WATERVILLE, Wash. – In the land of the free, one might expect few problems when a group of people decides to leave an organization and form one of their own.
But in the world of teachers unions, the concept of freedom doesn’t carry much weight.
On November 9, teachers in Waterville, Washington received state certification to dissolve their local Washington Education Association (WEA) chapter and replace it with their newly formed, independent Waterville Teachers Leadership Council (WTLC).
It took the Waterville teachers more than a year of battling the WEA to gain their independence. Why? Because the union hates to lose members and the dues revenue they bring to the table.
It’s all about money and power, not the will of the members.
Justin Grillo, a third grade teacher and WTLC organizer, explains that the process was initiated in September of 2011 when a group of teachers in the district began questioning their membership in the WEA and exploring other alternatives.
One of the aspects of the WEA and its parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA), that frustrated Waterville teachers is the amount of money spent on political initiatives.
“We’re spending so much money for that aspect, for [the WEA] to go out and support things that we don’t really support,” Grillo says.
The teachers realized that they could form their own group to deal with contract negotiations, while going elsewhere to obtain the legal protection provided to them by the WEA.
Additionally, the WEA dues were $75 per month. The WTLC anticipates collecting $32 a month from members, with $15 of that going back into the group to establish and support local projects, including scholarship funds for students.
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Fighting for freedom
Unfortunately the road to independence was not an easy one for Grillo and his colleagues.
“On paper, it’s really simple,” says Grillo.
In reality, however, he states that the legal process of decertifying the WEA is “inefficient, inconvenient and unpleasant.”
After taking a vote to decertify mid June 2012, the Waterville teachers had one month to get their petitions to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), a Washington state agency that resolves labor-management disputes.
PERC initially ruled in favor of the Waterville teachers, however the WEA refused to let them secede quietly. Claiming the teachers didn’t correctly follow notification procedures, the WEA filed a motion to dismiss the petition.
It took more than three months, but in October PERC again sided with the teachers, allowing their petition to progress. Though the Waterville teachers were ultimately successful, Grillo vents, “It angers me how the WEA disregards and disrespects the will of the very professionals they purport to serve.”
While a majority of teachers desire membership in their local unions, many don’t realize that when they join them, they also automatically become members of state and national unions, whether or not the teacher wants to support these organizations, according to Grillo.
The local unions siphon a portion of teachers’ dues payments for the state and national unions. This is how unions obtain the money to further their political agenda and fund the exorbitant salaries of union bosses.
The WTLC is a strictly local council – the teachers do not refer to it as a union – and it will not contribute to state or federal level organizations, according to Grillo. This local focus will allow teachers to address issues that directly affect their teachers and students.
Grillo explains that the Waterville teachers hope to build stronger relationships with the district’s administration, the school board and the community without the interference of an outside influence.
“Waterville is a really small place,” says Grillo. “The big focus of our new group is to develop relationships, professional relationships. Because when we have really strong relationships, then bargaining, or if there’s a problem or conflict, it’s much easier to get through that.”
Grillo says that joining the new council will be a choice – a new concept for the teachers of Waterville, as Washington is not a right-to-work state. Teachers can elect to join the WTLC, or are free to stay with the WEA if they so choose. However, Grillo anticipates that 20 of the 22 teachers in the district will join the new council.
Waterville is the third school district in the state of Washington to break away from a major union and create a local, teacher-focused organization, and it likely will not be the last.
“I’m sure people might be kind of interested in what’s going on [in Waterville],” says Grillo.
This trend could eventually spell trouble for the major national teachers unions if local teachers throughout the country decide to follow suit.
As a press release from the WTLC noted, “The process of decertification has taken place in states across the country. Interestingly, once decertified, no local teacher association has fallen back into union control.”