Weingarten Helps Kick Off 'Work That Matters' in Montana

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Day One | Day Two

AFT president Randi Weingarten's "Work That Matters" tour Jan. 21 and 22 had a singular focus: spotlighting the important work that Montana's public employees do for the people and the economy of the state.

Along the way, Weingarten met more that 50 public employees who do the work that matters—the work that is often "invisible" yet "indispensible" to the public.

"In these tough economic times, Montana has some important decisions to make," said AFT vice president and MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver, who accompanied Weingarten on the tour. "We believe Montanans deserve to know what is at stake as our leaders consider funding levels for vital public services."

Montana's Work That Matters campaign is a collaborative effort. Coalition partners are the MEA-MFT, the Montana Public Employees Association, and AFSCME's (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Montana state federation.

Meeting with Montana State University union

Weingarten started her tour on Jan. 21 in Bozeman, where she met with officers and bargaining team members for the Associated Faculty of Montana State University (AFMSU).

Weingarten noted the faculty's organizing tenacity: The affirmative vote for union representation by the MEA-MFT in 2009 was the third unionization vote in as many decades. With MSU-Bozeman faculty on board, the MEA-MFT now represents all higher education faculty within the Montana University System.

The group discussed everything from the need for appointments to the vacant positions on National Labor Relations Board to the Jan. 19 U.S. senatorial election in Massachusetts to the day's top morning news story—the U.S. Supreme Court's campaign finance ruling.

Both Weingarten and Feaver emphasized that the AFT has been lobbying Congress and the White House for additional federal investment in state and local governments. The federal investment is necessitated by the ongoing state budget crisis, which continues to threaten the quality and availability of public services, including higher education, in virtually every state in the nation.

Randi Weingarten meeting with AFMSU. Photo by Jason Savage."We are looking at a 12 percent cut in the university budget over the next three years," noted AFMSU co-president Sandy Osborne, an associate professor of Family and Consumer Sciences.

The group acknowledged that the budget situation poses an additional challenge for AFMSU, which is preparing to negotiate its first contract with the university. While negotiating significant pay raises may be a priority for AFMSU-represented faculty, Weingarten noted that there also are nonmonetary issues AFMSU could address that likely would benefit members. She emphasized the importance of having a long-term view of collective bargaining agreements. "The people we represent, obviously, they want to see results," said Weingarten. "But from my experience, effort counts a lot."

AFMSU, which represents both tenure-track and nontenure-track faculty, is led by co-presidents Karen Leech and Osborne. Osborne noted that 41 percent of the university faculty are adjuncts. Leech has been an adjunct professor in MSU's department of music for 38 years. "We have to help adjuncts feel like they have job security," Weingarten said, noting that contingent work, which offers no job security, has become a mainstay in the nation's workplaces.

MEA-MFT is "really a wall-to-wall professional union" of educators, government employees and healthcare workers, Weingarten said. "That kind of density is critical, particularly for the period we are in now."

Randi Weingarten with MSU president. Photo by Jason Savage.Meeting with Montana State president

Following the meeting with AFMSU, Weingarten, Feaver, Leech, Osborne and Denbigh Starkey, AFMSU's vice president for tenure track and a professor of computer science, met with MSU's new president, Waded Cruzado.

Leech said the most important point made at the meeting by Weingarten and others was that labor and management should be "working together, collegially, to accomplish common goals." It was AFMSU's second meeting with Cruzado.

Jefferson County public facilities

From MSU-Bozeman, Weingarten headed to Boulder, where she toured Jefferson County facilities, including the jail, the historic courthouse (completed in 1888) and the treasurer's office.

Officers of the MEA-MFT's Jefferson County Public Employees federation, including local president Erik Rykal, led the tour. The Jefferson County Public Employees union represents 35 county employees, including jailors, dispatchers, librarians, justice court clerks and nurses.

Randi Weingarten visits Jefferson County treasury office. Photo by Jason Savage.From recording land transactions and criminal histories to collecting taxes and vehicle registration fees to answering 911 calls and dispatching the proper authorities, MEA-MFT members do work that matters to citizens of the county and beyond. There is no "substitute for being in the work site and seeing the work you do," said Weingarten.

Rykal told Weingarten that the library board wants to reclassify librarians as confidential employees, which would exclude them from the bargaining unit. "Why are they more confidential than all the clerks that hold county records?" Weingarten asked rhetorically.

Passing legislation that would give dispatchers the same 20-year retirement that other law enforcement personnel have is another pressing issue for the local, Rykal said, noting the stress and responsibility of a dispatcher's job.

Meetings with the governor and state superintendent of schools

Randi Weingarten with Montana governor. Photo by Jason Savage.Weingarten's next stop after Jefferson County was an off-the-record meeting with Gov. Brian Schweitzer in Helena. The meeting, which was scheduled to last 35 minutes, took at least twice as long.

Following that meeting, Weingarten headed across the street to the MEA-MFT office to meet with Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. (The December 2009/January 2010 issue of American Teacher featured a profile of Juneau.)

The two discussed the Office of Public Instruction's Indian Education for All program, which was constitutionally mandated in 1972, as well as other issues that often are considered more relevant to urban school districts than rural ones like Montana's, including federal education policy and mandates.

Randi Weingarten with Denise Juneau. Photo by Jason Savage.Juneau said poverty is the source of the achievement gap on Indian reservations, and it is something her administration is tackling in partnership with community stakeholders. Her office is working on issues related to the trauma caused by poverty, as well as the secondary trauma that teachers and others working in these high-poverty areas may experience.

Weingarten mentioned the collaborative relationship between the Office of Public Instruction and the MEA-MFT. Ensuring that administrators and teachers work together "is the most important thing we can do in public education," said Weingarten, noting that socio-economic factors and other student achievement challenges aside, "the glue that puts all this together is the relationship between the adults who work with the children."

MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver and Juneau's chief of staff Madalyn Quinlan also were present at the meeting.

'Work That Matters' reception

The first day of the tour ended with a Work That Matters reception at the historic Montana Club in Helena to celebrate "the dignity and value of public service." The crowd of more than 100 public employees, including elected officials and Montana labor leaders, welcomed Weingarten to the podium with a standing ovation.

The Work That Matters campaign shows why public services are important to everyday Montanans, Weingarten said. In these tough economic times, she noted, people are thinking about how to cut their own costs, including their taxes. "Everything you do matters, and it matters to this state to make it function well."

"We are going to do everything we can to bring the attention of the people of this state to the work that matters—the work you do," said MEA-MFT president Feaver. The Work That Matters campaign utilizes postcards, ads, a Web site and other means to highlight how public employees contribute to the state's economy and the well-being of Montana's people.

[Kathy Walsh; photos by Jason Savage.]

January 25, 2010

Read Day Two report.