(The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)
Hello everyone. Even though given the chance to stay anonymous I shall not. My name is Kenny and I am a member of AFT-West Virginia. I have served as a local president as well as an at-large member of the state federation’s Executive Board.
I want to thank Mike for giving me the opportunity to speak in this forum.
When asked to speak on a particular subject, I decided to choose politics. More specifically, state politics.
In WV we join unions by “choice,” not by law. We do not have collective bargaining for school employees. So why join a union at all? Protection. As a teacher, it only takes three words to ruin your career: “They touched me.” You don’t have to be guilty. You can be completely exonerated. But you are marked for life. Legal bills can go into six figures in a flash. A union will provide legal aid and insurance.
Without collective bargaining, we have to lobby the legislature and the governor to effect changes in our salary and working conditions. This gets us into the sordid world of politics.
I am a staunchly conservative person, both fiscally and socially. So I have had to sit and stew on many occasions when my union decided to “enter the realm.” When I joined the AFT in 1988 the union stayed out of all non-school issues. Their attitude at the time was that members were intelligent enough to make their own decisions concerning personal beliefs and that there was enough room in the AFT for teachers of every political persuasion. The NEA was seen at the time as being the political body that was constantly meddling into matters that didn’t directly pertain to teaching.
But oh, how times have changed. Even at the state level.
I remember an Executive Board meeting where we were being asked to support the expansion of gambling into our state through video poker machines. The governor at the time guaranteed us that if we would support the video poker machine bill that we could expect a huge pay raise the following year. Most of the people around the table were excited about the idea of a large and long overdue pay raise. When asked for my opinion I remember saying, “We’re selling our souls for thirty pieces of silver.” Well, the majority vote was to support the bill. The bill passed and we received a hefty pay raise of… $500.00 – almost the price of those thirty pieces of silver.
Our state has paid a heavy price since. I fear that casino gambling is only a matter of time.
I have also been involved in endorsing political candidates. There is an old saying that unions love to use: “He may be an SOB, but he’s *our* SOB.” They didn’t care about his politics as long as he would support our bills in the legislature. And any questions could be met with icy stares. Mind you, the people I have worked with in AFT-West Virginia have been extremely friendly toward me. But it was always evident that my opinion was in the “minority” as far as they were concerned.
I use quotation marks because I know that the majority of the members in my state are just as conservative as I am. But these people do not serve as leaders in the union. I have told people that I could never be a state or national leader in the union because I could never sell my morals out just to “play ball.” I have seen people that I know for certain did not believe in who or what they were expected to convince the rank and file to support.
So what words of wisdom would I leave you with? Just this: When you think of the “teachers’ unions” in such unflattering terms, please remember that there are many good people that are in the ranks out of necessity and have to turn their noses up at the politics to stay protected in the classroom.