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How to Start a Movement! How to Build a Union!

My good friend and colleague Kim Kohlhaas, President of AFT-Wisconsin, shared a video with me from a TED Talk. While watching the short 3 minute video I learned a valuable lesson, we need to start a movement in order to build a union. 

Starting a Movement

I've been told plenty of times that I'm nuts to be a union president and that it's impossible to build a powerful union for public and higher education in Utah. Well I have to agree with the first statement, but I don't believe the second. No doubt it's difficult to unionize, but it is possible to establish a thriving strong labor union that will benefit public and higher education faculty and staff. AFT has a history of unionizing in Utah. The Ogden Federation of Teachers was organized in Ogden, Utah in 1919 and was one of the founding 100 AFT Locals in the United States. Organizing success has ebbed and flowed throughout the past ten decades. What prevented permanence and growth? There are many factors, but they all revert back to the fact that we never started a movement. Organizers, movers, and inspirational leaders have come and gone. To their credit, they did what they could with the support they could muster. The problem is, we've followed the status quo. We've tried to emulate the other organizations and associations and in turn have not empowered our members nor given them the opportunity to lead, participate, or "join the dance"! 

The Need for Change

It's time we face the truth. Our public schools and universities are run on a corporate model. We've witnessed time-and-time-again school and district administrators, school boards, higher education administration, and lawmakers abuse our rights and demean us as professionals. With such top down driven business models, it's imperative that we organize and band together to protect each other. Utah has not had a strong public and higher education union. I'm not talking about an employee association, faculty association, or the myriad of other professional organizations that give member discounts for dining out or focus on selective constituents, I'm talking about a true grit labor union. A union that is affiliated with the AFL-CIO standing in solidarity with their union brothers and sisters in the trades. A union that is proud of its name and heritage and doesn't use the term "union" only when it suits their needs. I'm speaking of a union that is filled with activists, union stewards, powerful local executive boards, and a has a member driven agenda. A union that encourages members to run their locals and empowers them to solve issues at the worksite. A union that has ongoing training for stewards to handle grievances, resolve conflicts, and ensure that their colleagues' rights are not violated. Finally a union that is not ashamed to challenge and stand against those that would demean working families and silence our collective voice! AFT, OUR UNION, is the only labor organization that that has the structure and potential to fill this role and need. AFT locals across the Nation are thriving in tough situations similar to ours. The key to their success is member involvement. Union stewards and leaders handle issues that affect faculty and staff. Union members are mentors and teacher leaders. Local unions design and facilitate all professional development and training in coordination with district and school administration. I believe we have the ability to build such a union in our State. There are thousands of employees in public and higher education in Utah that have no affiliation with any labor union. We need to give them the opportunity to join us.

So Where Do We Start?

As Derek Sivers points out in his TED presentation, we need to stand together, as equals, in solidarity. We have local union leaders that are courageous but often stand alone. A person can't carry that load in isolation before they soon give out. Union leaders will embrace and welcome anyone that is willing to be involved. That's the magic of starting a movement, people coming together with a shared purpose and vision. The adage, "many hands make light work" has never been more accurate and needed than right now! So here is what we need you to do to move things forward:

  1. Register for our AFT Empowering U Campaign
  2. You will be contacted with dates of campaign meetings. 
  3. Plan on attending a meeting where you will be given information and instructions. 

How Do We Measure Success?

Simply put, an increase in union membership will directly affect our influence and power at the worksite, on campus, in our communities, and at the Legislature. Each member that becomes involved is a success. Each new person that joins our union is a success. Once a movement gains momentum, it develops a life of its own. I enjoyed rolling rocks down hillsides when I was younger. My eyes would light up when I would see a huge stone that I knew had the dimensions to roll all they way to the bottom and out onto the flat land below. I would sweat, dig, push, and pry often to no avail until one of my buddies would decide to help. Together we would sweat, dig, push, and pry gaining a little ground and moving the stone slightly. Finally we explained to the rest of our group that together we could roll this rock and the results of watching it speed down the hill would be worth all the work and dedication. You can guess the results. We all cheered as we set the stone free from its long stagnant slumber eventually ending up in a new position where it could be utilized and appreciated by those who camped in the valley below. It simply takes us sharing our union story with others and encouraging them to join us. If each member did that, we would grow exponentially. We engage in this work because we care about our students and colleagues. We fight to protect our profession and our families. We show up because someone has to start the rock rolling. 

In Solidarity,

Brad Asay

President-AFT Utah

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