that he was in a school district that did not have a union or a collective bargaining agreement that set his salary, benefits, or working conditions.  There were no due process rights if he ever found himself in trouble and no one to turn to who could advocate on his behalf.  The other consequence was that he believed the verbal agreement about what his salary would be and did not sign his contract prior to moving to the village.

The first week of school, the superintendent gave Sam his teaching contract for the year so that he could sign it.  He was told he had until the end of the school day that Friday to hand it in.  Sam noticed that the salary on the contract was less than what he had been promised.  He asked some questions and the superintendent told him that he got credit for some of his teaching and this was the set salary.  Sam tried to negotiate his own salary by saying that he was told he would get credit for two more years than he was given on the contract in front of him.  That week, he had conversations with a couple of the administrators in the district to try and resolve the matter.  On Friday, at the end of the school day, Sam had not turned in his contract, feeling that it did not reflect the terms he had originally agreed to with the superintendent prior to his arrival.

At 4:00 that day, Sam was handed a termination notice by his principal.  It explained that he was terminated and he had to be out of district housing within 24 hours.  When he tried to utilize the email system he realized that the district had cut off his email access and computer sign-on credentials.  Sam had no job, no place to live, and was stuck in the village.  Sam is still looking for a position in another district.

Sam contacted the NEA-Alaska office last week to make sure that wherever he was applying, the district had a strong union and collective bargaining agreement to back him up.  NEA-Alaska wished him good luck in finding a new position and told him that we will welcome him back.

Sam’s story is just one of many.  When we talk to teachers and other education employees who have moved to Alaska from former “Right to Work” states or those without strong unions, they tell the stories of low salaries, below par benefits, and working conditions most of us would find appalling.  They talk about district enforced dress codes, being assigned to duties without pay at the Friday night football game, forced standardized day to day curriculum, principal controlled planning time, and many other stories of injustice perpetrated by districts, against educators.

We are only as strong as our membership.  The collective power of all of us truly makes a difference.  Collective action of this nature exists in many forms, cultures, and environments.  In Alaska, we call our collective strength our union.  And with our union, we can achieve excellent outcomes for our students while advancing the rights and opportunities we deserve as educators.