Advice for a new union leader

Every leader has that day… her or his first day in the leadership role. School districts and teachers unions are STILL a long way away from seeing the end of traditional bread-and-butter negotations.

It’s been nearly a decade since I stepped up to the presidency role for my local teachers union in Eureka, California.  That year, we were in a fierce battle with the Governor, Arnold Swartzenneger.  He had a slate of 6 anti-teacher ballot measures lined up for November.  His thought was that attacking teachers would make learning better for students.  Try as I might, I just couldn’t see the connection.

Making matters worse for my understanding of our opponent’s position, the Governor included attacks on the nurses’ and firefighters’ unions along with teachers.

So there I was, in my suit and tie – I like to be a snappy dresser!  I was sitting at the head of the table.  Representatives from the local Nurses Union joined us for a pre-meeting, coordinating our work for the up-coming election.  At the end of the pre-meeting, one of the nurses said, “Is it alright if I stay?  I’m new at being the president of our union, and I wanted to watch and get some pointers about running a meeting?”

The room burst out in laughter!  Smiling, I explained to her that this was my first meeting as President, too.  It was just the suit and tie, working it’s magic, making it seem like I actually knew what I was doing!  🙂

Last year, a CTQ-TLI teacherpreneur colleague was stepping up to the presidency of her local union and asked if I had any advice.  

OK – so advice…  Here goes.

  1. Is there a teacher you trust?  Someone you can turn to who can give you a hug and call you one your sh!t when you’ve gone off base?  Get that person as your VP if they aren’t already.  If you can’t, schedule some regular time to get together – once a week if you can do it.  You’re going to need their support and the ability to bounce ideas and plans off her/him.
  2. Schedule some down time for yourself.  Seriously!  If your district is like mine was- this job can quickly eat you alive.  I scheduled a bi-weekly massage at my chiropractor, and an alternating bi-week soak at our local hot tubs.
  3. If you have a life-partner, talk with her/him about what’s coming.  Make sure you remember to appreciate all of the sacrifice she/he is also going to give for the union.  When my two-years ended, my union honored both my girlfriend and me at the end-of-the-year party.  She got a beautiful vase full of dahlias that my treasure’s husband grew as a hobby.
  4. Get comfortable with the idea of failure.  You’re going to lose some battles, and you’re going to have to make compromises that some of your rank-and-file are going to think are treason.  There were days when I felt I had lost four battles before lunch!
  5. Speaking about the “haters” as my kids would call them… Everything you do… EVERYTHING… is going to piss somebody off.  Don’t pretend that you can keep everyone happy.  Remember the circle of folks who you deeply respect and trust… it’s their concerns and criticisms that you’ll need to really listen to.
  6. Get yourself a copy of Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky.  I’ve read that book four or five times and I always learn something new about organizing, negotiating, and planning strategy.
  7. Sit down with your Exec Board and plan your term.  What do you want to accomplish?  What will feel like a “win” when the term is up?  You’re going to be putting out a lot of fires, and it’s easy to forget about long-term plans when the fires feel like their all you can see.  You’re going to have a lot more fun fighting for positive change than trying to keep the myriad of small disasters at bay.
  8.  Remember your students.  Like I said before, this role can eat up a lot of hours.  Unless you’re a full-time release, it’s going to take time away from lesson planning and giving feedback.  I was a non-release president, so I had two full-time jobs for those two years.  Remembering that, as a union, we were fighting for better learning conditions for our kids along with better working conditions for teachers helped give me the energy to work all the extra hours.
  9. I’m not sure how your union compensates you for your time, I got a $200/month stipend.  For heaven’s sake, DO NOT divide the compensation by the hours you put in!  It’s only going to depress you.  What I did was opened a special savings account.  For the year, I deposited the stipend.  Then, in July, I used the $2000 for a wonderful get-a-way.  The long weekend felt like a good “thank you” for my time and energy.
  10.  I’m sure I’m missing some things – and that’s my last piece of advice.  You’re going to miss things.  That’s OK.  You can do them when you remember or when they come up again.  Give yourself a big hug and tell yourself that you are going to do the best you can.
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