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“U & I in Union:” Electing Our Own Advocates

Susan Walker (above, left) retired in 2011 after a 35-year career teaching students in her hometown of West Haven. With the encouragement of fellow union members, parents and the town’s local Democratic Party, she quickly pivoted into electoral politics, seeking a seat on her local board of education (BOE).
 
Though it took two election cycles, Walker was elected to the board in 2015, won re-election two years later and today serves as its secretary-treasurer. Her move from the classroom to city hall was both inspired and informed by decades of labor activism and workplace representation.
 
“I still have the point of view of being a union officer,” said Walker, who previously held leadership posts with our AFT Connecticut-affiliated West Haven Federation of Teachers. “It’s been good to be in this role,” she said, adding that it’s enabled her to protect several school employees “in danger of losing their positions.” 
 
Click here for press reporting on Walker’s initial school board election victory.
 
Walker credited a decisive experience while a senior at West Haven High School for choosing both her vocation and her advocacy in public education. It was then that her teachers joined a growing strike wave sweeping Connecticut and walked out to protest low salaries, difficult classroom conditions and lack of sick leave.
 
“My friends and I joined my mother on the picket line,” said Walker. “I knew then what was going on was not right — and that there were real issues and problems my teachers were fighting to resolve,” she added.
 
Click here for archived press coverage of the 1970 Connecticut teachers strike.
 
That same commitment to economic justice drove Walker nearly two decades later as a labor leader and library media specialist in the district’s Harry M. Bailey Middle School. Serving as our local union’s secretary, she helped organize efforts to defend members facing layoffs as the board of education grappled with budget shortfalls.
 
“That was when I learned the value of having a good leadership team,” said Mary Moninger-Elia (above, right), a fellow teacher who served as the local’s president at the time. “I couldn’t take on the board alone,” she said, adding that Walker and a network of stewards in the district’s schools made sure that “no member was treated unjustly.”
 
Click here for press reporting in 1990 on an economic downturn’s impact on local schools.
 
For Moninger-Elia, who retired in 2004, those difficult fights reinforced the need for working peoples’ — particularly educators’ — perspectives and experiences to be reflected on their local school board. She believed that Walker, in particular, would one day present that opportunity.
 
Referring to Walker’s initial decision to run for office, Moninger-Elia, said that “she would be a good board member.” She added that Walker also “knew that it would not be easy — but that it was important” to be the advocate her former colleagues needed.
 
For Walker, the choice to seek a seat on the BOE so soon after retiring was a natural one. Saying that despite the often difficult choices, her position allows her to show that “she stands behind teachers, paraeducators and support staff.”
 
Click here to watch Walker and Moninger-Elia share more on the union advantage in local politics.
 
A robust, grassroots effort to encourage union members run for and win elected office provides a concrete example of how the labor movement benefits all working people. It’s value is elevated by an unfair political system long rigged in favor of deep-pocketed special interests over everyday Americans.
 
Walker’s story is even more resonant today following the record success of AFT Connecticut’s “labor is your neighbor” program in last year’s municipal elections. It’s also more important than ever as her former colleagues face unprecedented threats from the forces behind a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court aimed at weakening their voices.
 
Click here for more on our “U & I in Union” campaign to build greater strength for the challenges ahead.
 
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