Why VEA Members Fought for Right to Bargain Contracts
March 22, 2021
March 22, 2021
By Tom Allen
Collective bargaining has been an elusive goal, just beyond the reach of VEA members for more than 40 years. Since 1977’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Virginia banning the practice of local school boards negotiating contracts with local educators, our Union has created 10-year plans, legislative campaigns, and numerous other strategies in an ongoing effort to regain those rights.
Why, exactly? Why have we expended so much time, energy, sweat, and tears to get back to the table with school boards? What will the opportunity to negotiate really do for us? And for our students?
Well, as VEA members who helped make bargaining a reality at last in 2020 and who remain in the fight to implement it can tell you, there are lots of very important reasons.
“Our students, our schools, and our school employees all win with collective bargaining,” says VEA President James J. Fedderman. “It’s a benefit for both kids and educators, and a way to identify and solve problems for the betterment of all.”
VEA members from across the commonwealth agree. Here are some of their reasons.
Public education is a collaborative effort. “Knowing that all parties—administrators, school board members, teachers, and educational support professionals—can come together to advocate for the best interests of students is incredibly democratic,” says Glen Chilcote, a member of the Montgomery County Education Association and an elementary school teacher. “When this conversation begins, it blossoms into seeing how everyone’s interests align. From this point on, building a contract based on shared values seems like the most logical thing to do to make schools welcoming, innovative, and filled with possibilities for our students. We’re all in this together.”
And together, just like in the classroom, is how progress happens. “I believe that in solidarity with each other, our students, their parents and our community we can organize to create the schools we know our students are owed through the collective bargaining process,” says Anne Forrester, an ESL teacher and Richmond Education Association member.
Just being there when decisions are made will be significant, says Adam Levine of the Education Association of Alexandria, a world languages teacher. “When educators have a seat at the table, we are stakeholders in the educational process of our students,” he says. “We can help shape policy and procedures that benefit and protect everyone.”
Bargaining is also part of our nation’s DNA, says Chilcote: “The process of asking tough questions and creating real solutions is something that all Americans should view with pride.”
Bargaining a comprehensive contract ensures that students’ needs are met. “Collective bargaining is an effective tool to meet student needs because no one knows more about what our students need than the people who have dedicated their professional lives to education,” says Jeff Buchanan, supervisor of an alternative school and member of the Pittsylvania Education Association.
In states where educators negotiate their contracts,” says VEA President Fedderman, “agreements have been worked out that address issues such as class size, extra resources for students who need them most, and school health and safety issues. That’s our vision for Virginia—contracts that benefit everyone.”
“If teachers have adequate planning time, access to quality professional development, and policies that aim to eliminate inequity built into their contracts, students reap the benefits,” says Montgomery’s Chilcote. “Remember, our students are our ‘why’.”
Educator working conditions are also student learning conditions. This is closely related to the idea of meeting student needs. How are we giving students our best when the educators who spend their careers in schools and classrooms are often absent when decisions are made about their working conditions?
Here are the kinds of questions—and insights—educators can bring into sharp focus during negotiations, says Karen Tyrrell, a member of the Loudoun Education Association and a digital specialist—and they’re all affected by the workplace environment: “What should our schools look like, what they should teach, how can we improve, and how can we better serve our students?”
Arlington Education Association member and computer science teacher Jeff Elkner has seen how a well-negotiated contract can make a classroom a far better learning environment. Before coming to Virginia, he taught in another state, in a very challenging school environment where his students came from low socioeconomic homes. “These kids lived chaotic lives,” he says. “Sometimes they’d hear gunfire when they were in bed at night.” But, because his school district’s contract had a clear procedure for removing disruptive students from class, Elkner was able to maintain what he calls a “safe space” and high-quality instruction in his classroom.
Why? “We negotiated those rules together,” he says. It was different in Virginia. Not long after coming here, Elkner witnessed a situation where a student refused to do assigned work and ran from the room, only to be escorted back by an administrator, who returned him without any repercussions.
“The teacher’s authority was completely undermined,” he says, “and control of the classroom was lost.”
Knowing that their on-the-job issues are being addressed “can give educators a sense of security so that they can focus their energy on providing the creative, quality education that their specific students need,” says Pittsylvania’s Buchanan.
The ability to bargain increases educator power. Power, for educators, is nothing more than having and using the ability to make good things happen.
“Collective bargaining represents an important power shift for education workers,” says Forrester of Richmond. “All too often, we hear about the need for ‘teacher voice’ but ultimately, in Virginia, the conversation stopped there and there was no real mechanism for us to have a real say in the conditions in our buildings. Now with the renewed possibility of collective bargaining, we are able to not only make our voices heard, but we have actual power in establishing our working conditions and our students’ learning conditions at the bargaining table.”
And it’s not just power for teachers, says Loudoun’s Tyrrell. “Collective bargaining gives a voice to so many who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. Education support professionals, in particular, will get a voice in their contracts and get a direct benefit from having a voice in what affects them. This will make our schools stronger and better.”
Collective bargaining ensures that educators are treated fairly and respected as professionals. Without written and agreed-to contracts, there’s far too much gray area in how educators can be treated.
Levine saw a stark difference when he left New Jersey to teach in Alexandria. “[In New Jersey] contract expectations were clearly spelled out, as well as evaluation procedures and due process rights. When I asked if I could sponsor a club, I was given a list of clubs with their corresponding stipends. These stipends would actually increase every year I continued to be a club advisor. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, the time and energy I dedicate to my students outside of class was actually being recognized by my school.’ I felt respected. I felt valued.
“When I arrived in Virginia, I was surprised by the mindset of educators. I was told by a colleague, ‘We have no unions down here. We have an association. We do whatever the school district mandates.’ I felt frustrated when I heard this. As a new, probationary teacher, I was concerned about my future. Throughout my first year I noticed differences. Teachers were now ‘encouraged’ to sponsor clubs as part of the continuing contract process, but received little or no remuneration. There were a few stipend positions, but the amount of money allocated for them paled in comparison to stipends in New Jersey. The contrasts were also discernible in the teacher evaluation process. In New Jersey, I was evaluated at least once a month. I received regular feedback from my administrators, department chair, and colleagues. I knew exactly what I had to work on and worked hard to refine my teaching and classroom management skills. In Virginia, the process was inconsistent. Timelines were rarely adhered to and everything came down to whether the principal liked you. Fortunately, I had an awesome principal who supported me. But how many have suffered at the whim of an incompetent administrator? It can be an emotionally and professionally devastating experience.”
Instructional assistant Trina Congress of the Education Association of Alexandria sees bargaining as the best way to avoid being taken advantage of by school administration. “There was a time when I was left without choice to cover classes, many times alone and without pay as a substitute teacher,” she says. “When I voiced my concerns, I became a target of degradation and chastising in front of my co-workers. I had allowed that treatment for as long as I could before I found the courage to take action! If I had been a part of collective bargaining at that time, things would have been very different. I believe it would have prevented me from working without correct pay and would have stopped me from retaliation for speaking up about it.”
A bargained contract gives educators a sense of increased ownership and commitment. “The stronger investment our educators make in their jobs, the stronger the school and the stronger the students,” says John Reaves of the Henrico Education Association, a high school English teacher. “If you rent a house, certain aspects of upkeep fall on the landlord. No ‘all-in’ investment is required. However, if we invest in building a house together, we all begin to see and feel pieces of ourselves in this house. It will be for the community, created with the community. With collective bargaining, educators will have an opportunity to positively impact the effect their work has within the learning community, with more responsibility building a doorway to higher expectations of professionalism and, most importantly, better schools. Bargaining is an opportunity for educators to turn their experience and knowledge into tools that can directly make meaningful and lasting change for our students now, and in every generation to come.”
Going to the table is an exciting opportunity for educators to broaden their impact. “A contract isn’t just a document securing employment, it is a living, breathing promise that has the ability to greatly increase student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and quite frankly all facets of public education,” says Chilcote. “I support collective bargaining because I care. I want to help shape what our school division could be.”
Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.
O2B: Your Union Leading on Bargaining
After working tirelessly to win back collective bargaining rights for all educators, VEA members are now turning their efforts to making Virginia’s new law a standard practice through our O2B (Organizing to Bargain) Campaign. Because the bill was written so that local school boards must agree to negotiate—they’re not required to—there is plenty of local legwork still to do.
Here are some of the resources and assistance available through O2B:
• Strategy. Our leaders will bring tested strategies to build your own campaign around. At press time, we’d already notched one important victory, turning back a restrictive proposed ordinance in Alexandria that would have limited the items open to collective bargaining.
• Community. It will take educators coming together to find our collective strength and voice. We’ve established an O2B Governance Steering Committee and we’ve had local presidents working with staff to deliver negotiations information.
• Education and training. We want you to be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible. We’ve already held six regional collective bargaining events, attended by over 300 members representing 61 locals.
• Membership. It will take membership growth and unity to win the right to bargain. We can help with that.
• Issues. Determining the issues of most importance to your members is critical. We can help with that.
• We’ll be there with you. Through O2B, your local efforts will have the backing of the entire VEA organization and all our resources.
To learn more about O2B and how it can help you and your colleagues, reach out to your local UniServ Director or contact Katie Bishop (email@example.com) or Todd Park (firstname.lastname@example.org) in VEA’s Organizing and Field Support department. They can also provide information on the May 1 Organizing to Bargain Conference.