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On Joining a Teachers’ Union and Supporting Bernie Sanders

Sanders' voice is a rallying cry, reminding us all that collective action works, that we should let down our guard, allow ourselves to hope and band together.

I’m voting for Bernie because for too long the suffering of so many people in this country has fallen on deaf ears. (Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images)

I’m voting for Bernie because for too long the suffering of so many people in this country has fallen on deaf ears. (Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images)

I still can’t believe collective bargaining actually worked.

Not too long ago, I officially joined my state’s teacher’s union. Our charter school’s chapter, which has now been in existence for over a year, had finally negotiated its first contract with our school’s board of trustees. I was brimming with pride as I filled out the paperwork, eagerly agreeing to allot a portion of my salary each month to my union dues. Unlike the money that is taken out every month for my health insurance and retirement, I was confident that this money would actually be put to work for me, and for many other teachers.

I left that afternoon meeting feeling an equal mixture of disbelief and cautious, yet uncontainable, optimism. We have a contract. It actually worked. After months of slow or no progress, we had a contract that met our most critical demands: transparent policies concerning teacher compensation, evaluation and discipline, and more adequate wages and benefits.

With this relief came two realizations; one enraging, the other empowering. The former was that all my frustration and at times, despair, over the treatment of our bargaining process by the board of trustees was well-founded. There had never been a good reason for them not to meet us halfway on the terms of our employment: any healthy workplace relies on transparent, fair treatment of employees.

But now it was also clear that they’d had the money all along. For all their hedging, their “we really hear your hardships, we’re sorry you have to work two jobs, we’d love to pay you more but…”, their hands had not been tied. What did it take for them to capitulate? Our union’s strike petition. Almost all of the faculty had signed, affirming our intention to strike if the board kept refusing compromise once our meetings with a state-appointed mediator came to an end.

The second realization arose from my disbelief. If such a dramatic turn of events were possible, even on such a small scale, why couldn’t the underlying principles be true on a national level?

According to The Intercept, presidential candidates have typically considered “party activists and voters to be two utterly distinct entities.” In their view, “It’s OK for the activists to get riled up, but the voters never should. They have one job: Get into the booth, pull the lever, and go home.” No wonder, then, that so many people have been quick to label Bernie Sanders as “unelectable”.

If voters are not activists, if they cannot imagine an election in which the power structures that be are truly challenged, how could an “outsider” like Sanders garner the support he needs? The same phenomenon is true of many non-unionized workplaces, including schools. Employees might be dissatisfied, or even have strong opinions. But, especially when they are utterly dependent on their monthly paycheck, they lack the time and mental bandwidth to gather their thoughts, and they lack the security speak up. More important, even if they did speak up, it probably wouldn’t be enough.

Several months earlier, I had decided to challenge these odds and speak at our monthly board meeting. I worked feverishly on my remarks whenever I had a spare moment during the day. I scoured the writings of Ted Sizer - an educational reformer whose reflections are always a salve for me when I feel frustrated with my work - for quotes that struck the right tone.

On the day of the meeting, I dashed out of class after the last bell so I could go for a quick run to soothe my nerves before speaking. When I finally stood up, I was shaking. Halfway through, as I was describing the anxiety and stress over job security, the low pay that forces some into second and third jobs, and the long commute that I, and many of my colleagues, shoulder, I broke down in tears.

I spoke of my aspirations - for a school community that retains and nourishes its teachers (and in turn, its students), for a culture of appreciation for the faculty’s hard work and dedication. I invited the board to join us in looking beyond cash flow and actually forming a vision of what we wanted our school to be.

Afterwards, my colleagues who had attended the meeting showered me with praise and appreciation. It was truly the stuff of inspirational teacher movies. For my part, I’d never been so proud, so sure, of my vocation and my commitment to helping my school community grow and thrive. In retrospect, I would do it all over again. I still think frequently about the personal value of articulating my beliefs so clearly.

But my emotional speech didn’t change the board’s mind. Collective bargaining did.

The founding fathers feared the tyranny of the majority, which Tocqueville later defined as “[that] which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence.” And yet in my experience, unionization enables individuals within that alleged tyrannical mass to access what “rightness” might actually look like. After all, we live in a time when even benevolent morning show hosts acknowledge that our country is being run not by the majority, but by the interests of minority who inhabit the top income bracket.

So many of us have experienced gaslighting by our superiors (and, in the case of teachers, the media). Teachers don’t deserve higher pay; they have summers off. Your demands are selfish; you are going to bankrupt the school. We cannot afford to pay you more. We simply will not compromise on these issues; it’s for the good of the school.

All of these sentiments, some real, some imagined, echoed in my head as I prepared my remarks to the board. Who are you to say these lofty, idealistic things about a school community? What do you know about the needs of students? Anyone could do your job.

Our union gave me the courage to speak up. Knowing my colleagues were in this effort alongside me enabled me to access my conviction. I knew what a thriving and healthy school community looked like; I had been part of one once. I reflected on the hours I spent commuting, planning, teaching, reaching out to students, leaving work feeling utterly emotionally spent. Who am I NOT to say something about my reality and the reality of my colleagues? Who is the BOARD to say that this is the best we can do?

The same principle of empowerment applies to the scores of people supporting Sanders. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recalled during her endorsement speech, “It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing and a living wage.” In her Buzzfeed profile of Sanders, Ruby Cramer describes Sanders as “imagining a presidential campaign that brings people out of alienation and into the political process simply by presenting stories where you might recognize some of your own struggles.” As she succinctly puts it, “[Sanders] is trying, in as literal a sense as you could imagine, to excise ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ from the American people.” He is offering voters compassion - not just from him, but from everyone in his movement - and in turn, permitting them to exercise the self-compassion that structural inequality masquerading as meritocracy has so thoroughly convinced them they don’t deserve.

But as I have said already, words and tears and feelings aren’t enough. Bernie Sanders knows well from his years in office that all the collective compassion and tear-jerking anecdotes in the world can’t stand up to the current power structures. Where words fall short, collective action works. That’s why he has created a movement. His slogan Not Me, Us, isn’t ostentatious humility, it’s literally his M.O.

On the eve of the Iowa caucus, I received an e-mail from his campaign asking me to split a donation between him and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He has regularly taken time out of his campaign to support union members on the picket line. His focus has remained, steadily, not on his personal victory, but on the bigger picture of the progressive movement in the United States. And while he failed to secure the nomination in 2016, the legacy of his campaign speaks for itself: Medicare for all and income inequality, previously topics taken seriously only by the “fringe” of the Democratic Party, have become issues central to this year’s primary.

I have never donated to a political candidate before, and yet I gladly set up a monthly contribution to his campaign. To me, it’s a lot like paying union dues; it is an investment in myself and others. I am confident that regardless of the outcome of the primary, the movement Bernie has awakened will last far beyond his political tenure.

Many are quick to dismiss Bernie’s policies as unrealistic. They point to his gruffness and call him ineffective and unlikeable. They treat his ideas as laughable. These are all tactics that were used on our union’s bargaining team throughout the negotiation process, and while I’m no policy expert, they mostly just confirm for me that 1. Bernie truly poses a threat to the status quo and 2. these establishment politicians are unwilling to own up to their own lack of efficacy.

I have seen firsthand that there is never a quick fix or easy solution to the thorny, expensive issues of successfully running a school, let alone solving the student debt crisis or reducing massively inflated healthcare costs. However, one should never underestimate the utter complacency (or at least, severe lack of imagination) of political leaders who, personally sheltered from the struggles of working and middle class people, have allowed such problems to persist.

I’m voting for Bernie because for too long the suffering of so many people in this country has fallen on deaf ears. Or worse, it hasn’t been voiced at all out of the isolation and shame that accompanies so many of life’s hardships. Bernie has not only elevated their voices, but he has helped restore their sense of dignity and self-worth, as my union has done for me. His voice is a rallying cry, reminding us all that collective action works, that we should let down our guard, allow ourselves to hope and band together. I am proud to join him on that picket line.

Mary Kelly Gardner

Mary Kelly Gardner is in her eighth year of teaching high school and middle school students.

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