What will happen to public sector unions after the Supreme Court rules on the Janus v. AFSCME case this spring? Indiana teachers are already there. Slammed by a “right to work” law in 1996 and a new barrage of attacks in 2011, the teachers experienced what many unions are afraid of—a big drop in membership.
But the Indiana State Teachers Association didn’t roll over and give up after that. The union developed a tracking system called “Go Green” to help local leaders get membership back up.
It’s working. The first year of the program, the union narrowed its deficit between existing members lost to retirement and new members gained. The second year, it broke even. The third year, statewide membership increased.
This is in a legal environment that’s worse than right to work. Budget cuts in 2011 were paired with sweeping restrictions that kneecapped unions. Teachers bargain over only wages and benefits, and only between September and November of each year. Past that, impasse is declared and a third-party factfinder decides the final agreement.
Even under these circumstances, membership rates matter. “You will have a superintendent tell you, ‘You don’t even represent 50 percent of the teachers, why should I care what you are asking for?’” said ISTA representative Heidi Miller.
Case in point: the union local in Maconaquah was able to fight off a benefits cut after increasing its membership from 58 to 70 percent in two years.
MANY HANDS, LIGHT WORK
So how does it work? The heart of the “Go Green” program is getting teachers in every school involved in signing up members.
Schools below 50 percent union membership are flagged as red. Schools at 50 percent or higher are coded yellow, and those at 70 percent or higher are green. The color scheme helps officers and association reps (stewards) prioritize which schools, and even which parts of buildings, need the most help.
Miller coaches local leaders on the system. “We’ve encouraged them not to put the burden on the elected leaders, not just the association reps or officers, but to spread it throughout the membership,” she said.
Eastern Howard Education Association, which represents a small cluster of schools north of Indianapolis, was at 56 percent membership when it launched the program. “That was a little scary,” said President Shawn Carpenter.
So a handful of officers and reps formed a membership committee and divided up the list of nonmembers. Each person took a first assignment—two or three people to talk to—based on years of experience, department, and who they knew best.
They’ve kept following up and working their lists ever since. A year in, Eastern Howard’s membership is up to 70 percent.
Carpenter said this success comes from tapping into existing relationships—who’s friends with who. One-on-one conversations are key, she said: “Asking in person, it’s harder to say no.”
The committee doesn’t leave people with assignments for long. Members text each other, “How’d it go?” When someone declines to sign, they talk it over: “What was holding this person back? Is it something we can fix?” The committee builds in a second and third attempt, often sending back another member with a different relationship or approach.
Through member sign-up conversations, the Eastern Howard union discovered a unifying issue: a point system required teachers to meet a bunch of unrealistic criteria based on attendance and degrees in order to get a raise. In last year’s bargaining, the union won a pay scale instead.
EARLY AND OFTEN
To create an environment where people want to join, you have to stay in constant communication, said Brad Bennett, president of the local in the Western School District.
The goal is to draw in potential members by “making them feel like they are missing out in not being in our association,” Bennett said. For instance, members get updates about bargaining and about meetings with the principal to address problems.
When the Western district wanted to extend the school day without added compensation, the union packed 80 members (out of 180 district teachers) into a school board meeting and won a pay raise.
New teachers are particularly important to reach, to frame the importance of joining the union from day one. Ideally the first ask comes from someone on the membership committee who is also relatively new, “so they see other people like themselves as members,” said Miller. “Are they getting ready to buy their first house or have their first child, versus a teacher who is close to retirement?”
Carpenter says her union also tries to match up each new teacher with someone from the same department who can act as a lasting bridge to the union and perhaps offer ongoing mentorship.
In larger districts, teachers set up a separate membership committee for each school. Each year there’s a big beginning-of-the-school-year membership push, because the state calculates local membership percentages on September 15. Under a law passed in 2017, members in any district below 50 percent get a mailing describing how to initiate the process to decertify their union.
But the focus on building membership continues year-round. “We don’t let it die after the beginning of the year,” said Sue Ellen Sopher, local president for the Maconaquah district.