A Gathering of Leaders: Leadership Conference Unites Members (October/November, 2016)

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“This is a big time for us,” observed AFT MA President Tom Gosnell in his introduction to the nearly 90 members in attendance at the 2016 AFT MA Leadership Conference. “We have a big challenge, and it is not just for K-12 schools.... Question 2 affects all of us!”

Noting how AFT MA also represents 31 public libraries and groups of paraprofessionals, custodians, and other dedicated workers, as well as public and private sector institutions of higher education, Gosnell suggested that, “We’re all part of the challenge.”

This encouragement of inclusion and engagement was echoed by Lynda Tocci from Save Our Public Schools (https://saveourpublicschoolsma.com).

“We have been accused of funding the campaign through the teachers’ unions,” Tocci explained. “And we are proud of that!”

As people “trust” teachers, Tocci maintained that the members of AFT MA and its affiliates are “the best messengers” and urged everyone to do everything they could to defeat this ballot initiative.

“Our opponents want to make [this campaign] about...[only] places where parents are looking for choice and change,” Tocci observed. “Tom [Gosnell] was one of the first people to say that we can’t let them pin us down to those areas. Every community is at risk for losing students and funds to charter schools.”

In describing our pro-charter opponents, Tocci cited such immoral practices as false enrollments and recruiting for what is purported to be a fair and equitable lottery system. She also noted that the advertising agency that was working in favor of Question 2 was the same one that produced the infamous “Swiftboat” ads against then Sen. John Kerry.

“They have outspent us about two to one,” Tocci explained, noting how, according to polling, the anti-Question 2 message is prevailing. “Our message works.... Because we have all of you, we win on the ground.”

As of the time of this publication, over 140 MA communities had drafted resolutions against Question 2 (as opposed to none in favor). Even so, Tocci encouraged everyone to keep up the fight as we sprint towards the finish on November 8.

“Tell your stories,” Tocci urged. “Make it personal. When people hear the truth, they vote in our favor.”

When asked how to be convincing, AFT MA Political Organizer Brian LaPierre advised members to “Introduce yourself as a public educator…and explain how each community is losing millions of dollars and that those funds are coming out of your [neighbors’] kids’ schools. He also advised members to mention specific examples of programs that have been cut, as well as increased class size. “After you educate, “ LaPierre encouraged, “you turn people into ‘No on 2’ supporters.”

Citing a recent event during which 80 Lynn students spoke to voters and convinced hundreds of voters to vote against Question 2, LaPierre suggested that, ”the kids are our best messengers,” and emphasized that, “there is nobody who will vote against a teacher with their student.”

Noting that early voting starts October 24, Tocci also suggested that people also write to legislators and local newspaper editors, share the campaign on Facebook and Twitter, and get more involved by texting “Keep the cap” to 313131.

“We are usually the biggest union in every town,” observed AFT MA Field Representative Jeremy Shenk before encouraging members to “throw their weight around” and to “show your superintendents that our membership is mobilized and serious.”

Field Representative Eric Blanchet noted how, in Labor history, we are strongest when overcoming struggles

“We need to re-learn that,” he suggested. “We need to get our members to...come together over something.”

Boston Teachers Union Representative Johnny McInnis also made sure to mention that we must all reach out to the Black and Latino communities and to make sure that they are on our side as well, especially as many of our opponents court them with false promises.

“We have to remember everyone,” Tocci agreed, mentioning a “very large event” that was being planned for the middle of October.

When AFT MA Director of Educational Policy and Programs Dan Murphy asked Tocci what to say to those who talk about helping “underserved communities,” Tocci advised emphasizing how 96 percent of students do not go to charter schools.

Though many charter schools act without any local oversight, Gosnell warned that, even though most people only think of charters as affecting urban and so-called “low-performing” districts, Question 2 would make them a reality for every city and town.

“Those of us in Lynn and Lowell and Boston and Lawrence already know about charter schools,” Gosnell observed. “This may bring them to other communities as well.”

Speaking of Lowell, United Teachers of Lowell President Paul Georges remarked that he has been discussing this issue often on his radio show on WCAP (http://980wcap.com). He also noted that many of the alleged pro-charter supporters are actually being paid to canvass while all the anti-Question 2 people he knows are doing it because they truly know and believe how bad charters are for public education.

“They are doing it on their own time because they care about the state of education in this state,” Georges maintained. “That is personal and people respond to it.”

When Field Representative Andy Powell asked if the opposition is trying to build a ground campaign, Tocci responded that they are “desperately trying,” but echoed Georges in reiterating that “our stories are more powerful than their money.

Speaking of the money, Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin suggested that the untraceable “dark money” is “like a disease” in that it is also infiltrating other campaigns as well.

“The money is lost forever,” Gosnell observed, noting how the imbalance of funds between the two sides of this issue has emphasized “the value of affiliation.”

As the budget is tight and as there are rules concerning campaigning about political issues, LaPierre advised members to take as many materials as they could from the event but to use them efficiently. He also warned them not to use school property (e.g., copy machines and paper) to increase their material stores, but encouraged them to engage people before and after school, as so many did on Walk-In that was sponsored on October 6 by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (www.reclaimourschools.org).

“We need to have activism seven days a week,” LaPierre urged, encouraging members to make calls and go door-to-door to enhance that personal connection and to make sure their friends and neighbors understand the issues and know the truth. “We need to step it up. We cannot look back November 10 and say we could have done more.”

When asked what to do if a campaigner is asked about their union affiliation, Gosnell urged them to proudly claim it.

“Say ‘Yes- I am with a teachers union,’” he advised, “and then explain what teachers do- We fight for smaller class sizes and for keeping the resources in the public schools.”

Gosnell also reiterated the point he made while a guest on Dan Rea’s “Nightside” on WBZ AM 1030 (where he will probably appear again before the election) that, while charters may accept student with “mild” special needs and language issues, “they do not take as many or as severe issues as the public schools do.”

With the issues laid out, the Conference turned to other matters, including other financial matters. Secretary-Treasurer Brant Duncan advised the assembled leaders on their fiscal responsibilities and Special Assistant to the President Ed Doherty spoke of the campaign for the proposed constitutional amendment known as “fair share tax” or “millionaire’s tax.” Encouraging members to get involved with Raise Up MA (www.raiseupma.org), Doherty explained that, if passed, the amendment  will raise income taxes of those who make over $1 million a year to 9 percent, which will result in a predicted budget increase of over $1 billion, all of which is intended for infrastructure, public transportation and public education.

Gosnell then spoke briefly about the forthcoming presidential election, noting that, while the decision may be “all over in MA, it is not over nationwide.” Gosnell also noted that, depending upon the Supreme Court appointments that are sure to come in the next few years, a troubling case like Friedrichs (see February/March 2016 issue) may arise again.

After lunch, Shenk and AFT Representative Erica McDuffie discussed the importance of member engagement

“We want to reach all 1.6 million of our members,” McDuffie explained, recalling an engagement “blitz” that was launched by AFT. “It is all about member-to-member engagement.”

 As our opponents are actively mounting campaigns (and even Supreme Court cases) against us, McDuffie and Shenk emphasized how important it is to engage all of our members and to educate the public as well. AFT MA Field Representatives Mike Regan, Caryn Laflamme and Powell discussed specific goals for our membership, including state-wide engagement and learning more about what our members want so AFT MA can serve them even more effectively.

“The movement is you,” Regan observed, thanking all members for all they do, especially considering how overwhelmed so many are by academic and other job-related duties.

“I know what you do in addition to your full-time job because I did it,” the former Medway teacher and coach said. “All of have something in common...you all feel an obligation to serve...which speaks volumes of you.”

As so many members are so committed and as there are so many members to engage, the best way to make each member’s job easier, Regan suggested, is to get more people on board to help them do it.

“We are committed to making this union a better place for all of us,” Regan pledged. “We need your help.”

Defining “activists” as “members who regularly participate in union activities and who can be counted on to regularly advance union objectives,” Laflamme asked the assembled members how they became involved and encouraged current members to reach out to new members and become their “first friend and best friend.”

Admitting that he hears many people say they do not know what the union does for them, Powell explained that a major goal of both AFT MA and AFT is to “identify what is important to [our] members…so we can bring that value back.”

“Find out what your members want,” advised Springfield Federation of Paraprofessionals President Cathy Mastronardi, who also promoted programs like FirstBook (www.firstbook.org) as a means of community engagement

“We remind our members that it’s not the union,” suggested North Attleboro President Nicole Reminder, recalling a campaign to connect with every member by distributing individual membership cards, “it’s their union.”

Shenk then noted that additional trainings were in development to help ensure that each and every member was best prepared to participate.

“You need to assess where you are before you can get where you want to go,” Shenk observed.

No matter what they do, the Leadership Conference made it clear that presidents, treasurers, and each and every member has a vital role to play in the future of our union and in the future of public education.

“The survival of the union depends on engagement,” McLaughlin observed. “We have so much going on, the only way to do it all is to get more people involved.... The time is now!”