Convention Preview: Social Justice Unionism

In advance of our first annual convention on Saturday, November 8th, we're previewing some of the day's sessions on our blog. This preview comes from Amy Roat, who works at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and will be leading the session on Social Justice Unionism.

Many teachers consider themselves committed to social justice in their classrooms, but don't connect that to their Amy_Roat.jpgunion. Why do these two things go together?

Simply put, our working conditions are children's learning conditions.  I know people, especially teachers, tend to be squeamish about publicly voicing their needs and  rights because it may be perceived as selfish or self-serving.  Teachers are sensitive to public opinion because we are human, but also because we have been mocked and blamed for the last ten years from many sides.  It is humiliating, and I think good teachers fear the inevitable cat-calls and jeers of the "reformers" and their supporters. We are a tough group of teachers in Philly, but we are not immune to the onslaught of criticism. It hurts.

You've been quoted by practically every news publication in Philadelphia, and the New York Times, too. Many people are in awe of your work, but might feel intimidated by all that you do. Can you describe what the first steps are to becoming a more outspoken union member?

A year ago in August, PFT Communications Director George Jackson called me a few days before school. Our local Fox News was looking for a regular teacher to speak about the tragic cuts we were facing in 2014.  I was recommended by my staffer who had to listen to a lot of my views at the monthly Building Rep Meetings.  I was terrified of sounding dumb and nearly balked.  George had a PR guy call to prep me and talk me into it. after we talked for a bit he said, "Hey, you're the expert, you know what you're saying and you sound knowledgeable and sincere.  You can do it."  

After a protracted wardrobe consultation with my sister and a pep talk from my husband and brother, I was at Fox studios early in the am. You know what? They told me the same thing before I went on air. "You are the expert.  Tell us what you know. Be yourself."  The interview went well, and here I am today.  This is what I would say to teachers who want to speak out - be it at a Chapter Meeting, to a reporter, or at an SRC Meeting - "You are the expert. Tell them what your know. Be yourself. (And wear a solid color if you are going on television.)

Based on your experience, what's one change that you think people should make to improve how their union operates in their building?

The teachers in my school are friends - We go to happy hour. We eat cake when someone has a birthday. We have a shower if someone gets married or has a baby. If someone is sick, we ask after them. If someone needs a ride, we drive them. This is how we build our relationships and our school-based union. We actively include new members. They become family.

When there is discord, peace-makers step up.  It is a labor, but it is a labor of love.

Change the way you think about THE union. The union is not just the people who work on Chestnut Street. We are the union. The teachers in this school. We meet monthly, including, secretaries, counselors, paras and the nurse. We talk to the principal as a Building Committee about our mutual concerns and possible solutions. We develop our own game plan for pickets or actions. Together. No one on Chestnut Street needs to tell us what, when, why or how we do it. We are professional,  we do it all together because we are THE union!


Amy is just one of many Caucus members who will be sharing her wisdom and skills at the convention. Register now and learn more from her on November 8th!