Weingarten Helps Kick Off 'Work That Matters' in Montana

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Day One | Day Two

National Public Radio interview

The first event on Day 2 of the Montana tour was president Randi Weingarten's interview with Emilie Ritter, a reporter with the local National Public Radio affiliate. The two talked about Work That Matters and the public's perception of public employees.

"Americans are scared," Weingarten said, noting that while Wall Street may be thriving again, "regular Americans are not. They want to know that the money they are spending in taxes is not being wasted. That is what Work That Matters is about." She added: "The work our members do in Montana ensures that Montanans get the quality of life they want and need."

They also discussed education issues, including the federal Race to the Top program, Weingarten's Jan. 12 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., (http://www.aft.org/newspubs/news/2010/011210a.cfm) and teacher pay in Montana. "Teaching is a very sophisticated and complex craft, yet we never treat it that way," Weingarten told Ritter. Even though teachers don't go into the profession expecting to get rich, there is room for improvement in compensation, she said. Pay signals "how we value kids and the profession."

Environmental lab

Randi Weingarten at Montana environmental lab. Photo by Jason Savage.Jill Cohenour, president of the MEA-MFT's Federation of Public Health and Human Services local, led Weingarten on a tour of the state's environmental lab in Helena, where Cohenour works as a chemist. The lab provides water-testing services to private individuals as well as public water supplies throughout the state, making sure, among other things, that Montanans have safe drinking water. When water systems are compromised, the lab works with an array of public and private entities, ranging from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to county health departments.

Weingarten met the team of chemists who test water samples for harmful chemicals, nutrients, metals, bacteria and pesticides. "We are at the helm of water security," said Cohenour.

The lab also is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Laboratory Response Network, meaning it can respond to both bioterrorism and chemical terrorism events.

Public health lab

The next stop on the tour was the state's public health lab. Microbiologist Kim Newman led the tour of the facility, which is manned by about 20 clinical lab scientists specializing in microbiology.

Randi Weingarten at Montana public health lab. Photo by Jason Savage."We are medical detectives," said Newman. "It's up to us to find and identify the organism that has infected the person."

The lab tests and tracks everything from H1N1 and other viruses such as seasonal flu and sexually transmitted diseases, to food-borne parasites, antibiotic-resistant organisms and molds that infect the human body. Staff also screen newborns for genetic defects. With early detection, Newman said, some of those defects can be treated and "kids can live happy, health lives." The lab is an essential resource for hospitals, local clinics, county health officers, doctors—and the citizens whose doctors have sent samples to the lab for diagnoses.

The environmental and public health labs are doing work that the public doesn't actually see, Weingarten observed. "Yet without the labs, Montana would be at risk."

State Historical Society

Randi Weingarten at Montana historical society. Photo by Jason Savage.Unlike the labs, which aren't open to the public, the final stop on the tour was the State Historical Society, where the public is always welcome. A half-dozen society employees, who also are members of the MEA-MFT's Montana Federation of Historical Society Workers, greeted Weingarten at the door. Their work is all about collecting and preserving the history of Montana.

In addition to being an invaluable tool for researchers, authors and academics, the society's museum welcomes busloads of children each year, and its Outreach and Interpretation Program provides educator resources. The society has six different programs, with the common goal of collecting, keeping safe and sharing the state's history.

The union members pointed out that the society has been hard-hit with vacancies not being filled. Weingarten noted that the work they do "is not a frill" for Montanans. It's Work That Matters. [Kathy Walsh; photos by Jason Savage.]

January 26, 2010

Read Day One report.