What is the Teachers Union?

The MCEA (Montgomery County Education Association) has branches in every school, with two teacher representatives at WCHS.

Courtesy of mceanea.org

The MCEA (Montgomery County Education Association) has branches in every school, with two teacher representatives at WCHS.

By Ha-Yeon Jeon, Opinions Editor

“I went to school, so I can teach just as well as you!” is something that many teachers hear, but it could not be further than the truth. Teachers are highly-educated professionals trained for their role, but they often struggle with disrespect and underappreciation. To fight this, teacher unions take up the mantle and become a voice for teachers to unite behind and call for their rights. In MCPS, the MCEA (Montgomery County Education Association) takes on that role, and at WCHS, two elected teacher representatives make sure teacher voices are being truly heard.

There are two positions that are union-supported: the building representative and the EFR (Elected Faculty Representative). Alison Deli, an English teacher at WCHS, is the building representative and one of the two EFRs alongside Tiffany Carmi, who teaches in the Art Department. 

“As the building representative, if something in a teacher’s contract with MCPS is not being honored, I would be the person who tries to help with that,” Deli said. “EFRs sit on the leadership team of the school, which specifically deals with WCHS-related issues.”

With MCPS employing 24,589 people, it can be easy for teacher voices to be overridden. The MCEA, with more than 14,000 members, takes collective action on issues that teachers across the county are struggling with and ensures basic rights are being protected. 

“Without teacher unions, we wouldn’t have a contract,” Deli said. “We are guaranteed a contract, a certain salary, benefits, days off, working conditions in the building, hours of the day that we work, and more by the contract. Without a contract, we would have no recourse against treatment in a building by, for example, a wayward administrator who had a personal grudge.”

Every year, WCHS teachers vote for who will fill the two roles. This is not a decision to be taken lightly; whoever is chosen is responsible for becoming the liaison between the teachers, school leadership, and the MCEA. For this, teachers must choose someone who will truly listen to their discussions and bring them to the big table. Deli and Carmi have brought that duty to the next level.

“Teachers can email us, but we also have started holding office hours for teachers to come find us and let us know [any issues they are having],” Carmi said. “We then summarize our meetings and send those notes out to staff, so that they can read about the action ideas and plans and contribute to the discussions.”

However, even after these talks reach the ear of the union, they are restricted by the kinds of action they can take. There are many limitations on what they can collectively do to try and fight for what they need, making achieving their goals much more difficult. 

“Unfortunately, in the state of Maryland, public officials are not allowed to strike,” Deli said. “This means that any collective action we take as a union has to be within a certain parameter or our contract could be voided; that’s the punishment for striking. Collective action are things like car protests at the BOE(Board of Education) or submitting and testifying at the BOE.”

Members of the union work within the boundaries to make sure that MCPS listens to their demands, through whatever means possible. Many times, taking effective action means subverting expectations. 

“Sometimes we have done something called “work to the rule”, where we only work the hours that are in our contract,” Deli said. “Here at WCHS, that would be 7:20 a.m. to 2:50 p.m.; you would not work any hours outside of that time – you don’t come in early, you don’t come in late, you don’t work weekends, when you get home, or anytime else.”

There are always changing circumstances that endanger the rights of teachers, and so there are legal additions to back up their arguments. In light of recent years, where teachers have had to struggle within the rapidly politicized climate for issues such as COVID precautions, the need for this has become much more spotlighted.

“There has been some lobbying that has been very effective,” Deli said. “We have a Memorandum of Understanding(MOU), that is usually every year an addendum to the main contract. Especially in COVID times, this was very important; there are things that can be lobbied for, like having teachers being able to use a COVID leave instead of sick time.”

Arguably most importantly of all, they must continue to fight the misconception that teachers in the union fight for their own benefit, caring only about how they are paid. In reality, everything teachers fight for trickles back down to the students. Furthermore, students and other members of the community getting involved and showing support for them would be extraordinarily helpful and may bring a direct benefit to students’ learning experiences.

“Unions are fighting for truly basic things for teachers,” Carmi said. “Every action we take is for the students’ benefits, because it is all about how we can be the best teachers we can be.”