As many of you know, in my years BGN (Before Great Neck) I taught in private schools, where joining a union was not an option. This didn’t trouble me greatly, because I was naïve enough to believe that good teachers didn’t really need a union, other than to negotiate contracts. Then I ran afoul of a new administrator, having dared to raise my voice against his injustice toward several colleagues, and I faced professional ruin as a result.
It took me two years to overcome the repercussions of that event, and it changed me forever. When I came to Great Neck and joined GNTA twenty- seven years ago, I finally understood what union is all about. Yes, negotiating contracts is an important responsibility, and it’s always good to know that you’ll have union representation if you need it. But a union-YOUR union-is so much more than that. It guarantees you a voice in just about every aspect of your professional life (think BCG, SDM, selection committees). It protects your right to respond to perceived unfairness or inaccuracy in the evaluation process and disciplinary matters (think BRC). It provides you with opportunities to participate in political activity to address the issues that affect you as a teacher: APPR, the tax cap, threats to unionization (think Political Action Committee) and the governance of GNTA (think the Delegate Assembly, the Elections Committee and the Contract Improvement Committee...and stay tuned). It creates opportunities for building bridges between our profession and the community at large (think the Internal Organizing Committee...and stay tuned there, too!). Your participation in any of those committees or its events is participation in your union.
The last two years have been incredibly challenging for GNTA. Our contract negotiations, in particular, were difficult and created far more turmoil than we’ve ever experienced before. To some degree, we are a microcosm of the nation as a whole: in the face of economic hardships and professional concerns, we do not always have consensus about how to handle the issues we face. For a brief time, after the contract ratification vote last November, I was deeply concerned that our divisions would prove to be irreparable. Instead, there are signs that-UNLIKE the nation at large-positive member engagement has increased. There’s always a spike in Delegate Assembly attendance during negotiations, but this year that spike has been sustained all year. Delegates continue to ask questions to increase their awareness of how our union is run and make thoughtful suggestions for our future. Many buildings have reported that not only are more people volunteering for BRC: in many cases, BRC elections are contested. GNTA Executive Board offices have been contested, too, and- unlike the Presidential race in the nation at large-these races have involved courteous discourse about ideas, not attacks by candidates on each other. Participation on the Elections Committee and the Internal Organizing Committee have been higher than ever before.
These are signs of our health as a union, and I know that the Executive Board will continue to work hard to develop more opportunities for GNTA members to be active. Perhaps you don’t have time to join one of the groups mentioned above. That’s fine-at least, for now! But don’t make the mistake of perceiving “the union” as being your building BRC or the Executive Board. Don’t make the mistake of believing that GNTA is an entity separate from yourself. Your union is you, and your union needs your thoughts, your energy, and your perspective. Give of yourself in whatever way you can.
The poet Gwendolyn Brooks could have been speaking of unions when she wrote, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” As I rapidly approach retirement, I want to thank you all, from the deepest part of me, for the opportunities you’ve given me through GNTA to experience your magnitude and bond.
- Sheila Henchy, GNTA President