By Julie Rine, Minerva Local Education Association
This year was the 20th time I have joined my local association. Honestly, the first time I did it, I was young and naive and so used to signing papers that I think I just filled out the form that was given to me and didn’t think much about it. I don’t remember anyone asking me to join or explaining the benefits of joining; it just seemed like something other teachers were doing, and so I followed the crowd and signed on the dotted line.
It is, of course, an option. One doesn’t have to join the union. Those who don’t usually have two reasons: the money and the politics. It may seem that you are saving money by not joining, but if you use the many benefits the union provides, you get a lot of that money back in savings. It may seem that you are supporting one political party over another when you join, and it’s true that the OEA and NEA does endorse political candidates (although no dues dollars are used for political campaigns), but that doesn’t mean you have to vote for those candidates. An endorsement simply means that the union believes that one candidate’s views on public education are more in line with our beliefs than the other candidate’s; if a member has other issues that weigh greater in her decision-making than education, no one is forcing her to vote for the OEA-endorsed candidate.
Over the years, as I have grown as a teacher, I have learned much more about what belonging to the union means. It’s more than just a form to sign on Convocation Day or one more deduction from my paycheck. As a member of my local association and the OEA, Being part of the screening process of local candidates, getting to talk to candidates face-to-face and discuss with other union members whether or not we should endorse them, has really changed the way I view elections. I have been a delegate to the representative assemblies and have seen first-hand how important decisions for the entire OEA are made based on the input and debate of individual members. I have written letters to my legislators — because the union has kept me updated on issues in the legislature that affect public education. Locally, I have been a part of a negotiations committee that analyzed the funding cuts from the state and how those cuts would impact our staff’s insurance contributions and salaries, who tried to find a balance between being responsible to the community while being supportive of our teachers, and who advocated for fair benefits for our staff and improved conditions for our classrooms and students. I have signed petitions against SB 5 and gone door-to-door in my town asking for more signatures. I have attended legal update meetings and learned about court cases in the state of Ohio that affect teachers. I have used my membership to get discounts on cars, movie tickets, magazine subscriptions, and cell phone plans. And perhaps most personally, I have used the benefit of the Attorney Referral Program to get two free legal sessions with an attorney who helped me create a will after my husband died.
Teaching can be an isolating job; we spend most of our time at work in a classroom alone with our students. Being a part of the association gives us that sense of belonging to a greater entity, the feeling that we are not alone. And that is even more important now than it was 20 years ago when I first joined the union, because now more than ever teachers are being disrespected, blamed, and threatened by those in power (I’m talking to you, Mr. Christie). We must stick together, and the best way to do that is not only to join the union, but to get involved in the union. So this year when I went back to school, I didn’t just blindly sign the form like I did 20 years ago. I signed it knowing very well what it means to me and how being an active member impacts my professional and personal life. I’ll also take a minute to fill in the new, young teachers about the benefits of joining the union. Because public education has some big fights ahead; and frankly, we’re going to need their energy.