Opportunity in Adversity

September 6, 2013

Knocked down. Beat up. Backed into a corner. So it is to be a union member in Michigan these days.

Where once stood the motor city, the hub for working Americans to settle down and earn a fair wage to make it into the middle class, now stands a city in bankruptcy and a state in crisis. And while Michigan workers are fighting to rebound, state conservatives are standing in the way, sneaking a so-called “Right to Work” law through a lame-duck legislative session.

At a time when Michigan workers are already struggling, Right to Work gives workers the illusion of a better deal – union membership without union dues. But in truth, the law is a cynical attempt by state conservatives to undermine people’s ability to come together and organize; in essence it silences the collective voice of millions of people. It’s a law with a false choice for Michiganders: short term savings versus long-term power.

 It would be easy for Michigan workers and their unions to throw in the towel, but that’s not the Michigan way. Michiganders take on challenges and come out stronger. Wellstone Action is standing with Michigan workers every step of the way.

The Michigan Education Association and its 157,000 members are fighting back, and to do it they brought in Wellstone Action to lead a grassroots makeover of the organization. At a time when teachers and support staff were already under fire from cut budgets, and perverse conservative priorities, Right to Work was yet another devastating blow to the MEA’s organizing mission.

But it also offered a glimmer of opportunity.

MEA chose to embrace that opportunity and engage more of its members in meaningful conversation than ever before, organize their members in innovative and effective ways, and win progressive change. And they set out to win that change the Wellstone Way.

“At Wellstone Action, our Labor Training Program is all about empowering America’s workers to become fierce advocates for fair pay and a fair shot at the middle-class. There’s no state in the country that better represents the struggle workers face than Michigan, so focusing on the MEA in 2013 has been both rewarding and important in creating an economy where we really all do better when we all do better.” Explains Edith Sargon, Deputy Director of our Labor Training Program.

As soon as the state legislature passed Right to Work in December 2012, the MEA got to work, says Executive Director Gretchen Dziadosz, “This is a historic moment for Michigan, Right to Work is going into effect, so it’s an important time for us to get out and talk with our members, and reconnect, reenergize, and make sure that we have a connection with each one of them. Wellstone Action is critical in helping us to make that connection, to enhance our power, build our relationships and make us an even stronger union.”

So after a series of planning discussions at the start of 2013, a cohort of Wellstone Action trainers traveled to Lansing in March to lead an Organizing Bootcamp for a group of nearly 100 MEA professional staff. Over two intensive days, the staff gained the skills and tactics to become effective organizers as they set off to connect with the MEA members across the Great Lakes State.

For most of its history, the MEA served as a powerful service union, providing its members with top-notch contract negation, grievance handling, arbitration and professional support. After Right to Work passed, it became increasingly necessary for the MEA to also become an organizing union that built even stronger, more long-lasting relationships with and amongst its members; to build solidarity. And that first Organizing Bootcamp was a major step forward towards that goal. The MEA professional staff engaged in a series of sessions, from active listening exercises, practicing 1:1 conversations, to building member engagement strategy meetings.

Those two days in late March put the MEA on a path towards bold organizing goals. As Marty Lankford, the former Director of Field Support Services put it, “Our staff are excited, now they’re eager to get in the field and begin using the skills they’ve learned during the training.” That excitement is going to be critical, because for the rest of the year, the staff were tasked with a goal to engage members in over 10,000 individual one-on-one conversations dedicated to identifying the issues that matter to members, building relationships and promoting future action.

Since that initial Organizing Bootcamp in March, Wellstone Action has returned to every corner of the state. We’ve led additional bootcamps, engaged in strategic planning conversations with the union’s leadership, and led check-ins to ensure that bold progress continues to be made.

Most recently, we took our work to the next level, leading a train-the-trainer session with some top MEA staff, so they could bring the Wellstone Way to Local and Member Leaders. As one train-the-trainer participant, Mary Halley of Adrian Michigan, put it, “I was more than impressed with the material and the delivery of presentation. I truly enjoyed the style of all the trainers at Wellstone, and the flow and diversity of the training was greatly appreciated. The content was immediately applicable to my work with MEA.” This train-the-trainer was a critical book-end to our work, it’s helping to make the MEA a true organizing union, ready to empower and energize its members into strategic action.

According to Dziadosz  the work is really making a difference “The staff has been incredibly receptive to Wellstone Action, because the work is so hands on, custom to what we need, and practical. Working with Wellstone Action has been incredibly positive; it has been smart and adaptive to our needs in the best way possible.”

The story of our work with MEA is about finding opportunity during times of remarkable adversity. And it’s also the story of how working with Wellstone doesn’t mean utilizing a one-off training of ours. Instead, change in Michigan is happening only because of a long-term strategic partnership.

Had Wellstone Action simply visited Lansing for a single Organizing Bootcamp, a hundred staff would be more prepared to talk with the union’s members. But thanks to our strategic planning, train-the-trainer sessions, and frequent visits to Michigan, the MEA is positioned to become an even greater force for good in the state. Says Edith:

“Change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes hard, thorough, and consistent work.

No question about it, Michigan is facing a challenging time right now. But if we’re truly dedicated to creating progressive change by giving every Michigan kid a chance to succeed, it must start with great schools and world-class teachers. That’s why giving the MEA the tools and strategies to thrive, especially at a time of unparalleled threats, is so critical. Michigan, its teachers and all its citizens, are going to win the Wellstone Way, and we should all be so proud of that.”

By the end of 2013, thousands of Michigan teachers will have grown a deeper, more powerful connection with their union. And the MEA will be poised to not just fight back but lead on the issues their members face on a daily basis. A catastrophic economic situation and a conservative take-over of the state legislature, is a big enough thread to put any union on its heels, but Michigan teachers are proving not to scare so easy.