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“U & I in Union:” Stepping Up to Be an “Agent of Change”

Patty Roy (right, bottom row in photo above) has worked for 11 years as an educator in her hometown and currently teaches reading and social studies to 6th graders at Windham Middle School (WMS). She previously served as a steward in our AFT Connecticut-affiliated Windham Federation of Teachers before winning election last summer to the local union’s executive board.
 
“I think it’s important for us as members to be involved,” said Roy who last fall volunteered for contract negotiations with the district’s board of education (BOE). “That’s how we know what we’re able to achieve,” she added.
 
Roy was joined for this latest round of talks by two veteran educators and local union vice presidents who were also stepped up for their first bargaining team roles.
 
Elisabeth Prose (left, top row), a K-5 English as a second language (ESOL) educator at Natchaug Elementary School with 26 years of experience in the district said “the time was right to volunteer.” While she also had over 20 years of steward service under her belt, she explained that being part of negotiations was “something I always wanted to do before I finished teaching.”
 
Carolina Mendez (right, top row) has taught in Windham for 22 years, currently educating 1st grade students at the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy, but is relatively new to union leadership. Like Roy, she was elected last summer to the executive board and her experience has provided an opportunity to “be an agent of change and help other members.”
 
The team, which included representatives from each of the district’s schools, last December reached a mediated settlement with the BOE. The three-year agreement was the following month approved by an overwhelming majority of the union’s voting members and the new provisions are scheduled to take effect September 1.
 
Click here for photos of the January ratification vote at Windham High School (WHS).
 
Local president and WHS Early College Opportunities (ECO) program workplace learning teacher Randall Prose (left, bottom row) said the bargaining team “did a really good job continuing the progress we’ve made as a union.” He credited the first-time and veteran volunteers alike, along with AFT Connecticut Field Representative Ben Wenograd, with winning a second consecutive contract that includes significant economic gains.
 
“Coming from where we were just a few years ago, it shows how strong we’ve become,” (Randall) Prose added, referring to a series of struggles following the 2008 Great Recession. Chief among them was the 2011 assignment by the state Board of Education (SBOE) of a “special master” to effectively assume day-to-day operational management of the district.
 
According to (Randall) Prose, the effort to win back local control “really brought our community together.” 
 
Click here for press reporting at the time on restoring Windham Public Schools’ autonomy.
 
That union strength and community support combined to empower the bargaining team to notch victories on issues members last fall identified in pre-negotiations surveys as their highest priorities.
 
Roy said they researched surrounding towns in order to demonstrate to the board “how much more non-instructional time we had in comparison. That helped us get some of that reduced,” she added, referring to the committee’s successful proposal to eliminate a second “Monday meeting” that had required for all certified staff.
 
“Back when we had four of those meetings, every Monday we had to stay after school,” said (Elisabeth) Prose, adding that “going down to two is a win for staff morale.”
 
The additional time away from their students had long been a contributing factor in suppressing Windham teachers’ overall earnings. They were further short-changed by the state’s unfair education funding formula and a local tradition of allowing school resources to be slashed by town-wide referenda.
 
Click here to watch union members and parents speaking out for their students ahead of a 2016 budget vote.
 
Mendez, like all veteran educators in Windham, was affected by years of wage freezes agreed to in previous contracts. She said that the new agreement, which boosts members’ wages 8.5% and increases longevity bonuses through 2022, “sets a strong precedent for the next round of negotiations.”
 
For (Elisabeth) Prose, the experience of serving on the negotiating committee was so uplifting she “would definitely do it again.” She has already begun encouraging colleagues to consider volunteering when a new team is assembled in three years, telling members it “helps bring you back to why you started teaching.”
 
Click here to watch Roy, Mendez and the Proses share more on the rewards of representing their co-workers at the table.
 
Raising wages for teachers in a chronically under-resourced school district is a significant feat that Windham’s 2018 negotiating committee — for the second consecutive round of contract talks — accomplished. Their victory is a clear demonstration of the power of collective bargaining for working people to win in the workplace.
 
Click here for more on our “U & I in Union” campaign to mobilize members and their communities for a better future.
 
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